Changed

Ninety days.

It can be a lifetime.

It can be a moment.

It can be both of these at the same time.

And it can change everything.

In late-August, I got a phone call from the Department of State, asking if I’d be willing to go to a yet-to-be-determined military base in support of our evacuation of Afghan citizens out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. I said yes, thinking it would be an interesting professional opportunity and a good way to use the crisis management and community building skills I’ve fostered over my years of CLO-ing to support my Department colleagues and the allies who served our mission overseas for the last twenty years. I thought I would pop in, do some good work for a few weeks, and then go home and continue living/working the COVID-era life I had been for the last year.

I was wrong.

Those ninety days forever changed my world.

I am changed by the unforgettable images of our allies getting off planes in rural Wisconsin without shoes, with bruises and burns from fighting their way passed the Taliban and into the Kabul airport, with just the clothes on their backs, bags left behind as people were prioritized over packages.

I am changed by my daily conversations with our Afghan guests, many of whom directly supported our country over the last two decades. These allies fed, protected, and interpreted for our armed forces and then were forced to flee because their service to us put them and their families in danger. I will forever carry their fear and doubt as they look to rebuild lives in a foreign land, a place where they are uncertain of the welcome they will receive, where they don’t speak the language, don’t understand the unwritten rules of day-to-day life, and will be forced to rely on the goodness of others to put together new, and hopefully brighter, futures. Balancing that anxiety and apprehension, I will also carry with me the joy and gratitude of mothers when I told them that not only were their young daughters allowed to go to school, but that attendance was compulsory- that their girls would go to the same math classes, the same English classes, the same PE and music classes as their brothers. Conversations where I explained that America’s public school system would provide an equal education to all of their children, building pathways for both boys and girls to higher education and to skills training, opportunities that would essentially hand the keys of success to this next generation were highlights of my time on base.

I am changed by the stories shared with me over drinks at the base bar. Listening to DoD colleagues tell their stories of their time in Afghanistan, of the redemptive nature of this mission, of how they see Operation Allies Welcome as chance to repay the debts that they personally and the U.S. government as a whole accrued over the last two decades on the ground in Afghanistan. I watched a military colleague reunite with his interpreter and open his home as a place of refuge. I listened to an officer, with shining eyes, talk about how seeing the Afghan kids playing soccer on a military base is healing and creates a way forward for him, as well as for those young people who will be our next teachers and doctors and lawmakers.

I am changed by the strength of dedicated and educated women from Kabul who coalesced into a cohort that met weekly to talk about the needs of the refugees, but also how they could continue their work for underrepresented and vulnerable Afghan populations. I was honored to listen as strong Afghan women pushed visiting U.S. Congresswomen on points of feminism, education, and support for their initiatives, asking them to hold firm against the Taliban. Rather than wanting to talk about the dining facilities and recreational opportunities, the things the Congresswomen came ready to explore, these government, NGO, and educational leaders wanted to be clear that while their gratitude for the American evacuation is immense, they are Afghani and will return as soon as it is safe for the to do so. They will go back. They will rebuild. They will not give up on the country they love.

I am changed by my interagency team members. I learned to trust and rely on my Department of Defense colleagues. I am awed by their ability to quickly leverage resources in a time of crisis and by the deep care and concern they showed on a daily basis for our guests. I also learned to push back when I had a different point of view as those colleagues, or when I had a concern for an individual/group that I felt needed prioritized over base leadership’s set plan. I learned to identify rank on a uniform, but also that a uniform doesn’t mean unchecked authority and that my position, while not worn on my chest, carried a weight of its own. I learned that Red Cross can and will make things happen when they see a need, but also that they are temporary and we have to say goodbye sooner than either side would like. And I learned that DHS is a far-reaching agency that capably took over as lead federal agency and that the Coast Guard brings an impressive skillset to the table.

I am changed by the colleagues who quickly crossed the line into lifelong friends. Together, we celebrated the ups and downs of our personal and professional lives. One passed the Foreign Service oral exam and one received an invitation to the next Foreign Service training course- both huge accomplishments that I was honored to be able to celebrate with them. One found out his wife was expecting their third child. One needed a wedding dress, so five of us loaded into an SUV and headed to Chicago to buy something pretty and white and lacey. (We also threw axes, drank expensive champagne, toured a distillery, shut down two different bars on Halloween eve, ate Argentinian empanadas, legit Japanese ramen, Mexican food truck offerings and cold pizza delivered to the Airbnb at 5AM. And then did cultural penance for the extravaganza of Halloween eve with a visit to a prestigious art museum.) We may have stepped away from our lives for ninety days, but the world kept moving us forward.

I am changed by evenings sitting in a hotel lobby, each of us searching for a way to take our minds off of the powerful but emotionally exhausting work of the day. I’m changed by the conversations over microwave dinners off plastic plates we all bought at Wal-Mart, dressed in leggings and fuzzy sweaters, drinking a variety of increasingly stronger beverages from hotel-provided paper cups. I’m a better person because of long chats on the couch with someone who started as a stranger and ended up more than that. I see the world differently because of hours of sitting on the lobby floor, having my hair braided and unbraided by a colleague as she talked about her dramatic evacuation from her Peace Corps site in the very earliest days of the global COVID lockdown.

I am changed by ninety days of grueling hours, only three days of which I did not work. (See Chicago shenanigans above for two of those days.)

I am changed by the stories of our Afghan guests.

I am changed by the relationships with my State Department and interagency colleagues.

And I am changed by the choices in my own life.

I am changed.

A Recipe for Cement…and More

The idea of travel evokes many emotions. On one hand are the positive ones: excitement about seeing and exploring a new place and a new culture, and thrill at participating in new adventures and activities. But on the other hand, there is a bit darker side of travel that can, at times, be hard to reconcile for those of us raised within the confines of middle class American privilege. When I am on the road, it is hard for me to not see the poverty that abounds and even harder to know what to do about it. Should I bargain for a handful of bracelets from the little girls standing outside every temple in Siem Reap or does that encourage them to hawk to tourists rather than attend school each day? Does buying the stunning, but mass produced artwork from a night market in Laos benefit the sellers and their families or does it cheapen the beauty of their culture? I have read article after article online about being a thoughtful and responsible traveler, but in the end there is no way to overcome a small amount of internal awkwardness when it comes to traveling in developing nations; after all, it is because of travelers like myself, who have the expendable income to throw on a backpack and hop a flight to a remote country that these tourist-driven economies even exist.

As both a traveler and an ex-patriate, I think it is important to find ways to give back to the communities that I call home for several years at a time. In China, that meant serving as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in rural Gansu province and then organizing a donation campaign to help earthquake survivors in Sichuan after the quake of 2012. Here in Malaysia, I spent six months volunteering as an teacher for Chin (a Burmese minority) refugees, trying my best to not only strengthen my students’ understanding of comparative and superlative adjectives, but to also given them a sense of what American middle and high schools will be like once they relocate. Once I started work at the embassy, I was no longer able to devote several days a week to the school, but was still on the search for other ways to be a positive member of the community in which I was living. At a bit of a crossroads, not sure what to do next and not having a whole lot of free time between working full time and working on a literature and writing graduate degree, the embassy newsletter had my answer! One Wednesday, scrolling through the pages of information about upcoming concerts in the city, welcomes and farewells to officers and their families, and my favorite, the book club calendar, I noticed an advertisement seeking help with a Habitat for Humanity project. I wasn’t wholly unaware of this project, as CLO had been doing fundraising all winter and more than once I had dropped my spare ringgit in collection containers around the building, but with actual building time on the horizon, I was excited to sign up and join in!

The US embassy was assigned two days to work on the project in a small town a few hours outside of Kuala Lumpur. I signed up for Saturday, thinking it would give me Sunday to rest and sleep in before another week of work. The Saturday crew met at the embassy at 5AM to hop in the vans to carpool down to the site. My van had one poor marine trying to sleep in the backseat and four women, all of whom chatted and laughed the entire trip south. Arriving at the land cleared for the new home, I was struck by several things: 1) the large piles of sand and rocks placed beside the road, 2) the square footage of the foundation of the home and 3)the fact that the sun was already blazing down and it was barely 8AM. These three things were to be the entire focus of my day.

Saturday’s crew had one goal: complete the cement foundation. The catch? The cement needed to be mixed. By hand. There was no electric cement mixer. There was only a pile of shovels, a pile of rocks, a pile of sand, bags of cement and a hose for water. Quickly, I learned the correct recipe for cement:

Habitat for Humanity Cement

5 wheelbarrows of sand

2 wheelbarrows of rocks

1 bag of cement

Add water until a thick goo. With a shovel, mix, mix, mix. Once the cement is the right consistency, load it up in a wheelbarrow, drop it in an empty corner of the foundation and spread quickly, before it starts to harden.

Repeat. For seven hours.

When we arrived at the building site and were given our job for the day, I overconfidently that it would be no problem. The foundation was small. It was perfectly square. It should be easy to fill it up, three inches thick. Boy, was I wrong. Wrong is an understatement. We worked the entire day, sweating in the relentless sun (thunderclouds threatened, but we never saw a drop of rain), and still we barely finished the foundation by the end of the day. By late afternoon, we were all dog tired, pulling the last of our energy to mix a final batch of cement to complete the last corner. (There was semi-serious discussion about buying the family a nice plant to put in that last corner to cover the lack of foundation. None of us were sure if we could load up the last wheelbarrows of cement ingredients, let alone stir, stir, stir.)

I learned several things about myself over the course of that seven hour work day. First, I discovered that I was not really cut out for physical labor. Apparently, there is a reason I prefer to collect degrees rather than get my hands dirty. (Okay, this wasn’t really a sudden epiphany. There is little about me sporty or athletic.) Sunday morning I could barely roll out of bed. It took until about Thursday before I was able to go up and down stairs without having to rest the majority of my weight on the railings. I was in pain. But, with that said, I also realized (or re-realized) how great it was to be a part of something bigger. I may never see that completed house, as other teams were working on continuing the project, but I know that in a small way, I helped to provide a solid home for a family in need. (While on the site, I walked over to see where the recipient family was currently living. It was basically some wooden walls covered by a blue tarp with a lean-to addition off the side that housed a one-burner gas stove.) One of the best moments in the day came mid-afternoon when everyone was feeling the pain of the work, but still plugging away. A fellow embassy volunteer, closer to my parents age than my own, walked over to where I was loading yet another wheelbarrow of sand and told me how impressed he was with how I had been holding my own throughout the day, always one of the last to break and the first back to the shovels. With a smile on my face, I told him I had my parents to thank for that one. Work ethics were never lacking in my house growing up.

My Saturday as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer was humbling and a good reminder that giving back is an important part of being a traveler. I might still struggle with the conundrums of coming from the privilege of a highly developed country living/visiting areas where governments and people struggle to ease the difficulties of daily life, but I try not to be blind to the issues. Finding small ways to help is important. I didn’t build a town, a neighborhood or even an entire house, but I did literally build a foundation for a new life for one family.

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