Live adventurously, go to Afghanistan

IssueDecember 2012 - January 2013
Feature by Susan Clarkson

Image16 August: In the little red book, Advices and Queries, used by Quakers in Britain, no 27 urges us to ‘live adventurously’. Recently, for me, this has meant the possibility of travelling to Afghanistan.

Last year my friend Maya Evans went to Afghanistan with Voices for Creative Nonviolence US and on her return gave talks about her experiences.

I had always thought that my days of travel abroad were over, after time spent in the United States, Madagascar and Cameroon. Indeed, I had announced to all and sundry that I would not renew my passport and would give up air travel because of the environmental damage it does. I should have remembered the words, ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’. Maya encouraged me to think about joining her on her next visit as part of the first British delegation of VCNV.

The main reason for my joining the delegation is that for the last eight years I have lived and worked in a House of Hospitality for asylum seekers in Oxford, St Francis House.

The house is part of the Oxford Catholic Worker community and since I have been there we have given hospitality to six Afghan asylum seekers. Maya said she felt my direct experience would be of value and that perhaps links could be made between our guests and the young people we will be staying with in Kabul.

Apart from the flying, my main reason for not going is that I am visually-impaired and a senior citizen. I felt I might be a liability. Maya spoke to Kathy Kelly, who started VCNV and who knows me, and they felt it would not be an obstacle.

VCNV has been working for some time with a group in Kabul called Afghan Peace Volunteers. They believe in creating nonviolent ways of resolving conflict and in reconciliation.

Our delegation has five members. We are hoping to travel to Afghanistan at the end of the year and to spend two weeks there. Our first joint meeting was very positive and I feel a great trust in my companions. We all feel the importance of building our community and are prepared to put energy and time into this. After all, this is potentially a dangerous undertaking and we don’t know what may happen. Here are some of the ways I have begun to prepare.

First, my faith in a loving God and in Jesus, whom I like to call friend and brother, is my anchor. In my prayer, I pray for courage and fidelity and, most of all, humility. It’s possible that in the end something may prevent my going with the others but I believe that whatever happens it will be God’s will for me. Any preparations I make will not be wasted even if I don’t make the journey.

I firmly believe that if God wants me to go to Afghanistan, I shall go. Praying for humility is also important to me as embarking on such an adventure could be a real boost to my ego and pride; I know myself too well!

The second preparation is doing some extra reading and study on the background to Afghanistan and the present war there. A good friend recommended Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid and I’ve nearly finished it. I’m also reading Norman Kember’s book, Hostage In Iraq. Another member of the group has sent us links to several documentaries and other clips available on the internet.

Such reading and viewing confronts me with harsh reality and sometimes heartbreaking stories. To counteract this I am also nourishing the spirit by immersing myself in beauty through art, music and literature.

As an act of faith that we will return safe and well, I have signed up for two courses which begin next January at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education: ‘Art in Focus’ and ‘Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov’.

A healthy body will be important as life will be tougher than in England. I’m hoping to do some exercise and eat healthily in the months before we go to give myself a good chance of coping.

I feel privileged to have been asked to go on this journey and to share the hopes of the people we will meet.

22 September: Yesterday, our delegation met to continue our preparations for our journey to Afghanistan. (There is a fifth person who has not been able to make the meetings yet.)

Maya, Beth, Ariadne and myself met up at Caffè Nero in Kensington and set off for our first visit to the Afghan embassy which is opposite Hyde Park. Our intention was to apply for our visas but, although we had everything else, we discovered we needed letters of invitation. Hopefully these will come soon.

After Kensington, we decided to visit Whitechapel to shop! We hopped on the District Line and were soon in the market. Our aim? To buy shalwar kameez to wear in Afghanistan! Really, all we need are clothes which cover us and are loose fitting, so that we don’t look too Western and so that we can wear thermals underneath! It will be very cold!

After Whitechapel, we took off for Kings Cross and the Peace News office for the most exciting part of our day.

The group we shall be staying with, Afghan Peace Volunteers, hold a Global Day of Listening on the 21st of each month. By using the internet, Skype and telephones, it is possible to set up a time to speak to them. They stay connected all day and speak to many groups from all around the world.

Someone from Voices for Creative Nonviolence US coordinates the conversations and yesterday it was Kathy Kelly, founder of VCNV and a frequent visitor to Afghanistan. Indeed, she may well be there when we go in December. I met Kathy many times whilst I was living in the States and she is keen that I go to Afghanistan because of our House of Hospitality in Oxford.

As we joined the Skype conversation, a group of students from Long Island, New York, had just finished their slot. Linked by Kathy we introduced ourselves and the young men in Kabul introduced themselves. They asked us questions and I was touched that they were so interested in St Francis House, particularly asking questions about how people got on and how conflict is resolved. Beth and Ariadne talked to them about their hopes to produce a book and a documentary on our visit and asked them for ideas about linking up when we return.

The conversation was then joined by someone working with children in Gaza and another group of 13-year-olds from the States!

My ‘Becoming Friends’ companion at Oxford Quakers, Gwithian, has suggested that we set up a support group for me from Friends at the local Meeting. This is something that Quakers do for community members who are contemplating doing something out of the ordinary or particularly difficult. Our first meeting is on Wednesday and Beth, who lives in Oxford and has been associated with Quakers, will join us.

It is comforting to know that my two journeys, towards Quaker faith and life, and to Afghanistan, are so closely linked.