I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.
— William Butler Yeats
Haroon has recurring dreams. Haroon whose father was killed when he was a boy and who remembers a gnawing hunger during the long winter in every year of his childhood. At night, he dreams that someone drops him from a great height. He freefalls through the air, crashes to hard ground, and dies. During the day, he dreams of relief from the anger and confusion that pursue him, and of being a photographer, a traveler.
Faiz, who lost his parents when he was a boy, and whose brother was shot and killed in front of him, has nightmares, too. Each night at the Afghan Peace Volunteer (APV) House here in Kabul, as he sleeps against the wall a few feet away, his moans and cries wake me. By day, he dreams of being a journalist, of marrying and raising a family, of a world without borders and war.
In Afghanistan, with a child mortality rate of nearly twenty percent, many children never even have a chance to form dreams, yet alone to realize one. Life is especially hard on children whose families flee their homes, leaving behind not only their land and livelihoods, but their social networks. Across the country, four hundred people are displaced every day by violence and poverty, and many of them choose to come to Kabul, carrying their shattered dreams with them. Kabul, a city built to support 300,000 people, is now home to over five million.
Last winter, particularly fierce, dozens of very young children froze to death in squalid, “refugee” camps on the outskirts of the city. An estimated thirty-five thousand people live in these camps, many of them having fled to Kabul from areas of heavy fighting in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. When we visit these camps, we find the residents in tattered cotton clothes and bare feet. They live without electricity or plumbing in huts they’ve constructed from mud, and the deaths of their children last year were as wholly preventable as the war their families fled.
Every evening at the APV House, a small group of young Afghan high school students gathers in their bedroom to sip green tea and study, leaning over their books on the one table in this sparsely furnished house. When night overtakes them, they sleep on thin blankets on a concrete floor, the pulse of the street below beating in their blood, its sounds seeping into their dreams.
Every morning when they wake, these young men roll up their blankets and makeshift pillows in a large sheet and carry them into another room. They sweep the floor with short-handled straw brooms purchased in the bazaar. Two hours later, their bedroom and late-night study is converted into a classroom where up to twenty Afghan women meet six days a week to learn how to sew.
These women, all living nearby in the Pul-e-Surk neighborhood of western Kabul, are of mixed ethnicity, Hazara, Tajik, Pashtun. That, in itself, is extraordinary, in a country where mistrust between ethnic groups is a major obstacle to the kinds of cooperation needed to build lasting peace. They have been meeting now for several months.
The class also offers a burgeoning network of social support for women whose responsibilities and daily routines often isolate them. Because of cultural norms and security concerns, many of these women spend their entire days in their homes, a place where they are subject to physical and emotional abuse from men and the physical and psychological strain of endless, often hard work. “I always wanted to have a job and earn an income for my family,” Faribah says, “but I have never been allowed outside the house. Coming to this sewing class is the very first time.” Others echo her words. “This is the first time I have been out of the house to learn something,” Shararah says. “I have never been allowed outside before.” She adds that her husband is not employed and so there are problems at home. In a statement that brings murmurs of assent, Faribah tells us, “We are human beings. We have feelings and sentiments and we all want to be free, to have dignity, whether male or female, but here in Afghanistan we cannot be free. It is not only because of social traditions, but also because of war.”
The sewing group has also become a safe place, where dreams can be named, held in public, and nurtured cooperatively. These are mothers who dream of feeding their families, of getting out forever from under the crushing weight of poverty. Every day, when the women arrive for class, this dream enters the room with them. Its voice rings in their laughter, and speaks in the rapid, metallic sounds of the sewing machines. Long after they leave, it lingers.
And now its voice has grown. With winter approaching, Faribah, Shararah, Golbahar, Turpikay, Shakirah, and the rest of the group have decided to sew their personal dreams together with those of their community by making large, warm comforters – Afghan duvets – for families living in Kabul’s refugee camps. In the camps last year, children who died were sleeping with family members, but they rolled out from under their small blankets. A New York Times article quoted the father of one of the children who died, “Adults know how to keep warm, but the little ones do not.” So the women will make duvets that will cover the children and protect them all night.
The women will work closely with the Afghan Peace Volunteers on this project. Over the last week, they have held several meetings. They approach planning for the project with intelligence and confidence, drawing on their understanding of people and how things work in Kabul. Their statements are strong and clear. For warmth, the duvets will be made with a double layer of wool. They set a fee of 100 Afghanis (about $2) per duvet that will be paid directly to the seamstress who makes it. At an expected two duvets per day, a woman can earn eighty to a hundred dollars per month, and make a significant contribution to the welfare of her family.
At today’s meeting, they are equally strong on their ownership of the project, and their insistence on being involved in its administration. “We want to be involved in all decisions,” especially those related to who is involved. A spirited discussion ensues. “In Afghanistan,” they state clearly, “we have all learned to cheat and lie.” The cream of the aid money flowing into the country is skimmed off the top by corrupt officials. No one needs to point this out or explain it to these women. They have only to look around and see how little has been accomplished despite great expenditures over the past eleven years. By the time aid reaches the people it is supposed to assist, so little of it is left that they feel justified in taking what they can. The duvet project, the women say, cannot succeed without honesty. And this requires clear rules, oversight, and accountability.
Today’s meeting ends. And slowly, slowly the women leave, saying long, lingering goodbyes to each other. Their dreams lay at our feet. All day, we tread softly.