Not all of Sandra’s visits to Afghanistan have been as eventful as the time that she was blown out of bed one night, accompanied by shards of flying glass, by the explosion of a suicide bomb nearby. But she has now been there 15 times.
She went to Afghanistan in the spring of 2002 after the overthrow of the Taliban regime by Afghan rebel forces along with a lot of help from the US. She then travelled around the country, by bus, alone. She spoke none of the local languages. This experience and a few others got her hooked on the country, and she kept going back. For the last five years, the main reason for returning was that she was trying to open a library at the University of Kabul, underwritten by a US charitable foundation of which she is the co-chair and by the Afghan government itself. Apparently she was persuasive enough when she met with President Karzai that the government committed some of its financial resources too. Some have been skeptical that the project would succeed, or if it did that it would survive destruction from the usual sources in that war-torn country, but she persisted and the library is now nearing its opening date — fingers crossed.
In an earlier life, she was an academic with a PhD in mathematical economics, and taught at institutions such as the London School of Economics. She was also the head business strategist for a major US multinational in the mobile communications business. Along the way, she raised two children, one of whom is her daughter Whitney with whom she has traveled and still travels the world regularly.
I met Sandra and Whitney at an old hotel in Mardin, one of those centuries-old Turkish homes now converted into a wonderful hotel with spectacular views of the city and the Anatolian countryside beyond. We shared a roof-top dinner at a nearby restaurant and then breakfast the following morning.
I asked Sandra to contrast her experience traveling in Afghanistan in recent years with the current trip to Turkey. She said that Turkey is for many in the Islamic world, including Afghanistan, their ideal vision of what their own country could be: democratic, prosperous, peaceful, growing. Of course, many Turks would dispute that vision of town country, especially those who live here in the less-developed Kurdish south-east, but that’s another matter — Turks can be very self-critical. In comparison to Afghanistan, Turkey is indeed all of those things. And as she said, as a woman, she feels completely safe here. Overt signs of crime are few, if littering and flagrant violation of traffic rules are excluded.
As for the 10,000 trees: Sandra noticed that there were barely any trees left in Kabul. The war with the Soviets in the 1980’s, the civil war that followed when the Taliban came to power, and then the subsequent civil war/war with the U.S. and its allies after 2001 devastated the country. This series of calamities so impoverished people that they cut down whatever trees they could find for fuel to keep warm and cook their food. The result was a city without any trees for providing shade, reducing dust, retaining soil, uplifting the human spirit, or any of the other things that green trees can do. So she handed out 10,000 of them, sometimes on street corners, to try to solve the problem. They were small, bare-root trees, so it will be a while before they’re big enough to make a difference, but they will one day. Direct action can be a beautiful thing.