I was drawn to service in Herat, Afghanistan, because I wanted to know what it was really like for women here now. I wanted to do something constructive for them, if I could. Over the past nine months, I have been able to channel grants into projects that will teach women English and computer skills, or give them the chance to start their own businesses. Maria Bashir, Afghanistan's only women prosecutor general and my nominee for the International Women of Courage Award, was honored by Secretary Clinton earlier this year. But my biggest satisfaction turned out not to be about the grants or the awards. It was about the privilege of being included in the private lives of these women, of getting a glimpse of what their lives have been like and what hopes they cherish for the future.
The only thing I was able to give to the young women in my intermediate English class at the Lincoln Center was my time. In return, they told me about themselves, and we opened some windows on each other's mindsets. I learned that most married Herati women know about birth control and use it. I learned that many are terrified that the Taliban will return once the foreign troops go. We had a heated debate about wearing veils. I lost, but they were intrigued about looking at the issue from my point of view -- a foreigner who was tired of trying to figure out how to keep the thing on her head. And it never occurred to them that some Western women might find it annoying to be obliged to wear a head covering. When I passed the class on to other colleagues, I began to get affectionate pleas from the students: "Teacher, when are you coming back to class? I miss you!"
Perhaps the women, girls really, who have touched me most deeply are a group of very talented young women groping for a way to openly express themselves in the arts despite public or even family disapproval. They are actors, secret dancers, budding film directors, painters of women's sorrows. Of course, they appreciated the grant money and training I found for them, but what they really loved was when I spent time with them, watched their plays and their films, talked with them about their art and their dreams. One day a group of cinematography students told me, "You can come here whenever you like if you feel lonely. We are your family here."
Afghan women have invited me into their homes, taught me how to cook, introduced me to their families and children, taken me on picnics in the women's park, danced with me in their living rooms, lent me clothing to wear to their weddings, sent me poetry in text messages, and, yes, sometimes asked me for help getting a job. There are, of course, always opportunists among the people we meet, but most of the time these women made me feel like a sister or an aunt, and showered me with genuine affection. They gave me back so much more than I can ever give them.
This is why I serve.