From defying death to get bread to advocating for Afghan women in Washington D.C.

By Paul Souder | January 10th, 2014


Simin Wahdat enrolled in the master’s degree program of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in 2012. She was photographed in December 2013 on a hill overlooking the campus of Eastern Mennonite University. (Photo by Jon Styer)

For the first eight years of her life, Simin Wahdat, 31, was oblivious to the deep fault lines of history that ran through her childhood city of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Kabul, praised in the ancient sacred texts of the Rigveda as “a vision of paradise set in the mountains.” On the Silk Road linking east and west from time beyond counting. Alexander the Great marched through its valley. With exotic names to rival the best from the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, a rolling list of empires would claim this city by conquest.

Simin’s early childhood in the capital city was normal and peaceful. Her father holds a master’s degree, is proficient in five languages and could comfortably support his family of seven children: five girls and two boys. Simin is the third child, with an older sister and brother.

War arrived in 1992

Then in 1992 war came to her neighborhood. And the worst kind of war, civil war. Once again the wheel of history turned. This time it was the end of Soviet occupation, rise of the Mujahideen and the clash of vying warlords armed by the United States, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

News from outlying provinces and the countryside where her family had ancestral roots (the predominately Tajik city of Herat near the border with Iran) was slow to arrive in Kabul. And when it did, it arrived with the force of a sledgehammer. Three of her mother’s brothers and a number of cousins had died in the conflict. “This was so traumatic for my mother. She would have bouts where she passed out unconscious on the floor. Us children would gather around her and cry. We didn’t know how to comfort her,” Simin said in an interview with Crossroads in mid-December 2013.

“To avoid the explosions of shells and bombs, we retreated for weeks to the basement of our home. During lulls in the fighting, we would venture upstairs to get water or use the bathroom. The neighborhood was dark; the main sounds were the wails and cries of the wounded or those in mourning.”

The soul-numbing trauma of war can turn neighbors into macabre spectators. “Bread was so scarce. Bakeries were only open sporadically. Lines would begin forming outside their doors sometimes as early as 2 or 3 in the morning. The closer to the front of the line, the greater your chance of getting bread when the doors briefly opened,” Simin explained. “One morning my sister and I were waiting in line and a rocket explosion hit close by, killing and wounding a number of people. Not one person left their place in line to help. To get bread for their family was more important.”

Flight to Pakistan

The fighting intensified. Her family’s safety became more precarious, especially with five daughters. In 1995 her father and an uncle decided to join another uncle who had already fled across the border into Pakistan, to the city of Quetta, 150 miles southeast of Kandahar. Simin was 12 when the two families made the dangerous journey south, 450 miles by bus. They left in the morning darkness. “On the journey I remember looking back and seeing a number of explosions hit where we had just passed. My youngest sister was very sick. We thought we would lose her. It was dark when we finally arrived at the border crossing. The gate was closed and thousands of us waited that night for the border to reopen.”

Their first day in Pakistan as refugees began with a morning run, almost a stampede, through the border crossing. Their first urgent task was finding medical help for her sister and mother. Then began settling into Quetta, the city that would be their home for the next 11 years. “We arrived with almost nothing, except the university education of my father. Many times he told us, ‘Education is the only property you can keep with you forever. You can lose your home, your land, your job, but not your education.’”

Simin and her sisters had no formal schooling during their sojourn in Pakistan. Her father’s English-teaching jobs provided just enough for rent and food, not enough for school fees for all his children, even if it had been safe for the Afghan refugee girls to attend a Pakistani school. “There was barely enough to send my oldest brother to school. He would return and teach his younger sisters and brothers. And after his long day at work, my father would also teach our lessons, English, math, the other school subjects.”*

Their education leaped forward when the family was able to scrape together enough money to buy a rudimentary computer. “That opened so many doors for us. My older brother would bring back what he learned at the local computer center, and teach the rest of us.”

Facing massive trauma as a teenage translator

By age 14, Simin was proficient in three languages: her native Dari (Persian), Pashto, and English. So proficient, in fact, that when a translator position opened to work with an aid organization serving refugee women, she applied and was hired, despite her youth.

“I was exposed to extreme hardship and suffering in my Afghan community, as we made our rounds through the refugee camps. I thought my family had it bad; this was much worse. Every family was dealing with something serious – a dying child, news from home of recent deaths, sickness or malnutrition – trauma on a scale I couldn’t imagine. The experience completely changed my life.”

Rather than hardening her, Simin’s exposure to trauma emboldened her and focused her life’s work. Upon returning to Kabul in 2005, she enrolled in evening high school classes and worked during the day. In one of those encounters that mark turning points in a person’s journey, Simin served as an interpreter for Athena Katsaros, a consultant for the organization Business for Peace.** Impressed by Simin’s intelligence, determination and passion to make a positive difference in a new Afghanistan, Katsaros introduced her to Bucknell University. The Pennsylvania school offered her a four-year, full-ride scholarship.

Heading to U.S. for college

There Simin double-majored in international relations, plus women and gender studies. “Coming to this country to attend college, this was my discovery journey. I am so grateful for the gift of an education.” Each summer during her undergraduate studies, Simin returned to Kabul. Struck by the contrast between the two cultures, especially in everyday ways a young woman can live her life, she threw herself into women’s projects and worked for organizations that promoted change. “In my country as a woman, every day when you wake up, every minute, every second, is a struggle to overcome a thousand different obstacles. So many remnants of the old Afghanistan have to change.”

Always seeking to increase her effectiveness as a change agent, Simin began researching master’s programs that would equip her with practical tools and skills for the two foci of her work – increasing the role of women in Afghan civil society and addressing the deep psychological wounds that three decades of warfare have inflicted on everyone.

That search opened a conversation with her cousin, Farishta Sakhi, a 2010 graduate of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). “She told me EMU’s program was well-respected around the world for its practical training programs.” With the help of several scholarships, Simin was able to begin her master’s studies in 2012. “I love the educational model of the classes; they’re practice-based, not just academic theory.”

Gaining insight into trauma at CJP

Of particular interest to Simin was trauma training offered through STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience). “This was something I really needed as a person who has experienced trauma. The class also gave me the tools to go back to Afghanistan and work with communities who have experienced trauma. Just having a safe space to talk about the wounds of war would be a giant step forward for my country.”

In a 2013 class paper, Simin identified a piece missing from high-level discussions and decisions about Afghanistan’s future – the foundational work of healing the psychological wounds that three decades of war have inflicted on all levels of Afghan society. “We don’t talk about it. There’s a stigma associated with naming and working to overcome the debilitating effects of trauma.”

“How can those who have never known peace create it?” – that’s how she posed the dilemma in her paper. She proposed a significant investment in “psychosocial projects,” grassroots initiatives to address the massive damage done to the nation’s collective psyche.

Her classes in EMU’s master’s program have given Simin the confidence to share her ideas on a larger stage. “In a policy class, we discussed the role of advocacy groups, effective ways to push for change, and professional ways to influence policy makers.”

Speaking out in Washington D.C.

Those skills, plus her compelling life story, were spotlighted on Nov. 15, 2013, when Simin was invited to participate in a panel discussion in Washington D.C. She seized the opportunity to influence policy, gathered the concerns and priorities of her Afghan associates, and prepared a one-page position paper advocating a greater role for Afghan women in civil society. Her paper ended up in the hands of former first lady Laura Bush prior to the one-day event, “Advancing Afghan Women: Promoting Peace and Progress in Afghanistan.”

On her big day in November, Simin attended the morning session at Georgetown University where the former and current secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, were featured speakers.

The afternoon venue moved to the World Affairs Council where Laura Bush spoke, followed by a panel discussion. “I was surprised and somewhat intimidated when I learned that I was the only Afghan woman on the panel,” Simin recalled. “I had assumed there would be others. The audience asked many questions about my country, and specifically about the role of women. Some questions were beyond my expertise to answer, and I just had to decline to answer.”

She considered the experience good training for the main event – her spring semester practicum as an intern in the congressional office of Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.).

Seeing peril and promise in Afghanistan’s future

Simin feels a keen urgency to preserve the advances Afghan women have made in recent years. The Afghan national elections of 2014 hold both promise and peril – promise, that women will participate fully in the electoral process as voters and candidates; peril, that forces of traditional tribalism will once again trample on the rights and safety of Afghan women.

The work of her practicum will be lobbying U.S. lawmakers to endorse an open letter supporting the gains of the last 10 years. Knowing they are not alone, that they have American and international support, will give Afghan women the courage to fully participate in this year’s election and build upon their hard-won gains.

“In many ways we are haunted by the memory of past government changes where the first official action, even before addressing the urgent issues of governing, would be to clamp down on the behavior of women, restricting them to their homes, removing them from the public sphere,” said Simin. “This election year we can’t let that memory paralyze us.”

She recalled longingly the stories of her father’s younger years, during the more relaxed and open times of the 1960s to mid-70s. At the universities, women had full access to an education and advanced to professional positions in society. Until she came to the United States for college, she could not imagine such a world.

Simin lives with the hope that better days are ahead for Afghanistan. “That is where I will return to serve. Sometimes I feel, with all my years studying here in this country, that I don’t have a place. But I have a huge passion. I am in a position to help, and this gives me much happiness.”

– Paul Souder

* * * *

* Save the Children in Quetta eventually hired Simin’s father as regional supervisor of refugee schools. By the mid-2000s, the UN was employing him to assist with democratic elections in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
** Athena Katsaros is co-founder and board member of Open A Door Foundation, which helps young women from post-conflict countries to obtain college educations in the United States.