by Kathy Kelly and Dr. Hakim
August 7, 2012
Two days ago, we spent three anxious hours in an outer waiting area of the "Non-Immigrant Visa" section of the U.S. consulate here in Kabul, Afghanistan, waiting for our young friends Ali and Abdulhai to return from a sojourn through the inner offices where they were being interviewed for visas to come speak to audiences in the United States.
They are members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and have been invited to travel with the U.S.-Mexico "Caravan for Peace" that will be touring the United States later this summer. We didn't want to see their hopes dashed, and we didn't want to see this opportunity lost to connect the experiences of poor people around the world suffering from war. The organizers of the Caravan envision and demand alternatives to the failed systems of militarized policing in the terrifyingly violent, seemingly endless U.S.-Mexico drug war. They want to connect with victims of war in Afghanistan especially since, as the top producer of opium and marijuana in the world, Afghanistan has a failing war against drugs as well.
It's an unprecedented invitation, at a desperately crucial human moment.
A friendly Afghan woman working there as a security guard suggested that the length of the wait might be a good sign - perhaps it meant that one of their interviewers had taken a special interest in our young friends' case. This was what we'd been hoping for. Ali and Abdulhai each carried packets containing letters of support from four U.S. Senators and three U.S. Congressional Representatives, along with the summary of a petition signed by 4775 people. Maybe some interviewer was taking time to read the letter from Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire -- and perhaps Ali and Abdulhai had been given a chance to mention that Mairead would be joining them in Kabul this coming Human Rights Day on December 10th for a campaign calling on 2 million friends worldwide to support a cease-fire mediated by the U.N., silencing the guns of all sides currently fighting in Afghanistan.
The kindly guard, at least, was interested to know more about who the boys were. In snatches of conversation throughout the morning, having little actually to do in the United States' fortress of an embassy, she seemed to welcome a slight relief from boredom.
U.S. soldiers inside an adjacent locked office with opaque windows seemed considerably busier, supervising arrivals and departures of construction equipment and machines. The building project going on is apparently part of a massive expansion of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, targeted to have it surpass the embassy in Iraq's capital, Baghdad, as the largest U.S. Embassy - in the world.
Hoping the best for our two young friends, we were already drafting lines about the worth of friendships -- of bonds of concern and cooperation built across borders -- starting off our thank-you letter to the thousands who had signed our online petition requesting visas for Ali and Abdulhai.
Throughout the three hour wait, we were intensely curious as to how the interviews were going. How were Ali and Abdulhai conveying everyday life in Kabul's working class "Karte Seh" district, where they tutor former child street vendors whom they've helped enroll in school? How would they convey the life circumstances of the adult Afghan seamstresses for whom they're now providing machinery, a workplace, and a chance at a livelihood free of exploitation by middlemen? The women converse with each other as they work, their voices soft and animated. Throughout the morning hours, for the hours they can find free, they come in and depart, some with the burka veil covering their faces, but all adamant that among the challenges they all face, with many of them enduring serious abuses at home, none are so great as the burden of feeding their families in the chaos and unavoidable poverty of a society stricken by war.
To whom, at this moment, were Ali and Abdulhai describing their principled work? Was the interviewer hearing about the scene every weekday afternoon after school, when about two dozen little children spill into the Volunteers' yard, full of life and joy, eager to learn from their volunteer tutors but already needing Ali and Abdulhai's guidance as they act out the deadly prejudices they acquire from adults. Was the interviewer understanding the vital importance of the mission of the Volunteers, seeking and finding creative ways to persuade a panicked nation to find strength in fellowship within and across ethnic lines, Hazara, Pashto, Tajik, Uzbek or many others?
Do the interviewers -- does their supervising agency - even want Afghans to find such fellowship? Do they want to add the authority and prestige that comes with travel to visions like that of the Volunteers, determined that ordinary people can overcome traditional fears and hatreds, living together in mutually supportive community without any need for revenge, without the need for weapons, and without the need for the oversight of foreigners engaged in a military occupation?
Our new friend in the office saw them first. "Here come your friends," she said. "Rejected," she added, as we looked at their faces. She and another Afghan guard listened sympathetically as Ali and Abdulhai described their absurdly brief interviews -- they too had spent all but ten minutes of the three hours merely waiting. During those ten minutes, the interviewer had never touched the documents they submitted in their packets.
Abdulhai was informed that he didn't work for the government, that people in Afghanistan didn't know him and that Afghanistan "is in a bad situation."
Ali showed us his rejection letter, and dryly commented that he was sorry they had each spent $160 US dollars, so needed for their work in their communities, as the purchasing price for this souvenir. It merely stated that they were ineligible to receive visas because they didn't demonstrate sufficient evidence, if allowed to leave Afghanistan, that they would return to their dedicated work here.