She found them warm and hardworking, kind and unassuming.
Stillwater, a free-spirited woman who has lived in Berkeley for 40 years, felt at home among her new friends.
Slowly, she also started learning about their faith and, after years of research and study, she converted to Islam a year ago.
In all seriousness, she said she accepted the faith because it meshed with her core belief that life is about trying to be a good person.
"The way I look at it ... life is a competition. The winners are the ones who do the most good deeds," the 63-year-old said.
On the tour, participants will deliver humanitarian aid to Afghan schools, hospitals, orphanages and refugee camps. They will visit with women at Kabul University to learn about their hopes and challenges. They will meet with landmine awareness groups and talk with journalists about efforts to createan independent press.
"I want to make America aware of what is going on in Afghanistan," she said.
Stillwater, who has written a blog (www.jpstillwater.blogspot.com) for about 600 on her distribution list since 2000, plans to post her story when she returns.
"I would report the bad stuff and also the good," she said. "The American way is not prison and bombs. The American way is freedom and democracy, and that is not what came to Afghanistan."
Stillwater's interest in the country started while working for 15 years as a legal assistant in a law office that represented taxi drivers.
"I got to know many Afghans and (heard) their stories. People who used to be doctors and lawyers and even princes in Afghanistan were now driving cabs in America. But that didn't bother them. They were glad to be here in America, safe and employed."
But Stillwater could see the trouble in her new friends' eyes.
"What did bother them was that their country, which had been almost reduced to rubble during battles with the USSR in the 1980s, was now being even further degraded and destroyed by the American occupation," she said.
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