Watching the stampede of civilians tear across the Kabul airport, I sat dumbfounded, searching helplessly for any sort of meaning or moral to this story. Our once-grand mission of democracy-building was culminating in a dumpster fire so out of control Afghan citizens were clinging to the wings of a cargo plane just to get out.
And the fact that the story ended with the U.S. leaving Afghanistan to the very terrorists that supported 9/11? I confess, I had lost the plot.
Ironically, since 2009 I had been traveling to Afghanistan — not as military personnel, aid worker, journalist, or diplomat, but as a storyteller of sorts. I was a youth leadership coach who worked to empower young people by helping them gain a sense of their own “great story.”
Simply put, if how we felt about ourselves was the greatest determination of our success or failure, then when our stories change, we change. When we no longer see ourselves as victims, our energy changes. Our ideas change and the world around us begins to change as well, making room for our larger identities as heroes to emerge.
This methodology was so powerful that our team was invited to Juvenile Rehabilitation Centers across Afghanistan to help transform even the most radicalized youth, changing the narratives of how they viewed themselves and their roles in society.
Almost overnight, stores were shuttered, people went into hiding, and an eerie quiet blanketed the city. Most notably, girls had become erased from society as their education was paradoxically ended by the illiterate terrorists now patrolling the streets.
As our conversation continued, the situational irony of this story became more apparent. Despite the current challenges, a lot had changed since the last time the Taliban tried to drag Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Twenty-five years ago, Afghanistan’s infrastructure was so post-apocalyptic there was not a school, an electrical connection, or a road left to drive on. Now here I was, live-chatting with a digital native whose smartphone was filled with as many selfies and social media apps as every other Gen-Z person I know.
For everything that 20 years of nation-building did not accomplish, at least they now had the Internet — and this new age of communication was a game changer.
If it is true that when our stories change, we change, was it possible my Afghan colleague was not the trapped victim after all? Could he, in fact, be the heroic secret agent strategically located on the inside — the one with the cunning, acumen, and mastery of the language and terrain; knowing others who can help recapture the narrative and write a more noble ending?
I asked if he could recall some of our earlier lessons together. What opportunities might lie within the setbacks? If he were no longer the victim, what would his role as the hero look like? What stealth, MacGyver-like tools could he repurpose into an ingenious, save-the-day-device?
The sparkle in his eye told me the plot was about to twist.
“What if we educated these girls anyway?” he mused.
It was a risky idea, no doubt, but if the pandemic taught us anything it was that education no longer depended on rooms and buildings. How we learned and engaged with the larger world had completely transformed over the past year. The Internet leveled a lot of playing fields.
“Think about it,” I pressed on. “What would you teach if you were no longer encumbered by textbooks, government-issued permits, or even geography? Those long walks to school replaced by more time learning math, reading, and science? Maybe new subjects like leadership, wellness, and mental health? Italian cooking classes, perhaps? Creative writing? Coding? What if these girls could explore world-famous museums, space stations, and aquariums without ever leaving the confines of their homes?”
He agreed. With a teacher, a net connection, and information-filled digital devices tucked safely in the palms of their sweet little hands, who could stop these girls from learning?
Who could predict how their ideas and energy might change, and how the world would change around them as a result?
Who could stop them from becoming the heroes of their own stories, able to reset a new trajectory against the longer arc of history? Perhaps the meaning or moral to this larger story is still waiting to be written after all.
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From our friends at World Without Genocide: “Why were U.S. troops in Afghanistan for twenty years? Join us for a webinar this Sunday about Afghanistan’s ‘resource curse’ – trillions of dollars of rare minerals under the ground, and the terrible human cost in trying to hold onto those assets. “Afghanistan: Genocide, War Crimes, and the International Criminal Court” will be held on Sunday, October 24, 1:00-2:30 pm CT. Register at worldwithoutgenocide.org/afghanistan. $10 general public, $5 students and seniors. ‘Clock hours’ for teachers, nurses, and social workers. Free to Mitchell Hamline students (diversity credits available). Space is limited; early registration is recommended.