Thursday, March 19, 2009

Inspiration from Suraya Pakzad

Last Wednesday, I had the good fortune to meet an extraordinary woman who is doing phenomenal things in her home country of Afghanistan. While on a US tour, Suraya Pakzad, founder and director of the Voice of Women Organization, was kind enough to stop by our studio space and talk with students from 18 different high schools across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Suraya shared her stories of overcoming adversity and working to provide education for all in her country during times of Taliban rule. She also spoke frankly with students about the current state of education and women's rights in Afghanistan, her hopes for the future, and the role the United States can play in advancing education in Afghanistan.

The one hour program was moderated by Aldo Magazzeni, director of Traveling Mercies and friend of Ms. Pakzad. During the program, Ms. Pakzad (who answered to either Ms. Pakzad or Suraya when students addressed her) spoke briefly about her background and then answered questions from all 18 schools - - an admirable feat in and of itself! This program was streamed live by Penn Video Network and we are currently working to get the program up, in its entirety, on the new MAGPI podcast site. I know many of you were unable to 'tune in' live - - so here is a brief clip:

video

Before leaving our studio, I had an opportunity to chat one-on-one with Ms. Pakzad, share family photos (she has 6 children, the youngest of whom is 5) and talk about motherhood. One thing that struck me was our conversation about how one of her three daughters could not understand why her mother continually put herself in the public eye advocating for women's rights, when it could mean danger and uncertainty for their family. In response, Ms. Pakzad wrote the following poem and was kind enough to permit me to share it with you (a note, she gave me the English translation of the poem which was originally written in Persian):
My name is woman.

My daughter, my beloved daughter
you who are my whole life,
the passion of my existence -
lately your gaze has lost its light
and I fear you are distancing your heart from mine
ignoring me, even while listening
Do you fear your mother shamed?
What frightens you?

She who able and aware,
with perseverance her strength
gallops into the conflict without fear?
She who for love of her country has stirred up waves
and rejecting all the myths, today redraws the boundaries
where our identities are worthless?

Who are you asking my sweet-heart?
Your mother does not need a name;
her name is Woman,
my name, your name and the names of a thousand others
with unfulfilled lives.
Their names, despised and belittled, are discounted,
so many names just as seals on pacts.

Do not be afraid my love, your mother is not alone.
She travels with friends on the path
with one thought, one heart and one journey,
beyond name, beyond life,-
and all are in danger,
We shall prepare the path for you and your children.
We shall fight now so that you shall survive.
We shall die now so that you will live.
What a powerful experience for American students to hear from this truly inspirational person. It's amazing what live, interactive video can do for our students by opening the doors of communication and fostering cultural understanding. While many of our students may have expected to hear contempt from Ms. Pakzad, instead what they heard was a message of hope, perseverance, strength and admiration for her culture.

And even though Ms. Pakzad has been featured on the Larry King Show, MSNBC, at various world affairs councils and in The Philadelphia Inquirer, she mentioned that this particular event - - feeling like she was in each of these students' classrooms even though they were separated by a screen - - will stay with her always. After all, reaching out to these students will ultimately help strengthen communication and cultural understanding for future generations of American and Afghani youth.

We're now working with Traveling Mercies and Ms. Pakzad's organization, Voices of Women Organization, to try and organize skype video conferences between American students and students in Afghanistan. I look forward to sharing those experiences with you as they develop.

If you're interested in seeing more of Ms. Pakzad's remarks, you can watch these CNN clips:

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