Month: May 2014

Talking to kids about Afghanistan

This week featured the daunting task of telling my students and their families that I was not only leaving Hong Kong, but leaving to a war zone.  Children are amazing.  I am not sure what I expected from the conversations, but I am beyond impressed with their insightful questions: “Why are you going all the way out there to teach?”  “Are there still bad guys there?  Are there more bad guys than good guys?”  “Will you be teaching girls as well as boys?”  “Why didn’t the bad guys want the Afghanistan people to listen music?”  “Why did the British care about India and Russia?  They’re so far away from England!?”  And the most surprising one: “Why would you put your life at risk to teach music?”

These thoughtful kids with their thoughtful questions really forced me to think hard.  How do you explain multi-generational war and occupation to a child who lives in a country  that does not even have a military?   How do you explain poverty to a child who has her own nanny and driver?  How do you explain, or begin to even understand yourself, the concept of total music censorship to a society where it is expected that every child must play at least one, if not two or three, instruments just to get into a decent primary school?  How do you explain social justice to a young child?

Thus, the condensed modern history of Afghanistan and music censorship for 7 year olds:

For a long time, there were two major powers (British Empire and the Soviet Union) fighting over Afghanistan.  The Soviet Union gave a lot of sneaky economic and political support to the government, which after years of being progressive and open, was becoming increasingly restrictive.  For example, in the late 1970s, the government even controlled what music people were allowed to listen to and make, and in some areas it was actually forbidden. The Soviet Union invaded the country altogether, and the Afghan people revolted against them; tribes banded together to try to get rid of them.  Then the United States jumped in and gave money and weapons to help the Mujahideen fight the Soviets.  Fightingfightingfightingfightfightfight; eventually the Soviets were booted out.  This sounds like good news, but the country was so unstable after being constantly invaded and occupied, that the people who worked together to get rid of the Soviets turned on each other in a civil war.  In 1996, the ones that won- the Taliban- were bad.  Really bad.  The worst, in fact.  They were so bad they forbade girls to go to school, women to go out in public, and all music was not just still restricted, but now fully banned, punishable by imprisonment or death.  In 2001, the United States attacked and kicked the Taliban out of the government, but have been fighting to keep some kind of stability ever since.  Music was deemed legal again in 2001, but an entire generation of silence had already passed.

Here’s the thing, seven year-old kiddo who just got an earful of geopolitical history, as told by a violinist:  Afghanistan is a country full of people.  Beautiful people, real people, God’s people, WORTHY people, who deserve a chance at hope, who deserve a future.  There are still a lot of bad guys there, but there are also a lot of good guys.  And it is the responsibility of the good guys everywhere to change the way things are.   There are a lot of ways to fight bad guys, but the best way is to ensure that kids grow up to be good guys instead.   In order for this to happen, they need what everyone needs: love and hope.  Music is expression- it is audible emotion, it is unspoken language, it is communication across all barriers.  Learning music gives a sense of ownership, pride, responsibility, empowerment…. Giving this back to the Afghan children WILL change their country.  And the time to do it is not later, when things are safer or more stable, it is RIGHT NOW.   The children there deserve this chance to be the change the country needs.  That is why, seven-year old child, I am going to Afghanistan.

You know what?  My incredible kids all get it.  Their incredible parents all get it.  I think for the first time in my entire teaching career, I have finally been able to get the point across that music exists for the purpose of creating an admirable heart, not for the purpose of creating an admirable CV, nor an admirable effort to be a well-rounded individual.  No, it is far more critical and necessary than that.   The families understand this, and I hope that, in some way, me leaving them for Afghanistan will help the kids grow up to be more understanding, more compassionate, more sensitive to their brothers and sisters around the world.  I hope my new residency in a warzone will awaken them to the plight of kids growing up in fear and instability, and move their hearts to be advocates for change as they grow up…

Very providentially, this week, I was able to attend the annual Justice Conference Asia- three days of seminars and lectures by leaders in the global social justice movement.  Our brothers and sisters in the world face so many injustices- poverty, inequality, lack of basic needs, human trafficking and slavery, wars, lack of education.  It is so easy for us privileged folks, with our distinct advantages of having been born in the right place at the right time, to glance at those injustices, and be overwhelmed to the point of inaction, to think “who am I to fight this battle?” “what could I possibly contribute?” “These issues do not affect me,” “I am too busy to help,” “I am not qualified to make any sort of impact whatsoever,” and do nothing.  But those are all lies.  It is within all of our capacities to change the world, even in small ways.  Eddie Byun, a pastor and warrior against human trafficking and sex slavery in South Korea, said: “Awareness without Action equals Apathy.”   God does not want the poor to stay poor, the oppressed to stay oppressed, the marginalized to fall further down the cracks.  He wants US to do something, to use our strengths and assets to fight injustice in whatever way we can.  And my way happens to be a widespread campaign of violins.

Watch this video; you will not regret:

How it all began

“When that guy leaves Afghanistan, I want his job.”

In 2008, after having read several books about Afghanistan, I found myself in love with the country and dreaming of someday living there.  I was particularly inspired by “Kabul Beauty School,” by Deborah Rodriguez, a hairdresser from Texas, who made her way to Afghanistan to do hair and makeup for the embassy and NGO workers stationed there.  Moved by the plight of the local women, she set up  a beauty school to teach them skills that would empower them and give them purpose and independence as they set up their own shops.

I remember thinking that a Suzuki program would have a similarly empowering effect– mothers learn to play the violin together with their children.  They learn how to teach their kids at home, and in a country with so little, a skill like that would mean so much!  Dr. Suzuki originally started his incredible teaching movement in a similarly ravaged post-WWII Japan.  His goal was not to train prodigies, or to raise up concert violinists, but rather to bring peace and hope to a generation of children who were growing up with destruction and despair.  He believed that if children could learn to create something beautiful, they would be more sensitive and caring themselves, that “music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart.”  I share Dr. Suzuki’s passion for changing lives through music; I believe in it 100%.  And thus the seed of my Afghanistan dream took root and germinated.

Faced with the realization that the country was too dangerous and unstable for my dream to be a reality any time soon, I focused my attention on adventure travel, teaching around Asia, church, sports, and nurturing my school as best as I could.  God blessed all of this richly- the school has grown to over 150 students, with the most incredible staff you could ask for.  I have more stamps and visas in my passport than I can count, and live in the best city on the planet! My church community is like family, and I can proudly say that I have paddled the circumference of Hong Kong Island. Yet in my heart, I always yearn for more; to be more impactful, to reach disadvantaged children, to go more third world-y.

I remember the moment when I read that William Harvey, director of my favorite charity, Cultures in Harmony, had moved to Afghanistan.  I turned to the person sitting next to me and said, “When that guy leaves Afghanistan, I want his job.”    Fast forward four years, almost to the day; I see William’s blog post entitled “Leaving Afghanistan.” Leaving.  He needs someone to take over to teach the students and train the local teacher for a year.   My heart must have skipped 12 beats.  Was this real?!

What transpired over the last 2.5 months has been a whirlwind:  I email William to congratulate him on his new post, and to enquire about life in Kabul, as I *might* be interested in his soon-to-be-vacant position.  He writes me back within hours, encouraging me to apply.  I freak out.  I apply.  Mind fills with self-doubt.  Awash with guilt at the prospect of leaving my beloved school and my amazing staff and my children that I have been teaching for so long. Prayers.  Then, I feel peace.   Interview- good!   Short-listed for position- great!   Job offer- amazing!  Fabulous colleague agrees to take over directorship of the school for a year- incredible!  Several superb teachers interested in taking over my studio- what the heck!!  Icing on the cake, another of my fabulous colleagues agrees to cat-sit my big fatty Kaseem- hurrah!


I cannot articulate my joy and gratitude.  God has already blessed me beyond my wildest dreams- who would ever have thought that He would bless me with this as well??  He knows me so well.  He knows the desires of my heart- He planted that desire there in the first place!- and has directed my path to Afghanistan so clearly.  I have no doubts, no fears about going, just only joy and gratitude.

There are a hundred Rumi quotes with which I could close this entry.  Here is how I feel about Afghanistan, and why I am so excited to go:

“Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.” … “Respond to every call that excites your spirit!”