My new normal

Helicopters are flying over my guesthouse, and I just heard gunshots in the distance.

Til now, I have had such a hard time talking or writing about being here in Afghanistan, and I could not quite place my finger on why.  Obvious reasons would be culture shock, security issues, adjusting to new job, the intensity of work juxtaposed with the bizarre Melrose Place idyl of my guesthouse… None of these were quite it.  It wasn’t the fact that I have to pass through three layers of armed security to get home, or that I was frisked and had my violin sniffed by a bomb dog to get into our last performance.  It’s not even that I have a hard time comprehending that I cannot be out past 8:00pm, and that I must be accompanied by a man at pretty much all times in public.  These are just details.

What I realized the other night after watching a documentary about my new workplace, “Dr. Sarmast’s Music School,” is that from the moment I was unceremoniously wheeled off the plane at Kabul International Airport, my life drastically changed, and is never going to be the same.  Emerging into the dusty, dry, glaring sun, I felt myself being stripped of the remaining layers of doubt, fear, self, expectation.  I feel like everything in my life has been leading me towards Afghanistan, and I have finally arrived home.

But, I have seen things that are so far outside my scope of reality, that I am unable to articulate or describe, for fear of diminishing their gravity and the impact they have had on my life already.  I will never be the same again.  I have been here for 13 days.  The students… sometimes I forget where I am, forget where these kids come from.  Sometimes my mind tricks me into assuming they are just normal kids, coming  happily into my room for their violin lessons, or thinking perhaps these are the privileged elite of Kabul, who are wealthy enough to afford this sort of tuition.  You might say, “But Jennifer, all kids are the same.” But circumstances are not the same, and my lovely students are growing up in a war.   There are orphans.  There are those who have witnessed death and killing.  Many used to be refugees or homeless.  Some of them are so poor that their families send them to orphanages to live, because they cannot afford to feed them.  Many of them used to work on the streets, selling plastic bags or trinkets, to support their families.  There are girls from the provinces whose families are so conservative that they have to hide the fact that they attend music school from them.  Sometimes kids disappear from international school tours because they are seeking asylum from the war; this endless, perpetual war.  Kids eat enormous school lunches here; they don’t have food at home.  So many of them are tiny- the 11 year olds look like they are 5 or 6.  And yet despite their size, their faces show that they have already lived through a lifetime of conflict that none of us will ever come close to even imagining.

I had a little girl sobbing in my office today.  “Cheraa gerya-karden, dokhtar-jan?” (why cry, dear girl? ps dari is the most beautiful language ever) She was crying because the orphanage where she stays is closing for a week, amidst election uncertainty.  She was worried that if she went home to her province, she would not ever return.  At first I thought that was preposterous, but then I realized that at 13, she is old enough to be married, and it is not unlikely that this would happen.  I couldn’t hold back my tears.   This is real.  This is happening.  This is now, in 2014.  I cannot even fathom sharing most of the stories of these kids’ lives that I have already learned.  Their stories are not mine to tell, and you would not be able to handle them.

This is my new normal.  I am so grateful that I have been allowed to come here, so humbled that I can witness this reality.  I don’t know if I will be able to change anyone’s life, but I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this country has already changed mine.


If you are in the US and cannot view Al Jazeera English videos, you can check out the trailer below:


This is the documentary about my incredible boss, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, and the Afghanistan National Institute of Music:





The cost of changing the world

For HK$2800 (US$360) a person can:

– Fly economy from Hong Kong to Seoul

– Purchase a “Saffiano Accordion Zip” wallet from Coach

– Drink a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal

– Consume 101 tall black coffees from Starbucks

– Play Call of Duty on a new XBox One

– Ride the tram in Hong Kong 1,217 times

– Exercise for four months at Fitness First (or, wastefully pay Fitness First for four months of non-exercise)

– Pay for one month out-of-pocket for health insurance in the States

– Break your foot at a trampoline park, take a taxi, see an orthopedic surgeon, and get one set of X-Rays at Hong Kong Sanatorium Hospital


– Receive education, lunch, and family stipend for a year in Afghanistan.


Let that sink in for a moment.  US$360 buys an education for a child, and a salary for a family in Kabul for an entire year.  Many of the students who attend the school at which I will be teaching are street kids or orphans.  Many of these kids peddle goods or beg on the streets to earn US$0.50 a day, which supports their families.  Many  parents are reluctant to allow their children to go to school, because it means a significant loss of income for the family.  Therefore, the families of ANIM’s most disadvantaged students receive a stipend so that they are not forced to return to the streets to support themselves and their families.

So with just a bit of money , it is actually incredibly easy to contribute to the *dramatic transformation* of a child’s life.  [In fact, it is so easy, it  makes me downright ashamed of my several four-month-blocks of non-exercise at Fitness First .  OK full disclosure: the only time I actually interacted with Fitness First in the last two years was to cancel my membership.  And in fact, I did that over the phone, so…. Fitness Last is more like it. But I digress….]  

When a child’s life changes dramatically, the impact is not simply on the child.  Her family has hope for a future that is no longer steeped in poverty and subsistence.  Her friends notice her change, and want to join in on it.  Improving one child’s life creates a snowball effect; changing several children’s lives creates a blizzard.  What the Afghanistan National Institute of Music is doing, and what you can join in doing, is changing a GENERATION of lives; a generation that will become the future leaders, educators, policy framers, and peace makers of the country.   Imagine these kids, instead of growing up disaffected, marginalised, and hopeless, are growing up empowered, educated, talented, with a sense of responsibility and ownership.  They are learning to create harmony not just with their musical instruments, but also with each other.  Imagine what a dramatic impact this will have on the future of Afghanistan!!

So, internet, can you just sit there and do nothing, when you know that it would be so easy to contribute to the *dramatic transformation* of not just a child, but a whole country?  I hope you cannot!  I hope you think twice about your handbag or XBox, and instead consider changing a life.  Contact the Sponsorship Program at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (  Do it!  Do it now!!


anim kids

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!”