Thursday, June 14, 2012
Operation Pencil Visits the Egyptian Hospital
"What is true of the individual will be tomorrow true of the whole nation if individuals will but refuse to lose heart and hope." ~Mahatma Gandhi
Hope has been the theme of this past week. Sunday morning, I preached about it and then, throughout the week, I had the opportunity to see it working in our midst, as members of Operation Pencil traveled to the Egyptian Hospital to give away over 450 backpacks of school supplies to local Afghan children from a primary school just outside our walls. None of us knew what to expect when we invited the principal and his teachers and pupils to come and join us for a day of celebrating education in Afghanistan. Yet, as soon as the students began flooding into the hospital compound, we realized what an exciting opportunity we had been afforded.
One of the more talented artists in our group painted a banner with the Operation Pencil logo on it so that we could hang it up for all participants to sign, our volunteers as well as the children and teachers. When the students, who were ages 7-12, first arrived, we greeted them with permanent markers and an opportunity to make their special mark. While some quickly signed the banner, others took time, diligently writing their names and sometimes adding an extra word or two. One even wrote a poem about Afghanistan being the lifeblood of this region. A few of the teachers hovered closely, correcting some of the writing and encouraging their students to be brave with their signatures. Because our volunteers also took time to sign the banner, it was filled quickly with both English and Dari. In the end, over 500 people signed their names, reminding us that in many ways, our collective future is inextricably bound.
As the students waited in the courtyard for their backpacks, volunteers threw Frisbees and kicked the ball back and forth. There were more smiles than actual words exchanged, and no doubt, laughter reverberated between the primitive buildings and the guard towers that protect the perimeter of the airbase. Though we only spent a few hours with the children, hosting them in groups of fifty at a time, their company was a breath of fresh air after some very long weeks of suffocation.
Most of the Operation Pencil volunteers either guard the detainees or man the prison watchtowers on twelve hour shifts. They live a perpetual Groundhog Day, weeks on end, and with the change of deployment cycles, those who are only serving nine month tours, don’t get an opportunity for a break. While many assume that volunteering is going above and beyond one’s duty, especially in a combat zone, those of us who volunteer here acknowledge that our service is more for us and our sense of purpose than anything else. A chance to get away from camp and interact with locals, in any capacity, is almost as good as going out into a village. For many of us, this is as close as we will come to the heart of this place and this people. It is an invaluable opportunity.
When I have talked to my soldiers in the days that have followed our hospital visits, most of them recount a story of their favorite student, of the little boy with the widest grin, the child who didn’t want to stop throwing the frisbee, even to receive his brand new backpack, or the sole girl who walked in proudly with her Afghan brothers, curious to meet new friends. These are the memories that we will hold on to as we weather the end of our deployment and prepare for going home. The exchange of smiles, the moment of unspoken appreciation, the high five and thumbs up, still international gestures of good will, these images will linger with us much longer than the drudgery and long, grueling days of what has, at least some of the time, felt like internment.
In the end, our backpack giveaways were a reminder that hope is alive and well, even in this place where good news is rare. This became particularly clear to me as I spent over an hour with an eleven year old girl who was a patient at the hospital; she and her family had traveled two days in order for her to receive medical treatment. The first time I met her, she quietly, but boldly, wrote her name in English on our banner. Roshna in Dari means “light.” I couldn’t believe that this girl, with an IV protruding from her frail, tiny arm, not only knew how to speak some English but also knew how to write it. When she appeared again the second day, not interested in the school supplies but just wanting to talk to us, I realized how remarkable she was not just to me, but to Afghanistan as a whole. That a little girl would be so brave to speak for over an hour to American soldiers with weapons and body armor, through a male interpreter, helped me see that, even in the depths of this darkness, a light still shines. I met hope in a girl named Roshna. Her light, though small, is surely enough to catch fire.