Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Most Memorable

She didn't know she had changed the world.

The Afghan Girl; she was perhaps twelve years old and living in a refugee camp when National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry took her picture.  He didn't know her name.

Her picture was on the cover of National Geographic in 1985.  It became one of the most recognized photographs in the world; illuminating the conflict in Afghanistan and the refugee crisis around the world, but we didn't know who she was.  For years, no one knew.

Several attempts were made to find her and to perhaps hear her story.  Finally in 2002, a Nat Geo team found her and her family.  She was perhaps thirty years old, but remembered well the occasion of being photographed.  Even though he'd asked gently and she'd given him permission to photograph her, she was angry.  He was a stranger!

She hadn't seen the world-famous cover photo; she saw it for the first time after seventeen years when they showed it to her in '02.

Her parents had been killed in the Afghan conflict when she was about six. With her brother and three sisters, she followed her grandmother, walking through the snowy mountains to Pakistan, begging for blankets and hiding in caves along the way.  They entered the refugee camp in 1984.  She married at thirteen (no, you were sixteen, her husband insists) and later returned with her husband to her home village in Afghanistan.  They have three daughters; a fourth died in infancy.

When asked about her hopes for the future, she said she hoped they could afford medical care for her husband and to send her daughters through school.  She didn't ask for anything for herself.

"The reunion between the woman with green eyes and the photographer was quiet. On the subject of married women, cultural tradition is strict. She must not look—and certainly must not smile—at a man who is not her husband. She did not smile at McCurry.  Her expression, he said, was flat. She cannot understand how her picture has touched so many. She does not know the power of those eyes."

Reluctant at first to be photographed yet again, she relented when she heard how effective the first photo had been in focusing the world's attention on the plight of those in war-torn Afghanistan.

National Geographic told her story in 2002.  They set up an international fund to provide education for Afghan girls at first, then expanded to include boys.  They funded the family's medical needs and more, and they provided a pilgrimage to Mecca for them, too.  In a later interview, she actually smiled as she told of the progress her family had made and offered thanks for the help they had received.
"Names have power, so let us speak of hers. Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she is Pashtun, that most warlike of Afghan tribes. It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes—then and now—burn with ferocity. She is 28, perhaps 29, or even 30. No one, not even she, knows for sure. Stories shift like sand in a place where no records exist. Time and hardship have erased her youth. Her skin looks like leather. The geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened."  
“She’s had a hard life,” said McCurry. “So many here share her story.” Consider the numbers. Twenty-five years of war, 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees: This is the story of Afghanistan in the past quarter century. It's not the life she would have chosen.    ~from the Nat Geo article

Hers is a story like so many others.  Today, Pakistan hosts more than one and a half million refugees, most from Afghanistan.
Newly arrived Somali refugees wait in line to be registered by the UN office
Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, northern Kenya (Reuters).

According to the UN, the four active Dadaab camps were originally designed for a population of 150,000,
 yet are home to half a million refugees (80 per cent of whom are women and children), making living
 conditions difficult at best.  Twenty years in operation, the camps have been the only home for many.
It's not the life one would choose for their children.

Worldwide, more than 51 million people are currently refugees, displaced from their homes by conflict, the highest refugee number since WWII.  More than half are children, many unaccompanied.

Each one is a person like Sharbat Gula and perhaps has a similar story.  Each could use our help and prayers.  Perhaps we might take a moment to be thankful for our easier, safer lives, and give a little help where it might make a difference.

Update: 26 OCT 2016 -- Gula was arrested Wednesday in Pakistan for possession of fraudulent identification. She had Pakistani and Afghan ID cards in her possession, and both ID cards have been seized. We're told that more than 60,000 fraudulent IDs have been uncovered across Pakistan, and that eight officials so far have been charged with issuing fraudulent ID cards to foreigners.  Gula was arrested and released on similar charges last year.

Like millions more, she's a refugee. At last report, she is in custody awaiting her court hearing.  No information is available yet on her husband and daughters.  McCurry, the National Geographic photographer, said he is committed to helping her legally and financially. Her arrest goes to the heart of an ordeal confronting many Afghan refugees who fled across the border into Pakistan because of decades of war.

Pakistan has been pressuring refugees to leave, and has set a deadline for March. But Afghanistan remains a dangerous place — Taliban insurgents on Wednesday killed 26 Afghans abducted from the central province of Ghor. Nearly half a million Afghans have crossed the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan so far this year as a deadline approaches for them to leave.

Update: 31 OCT 2016:  Sharbat Gula has been released on bail.  She has two surviving daughters also in Pakistan.  Her husband died about four years ago.

Steve McCurry commented to Al Jazeera, "In seeing this current global refugee crisis, it's almost like people in Europe and the US are scared of refugees. Or they simply don't want the burden of hosting them. But we forget none are actually more scared than the refugees themselves. They are forced from their country, their homes. Desperate people do desperate things.

Sharbat is a widow trying to raise her children. She lost her parents, her husband, one of her daughters, and her brother. There is a lack of compassion for refugees.

Even though she's been offered to relocate to a safer country, there's no place like home. She wants to be near her relatives, this is all she knows.

If she had gone to another country, she would have had a very different life. But she chose not to. She remains humble to her life and to her struggle. We keep in touch periodically through my contacts on the ground.

The world sees the humanity in her. She wants the same things we do, but she lives in another part of the world."