When tragedy strikes, it is often easier to get angry and lash out at the universe than to acknowledge and grieve the inevitable pain. September 11, 2001 is a date that struck lightening into the core of every American. On this ninth anniversary, one fraught with headlines of Koran burning and Mosque demonstrations, it is perhaps more important than ever to channel those who took their tragedy and created healing.
Nicholas Kristof in his Thursday column this week for the New York Times, highlighted an inspirational story of two women who forged a very different path from hatred, despite the wounds that were inflicted upon them.
Like too many on that fateful day, Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, unknown to each other at the time, lost their husbands to the terrorist attack. The two lived near each other and were both pregnant with children who would never meet their fathers. They found solace in the understanding of their pain in another human and then realized they were certainly not alone in their journey. They heard tales of the half a million widows in Afghanistan who were experiencing the same plight and knew that the impending war would only increase this number. Then they had a vision: these widows could be a force for stability in Afghanistan, if only they had the resources.
Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley took action. They started an organization called Beyond the 11th that has to date assisted more than 1,000 Afghan widows in starting tiny businesses. The early projects involved buying small chicken flocks for the women so they could sell eggs. Another major project built a women’s center in Bamian where women could weave carpets to sell. The center is managed by an organization called Arzu that also offers literacy classes and operates a bakery on site.
The organization is currently working on an initiative to train Afghan women to run a small soccer ball manufacturing company. In conjunction with Business Council for Peace, Beyond the 11th has the women working to stitch the balls for export under the brand Dotsi. Ms. Retik is also planning to partner with CARE in Afghanistan to sponsor additional micro finance projects.
In a country lacking infrastucture and plagued with fundamentalists it is necessarily true that this will not solve Afghanistan’s problems. This is just one example, however, of the difference an incremental empowerment chain can create. With women earning income, violence and desperation decreases; they and their families have a roof over their heads and food on the table; familial conflicts, that often lead to abuse, abate. There is an undeniable correlation between education and economic improvement and decreasing fundamentalism.
In case you aren’t yet on board, here is an appalling statistic:
“All the work that Beyond the 11th has done in Afghanistan over nine years has cost less than keeping a single American soldier in Afghanistan for eight months,” reports Kristof.
Beyond the 11th isn’t just a symbol of reacting to tragedy with positivity. It is a flash of a rare saint-like response for the very country in which the cause of the strife originated. Paul Barker, a CARE employee who ran operations in Afghanistan for years, remarked, “I can only wonder at what a different world it could be today if in those fateful months after 9/11 our nation’s leadership had been guided more by a people-to-people vision of building both metaphorical and physical bridges.”
The current administration took notice of Ms. Retik’s work, too. In early August of this year, Ms. Retick was honored with a Citizens Medal from the White House. “What unites these citizens – what makes them special – is the determination they share to find a wrong and right it; to see a need and meet it; to recognize when others are suffering and take it upon themselves to make a difference,” said President Obama at an event for this year’s 13 recipients.
September 11, 2010
This September 11th, Ms. Retik plans to speak at a mosque in Boston in an attempt to recruit more Muslims to her fight against poverty and illiteracy in Afghanistan.
On this ninth anniversary, it is important to take heart, when reading stories of world-wide anger at Americans because of the threatened Koran burning, that there are beacons of hope and healing during a time that seems plagued only with hatred and misunderstanding. One of the things that is so remarkable about Beyond the 11th is the founders’ ability to see beyond their own pain into a country rife with women who are much less fortunate. Channeling their own grief, they have since allowed healing for themselves and a new beginning for countless others. There is perhaps nothing more American than that.