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Making Up for Lost Time
Gail Scott
The Washington Diplomat

Afghan Ambassador’s Wife Seeks to Rebuild Lives of Women, Children

Once an Afghan refugee herself, Shamim Jawad understands that she must use “the passion and the love” she has for her country to seek help for Afghanistan while Americans are still fascinated with the news of her homeland’s historic first election. Now the wife of Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Shamim spends long days in endless meetings trying to help the children and women of her war-ravaged country, making up for more than two decades of extreme neglect and cruelty.

“Twenty-three years ago, Afghanistan was a very moderate and peaceful country,” Shamim said. As a college student in Kabul, this striking dark-haired beauty remembers wearing jeans to class. “I have never worn a burqa [solid veil covering for the face] nor did my mother…. I was never brought up with extremist views. My mother was a nurse and she wore a white uniform. Women were working, teaching, and they were members of the Cabinet and the Parliament.

“But when the Taliban took over in 1996, it was the women and girls who suffered the most,” she recalled. “Women weren’t allowed to go outside their homes and girls were not allowed to go to school…. As a result, today, we have 14-year-old girls in first grade.”

Shamim was just graduating from high school and her future husband was already an undergraduate at Kabul University when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. After the Soviets troops arrived, each day became more dangerous, especially for college-educated men. “They put tons of people we knew in jail … guys in my college were arrested and we never saw them again,” she said. Said Tayeb Jawad knew he had to leave. In January 1980, Shamim heard through a friend that Said was trying to escape. She held her breath for three excruciating weeks.

To prepare, Said grew a beard, disguised himself as a villager with borrowed clothes of traditional Afghan garb, and left on foot. “I couldn’t carry anything, nothing valuable, not even my school records,” the ambassador recalled. Walking on rugged, snowy mountain paths at night and sometimes through mine fields, then hiding during the day, he and seven strangers learned to rely on each other and kind villagers along the way.

They had two close calls when, suddenly, Russian helicopters were flying overhead and later when an Afghan soldier stopped the group. “I’ll never forget the first real hot cup of tea I had after [those first] 10 days in the cold mountains,” he said.

When he finally made it to Pakistan three weeks later, Said went to the French Embassy in Islamabad and asked for visa because he had gone to a French high school in Kabul. Shamim finally found out that Said was safe.

Armed with a passport, he took a bus through Iran to Turkey, where he borrowed money from a friend and flew to Germany. There, he began to study law at Westfaelische Wilhelms University in Muenster. In the meantime, Shamim and Said kept in touch by phone and letters.

Two years later, in the summer after her sophomore year, Shamim’s parents decided that life was getting increasing difficult in Kabul and that she should leave. In June, not knowing when she would ever see her parents or friends again, she boarded Afghanistan’s Ariana Airlines for New Delhi to stay with her sister, who had already been living there. After waiting four months in India for a tourist visa to the United States, Shamim stepped on a Pan Am flight bound for New York. She stayed in Queens with her oldest sister, a wife and mother of three.

The first challenge Shamim faced was perfecting her English. Soon she became a secretary at TIAA-CREF, a financial services organization, while attending Parsons School of Design at night. This original secretarial job grew into an 18-year career at TIAA-CREF, in various capacities, most of the time as a financial consultant.

In 1986, after graduating from law school in Germany, Said followed Shamim and immigrated to New York City. By now, her whole family had fled their homeland and were in the United States for Shamim and Said’s wedding. Joining the rest of her family, who were based in San Francisco, the newlyweds continued their education in California. Shamim received her bachelor’s degree in social studies and human relations from Golden Gate University while continuing to serve as a financial consultant. Said studied for his master’s of business administration degree at Golden Gate University and worked for a law firm there.

In March 2002, Said, who had become a well-known Afghan writer and commentator, decided it was time to come out of exile and help President Hamid Karzai rebuild Afghanistan, becoming his chief of staff, spokesman and press secretary.

“He knew he would be in a lot of danger,” Shamim explained. “But he told me that he had to take the chance because if no one was willing to take the chance … the country would not go forward.”

After a year’s separation, Shamim decided she and their then 13-year-old son Iman would visit Afghanistan because “I wanted him to see why his father was so passionate about his people and rebuilding Afghanistan.

“It was the first time [I had returned] after 23 years,” she said. “I was shocked. There was total devastation. I barely recognized places that I had gone to so many times before. Now they are in ruin, just rubble,” Shamim said, noting that she could not find a single person she or her family had known before. “They all escaped or they were killed.”

She recalled, “Iman and I were in the car, just staring out the windows. We saw 3-year-olds in the street polishing shoes for pennies…. And a 4-year-old boy crossing a busy street while carrying a baby and holding the hand of his 2-year-old brother.”

Because of space shortage, school classes are only held for three hours a day, but many children have to skip even those few hours of education, working instead just to survive. Many are orphans, while others are helping their one parent and sisters and brothers.

“We have 50,000 street children in Afghanistan,” Shamim said. “These scenes tell two things: How children are living on the street and how responsible these children have to be, as early as the age of 3. They must go out and win bread for their family. These children are the future of Afghanistan.

“We saw scenes that break my heart,” she continued. “I went to visit a hospital and there were three children asleep or maybe in a coma, sharing the same bed. Each mother was sitting on the floor holding up their arm to keep the IV high enough. They had no IV poles. I looked on the face of each mother. They just looked hopeless…. I hope to be the voice of some of these women and children and reach out to people here to help them out.

“We don’t have enough medical supplies,” Shamim added, explaining that all hospitals in Afghanistan were destroyed, and the medical equipment and drugs that survived are now decades out of date. “Doctors are performing surgery and running out of thread right in the middle of an operation,” she said, shaking her head and reaching for a tissue. “They had no thread!”

Today, Shamim is working with Carelift International, a nonprofit organization that helps collect and distribute used but valuable medical equipment and extra supplies to needy countries around the world. “We’ve been very impressed with Shamim, with her compassion and seriousness,” said Erica Gloss, the 25-year-old daughter of Carelift founder Jeffrey Gloss. “It usually doesn’t happen this way,” she added. “We usually have to reach out for this kind of support.”

Another group, set up by Afghans to help Afghan street children, is called Aschiana, which means “nest.” With six major drop-in centers in Kabul, this grassroots organization is creating miracles for 4,000 children, but is looking to help many more. Washington-area interior designer Marie Kux saw Aschiana’s work firsthand during a recent trip to Kabul with her husband Dennis, there for the Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations. Now, with Shamim’s encouragement, Marie is organizing a Washington committee to help fund Aschiana’s many programs. For instance, a donation of $250 a year sponsors a child for an entire year, allowing them to go to school, learn new skills, and have one hot meal a day instead of living off the streets.

“At our first meeting at the Cosmos Club,” Marie recalled, “Shamim was so moved by our interest that she became very emotional, had tears in her eyes while talking about these street children. We were all silent for two to three minutes. Then Shamim said, ‘I can’t say anymore.’ I said, ‘You have said it all.’”

Shamim is also co-coordinating her efforts with Peace X Peace, a Washington-based group that empowers women to organize and connect across cultural divides.

Shamim’s never-ending hard work doesn’t go unrecognized. This October, she received the Liberty Award from Dialogue on Diversity, which showcases women who have effectively promoted human rights and advocated social welfare for women in perilous settings and post-conflict societies. In 2002, the award was granted to Ambassador-Designate of Iraq Rend Al-Rahim.

“The embassy couldn’t do it without her,” said Shamim’s husband, Said. “She is helping Afghan women and children out of her devotion.” According to Said, her long hours each day, seeing the difficult conditions firsthand, and “having access to different circles of influential people here, mostly women, which I don’t have,” have made Shamim extremely effective.

“During the past 30 years, Afghan women and children have been the prime victims of war and violence. For me, it is really a great pleasure to see Shamim involved in these issues … giving all her time and devotion to help the most needy in Afghan society.”

Said’s phone is ringing off the hook and his e-mail messages are piling up about the historic election. The ambassador is beaming. “The first person to vote in our election,” he said proudly, “was a 19-year-old girl in a Pakistan refugee camp. And millions—especially women—waited patiently in line from 5 a.m. to vote. That sent a strong message to the extremists and the Taliban.”

His wife is equally proud. “Once again Afghan people, especially women, proved their courage, determination, and love for peace and democracy,” Shamim said. “Our women came a long way in a short time, but we have a lot ahead of us. The job is not done yet.”

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.


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