The Healers of 9/11
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The Healers of 9/11
By Nicholas D Kristof
Published: September 8, 2010 on www.nytimes.com
This weekend, a Jewish woman who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks is planning to speak at a mosque in Boston. She will be trying to recruit members of the mosque to join her battle against poverty and illiteracy in Afghanistan.
The woman, Susan Retik, has pursued perhaps the most unexpected and inspiring American response to the 9/11 attacks. This anniversary of Sept. 11 feels a little ugly to me, with some planning to remember the day with hatred and a Koran-burning — and that makes her work all the more exhilarating.
In the shattering aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Retik bonded with another woman, Patti Quigley, whose husband had also died in the attack. They lived near each other, and both were pregnant with babies who would never see their fathers.
Devastated themselves, they realized that there were more than half a million widows in Afghanistan — and then, with war, there would be even more. Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley also saw that Afghan widows could be a stabilizing force in that country.
So at a time when the American government reacted to the horror of 9/11 mostly with missiles and bombs, detentions and waterboardings, Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley turned to education and poverty-alleviation projects — in the very country that had incubated a plot that had pulverized their lives.
The organization they started, Beyond the 11th, has now assisted more than 1,000 Afghan widows in starting tiny businesses. It’s an effort both to help some of the world’s neediest people and to fight back at the distrust, hatred and unemployment that sustain the Taliban.
“More jobs mean less violence,” Ms. Retik noted. “It would be naïve to think that we can change the country, but change has to start somewhere. If we can provide a skill for a woman so that she can provide for her family going forward, then that’s one person or five people who will have a roof over their head, food in their bellies and a chance for education.”
In times of fear and darkness, we tend to suppress the better angels of our nature. Instead, these women unleashed theirs.
Paul Barker, who for many years ran CARE’s operations in Afghanistan, believes America would have accomplished more there if our government had shared the two women’s passion for education and development. “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,” Mr. Barker said.
A terrific documentary, “Beyond Belief,” follows Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley as they raise funds for Afghan widows and finally travel to Afghanistan to visit the women they had been helping. Ms. Quigley has since stepped down from Beyond the 11th because she felt in danger of becoming a perpetual 9/11 poster widow, but she still is working on a series of Afghan initiatives. Ms. Retik, who has since remarried, remains focused on the charity.
Beyond the 11th began by buying small chicken flocks for widows so that they could sell eggs. Another major project was to build a women’s center in the city of Bamian, where the women weave carpets for export. The center, overseen by an aid group called Arzu, also offers literacy classes and operates a bakery as a business.
Another initiative has been to train Afghan women, through a group called Business Council for Peace, to run a soccer ball manufacturing company. The bosses have been coached in quality control, inventory management and other skills, and they have recruited unemployed widows to stitch the balls — which are beginning to be exported under the brand Dosti.
Ms. Retik’s next step will be to sponsor a microfinance program through CARE. There are also plans to train attendants to help reduce deaths in childbirth.
Will all of this turn Afghanistan into a peaceful country? Of course not. Education and employment are not panaceas. But the record suggests that schools and economic initiatives do tend over time to chip away at fundamentalism — and they’re also cheap.
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.
I admire Ms. Retik’s work partly because she offers an antidote to the pusillanimous anti-Islamic hysteria that clouds this anniversary of 9/11. Ms. Retik offers an alternative vision by reaching out to a mosque and working with Muslims so that in the future there will be fewer widows either here or there.
Her work is an invigorating struggle to unite all faiths against those common enemies of humanity, ignorance and poverty — reflecting the moral and mental toughness that truly can chip away at terrorism.