Telling Stories of Perseverance from Afghanistan and Kilimanjaro

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Mt. Kilimanjaro

My alma mater, the University of Missouri, is known for its School of Journalism. And the School of Journalism is known for the quality of work done by its graduates.

Two of those graduates have been featured this year in Mizzou Magazine for their international-themed documentaries, in which people courageously face the challenges before them.

Afghanistan: No One Should Be Forgotten

In the winter issue, Mo Scarpelli talks about her motivation for making documentaries. “The stories I’m interested in,” she says, “inform and provoke people to learn about something or start questioning things in their world.” It is this mindset that led her, and fellow director/producer Alexandria Bombach, to film Frame by Frame, which follows four photojournalists in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

One of those four is Massoud Hossaini, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his photo showing the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Kabul.

When the Taliban were overthrown, taking photos became legal again. But with the withdrawal of US troops, Hossaini and others are concerned that their rights will once again be lost. “This is a big possibility that the world . . . I mean . . . forget us again,” Houssaini says in the documentary. He doesn’t believe that anyone should be forgotten:

The world now is like one body, so all the member of this body should know that one member has a pain. And they should feel this, and they should know, and they should find out.

Kilimanjaro: More than a Hike

Steve Remich, another MU alum, is the videographer and co-editor behind Life in Motion: Kilimanjaro 2014. The short documentary shows Alex D’Jamoos, a young man without legs, and others climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Their trek was sponsored by the Happy Families International Center (HFIC), a non-profit that helps disabled children in orphanages get the medical care they need.

In Mizzou Magazine‘s fall issue, Remich says his hope in the documentary is to show something larger than just a climb up Kilimanjaro:

With the video, I really wanted to tell a short story that was about more than a hike. Sure it’s physically difficult and you wonder if you can make it to the top, but the entire point of hiking the highest mountain in Africa on prosthetic legs is about the symbolism of the act. Alex said something very powerful in one of our interviews, essentially that walking—for him—is not about mobility but about being normal. That really stuck with me, and I did my best to build a story around that idea.

D’Jamoos came to the US for surgery when he was 15 and was adopted by a family in Dallas soon after. He’s now a student at the University of Texas, planning to become an international lawyer.

“Even now, it’s surreal to me that I am a UT student,” D’Jamoos tells The Alcalde, the alumni magazine of The University of Texas. “It sounds a bit crazy. You know, ‘disabled Russian orphan comes to America, goes to college, climbs Kilimanjaro?’ Well, yeah.”

(Kelsey Allen, “Frame by Frame,” Mizzou Magazine, November 11, 2014; “Life in Motion,” Mizzou Magazine, August 19, 2015; Rose Cahalan, “The Climb,” The Alcalde, Jan/Feb 2015)

[photo: “Kili 56,” by Sam Haley, used under a Creative Commons license]

Thanks, Wal-Mart, for Helping Vets in Need

Two weeks ago, my local newspaper had the following headlines on facing pages:

“Wal-Mart Announces Plan to Hire Veterans” and
“Military Suicides Hit Record High in 2012”

At first glance, the stories are unrelated, but deeper in, there is a connection.

(The information below comes from longer online versions of the AP stories printed in The Joplin Globe).

8061662328_e7cf08da2c_nWal-Mart Offers a Helping Hand

In a nutshell, Wal-Mart’s plan is to hire, over the next five years, every honorably discharged veteran who wants to work for it within the veteran’s first 12 months after leaving active duty. The program will start on Memorial Day, and the company projects that it will amount to more than 100,000 new hires.

This should be good news to veterans who have returned from serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. In December, that group had an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent, three percentage points higher than the overall rate in the US of 7.8.

Rising Suicide Rate a Troubling Issue for Returning Troops

Another statistic affecting military personnel is that last year, 349 active-duty troops committed suicide, the highest number since the Pentagon began keeping a more accurate record of suicides in 2001. The military’s suicide rate of 17.5 per 100,000 is still below the rate for civilian males aged 17-60, which, in 2010, was 25 per 100,000. But it’s the increase that is most troubling: up 16 percent over last year’s rate and more than doubling the rate of 2005.

“Now that we’re decreasing our troops and they’re coming back home,” says Kim Ruocco, whose husband killed himself in 2005, between Iraq deployments, “that’s when they’re really in the danger zone, when they’re transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves.” Ruocco now works with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

Though the prospect of joblessness is not the most prominent factor in military suicides, it is a factor, being one of the many difficulties that returning veterans face. According to Joe Davis, spokesman for the Washington office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, some veterans struggle with moving from the intensity of war to adjusting to their home bases, while some have trouble transitioning from their military job to looking for work in a slow economy.

Coming Back and Joining the Un- and Under-Employed

First Lady Michelle Obama supports the hiring plan of the largest private employer in the US, saying, “We all believe that no one who serves our country should have to fight for a job once they return home. Wal-Mart is setting a groundbreaking example for the private sector to follow.”

I agree. Maybe the jobs Wal-Mart is offering aren’t the absolute best (look here for a Stars and Stripes blog post on the plan’s detractors), but Wal-Mart is at least clearing one path for a group that faces so many obstacles.

While I was overseas—as a missionary, not a soldier—I and my coworkers would sometimes say, after a particularly frustrating day, “I just feel like leaving all this and moving back to the States and getting a job at Wal-Mart.”

What I’ve learned since then is that getting that easy full-time job at Wal-Mart isn’t the slam dunk that we thought it would be. Number one, working at Wal-Mart shouldn’t have been our go-to example of the simple, stress-free job we were willing to settle for. And number two, what made us think that ex-missionary’s applications are going to be at the top of Wal-Mart’s stack anyway?

I’ve been back in the US for over a year and a half now, and I’m still looking for long-term full-time employment. I’ve seen that while some employers might value the experiences gained overseas—whether by veterans, missionaries, or other cross-cultural workers—it is more than offset by the fact that those seeking new employment after working outside the US have been out of the loop when it comes to relationships. And, as Nelson Schwartz notes in a New York Times article published this week, being in the loop has become crucial in today’s job market. “Big companies . . . are increasingly using their own workers to find new hires,” he writes, “saving time and money but lengthening the odds for job seekers without connections, especially among the long-term unemployed.”

Schwartz quotes Mara Swan, executive vice president for global strategy and talent at Manpower Group, who says, “The long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged people don’t have access to the network. The more you’ve been out of the work force, the weaker your connections are.”

Being out of the country weakens your connections, as well.

(Anne D’Innocenzio, “Wal-Mart to Hire Vets, Buy More American Products,” NBC News, January 15, 2013; Robert Burns, “2012 Military Suicides Hit a Record High of 349,” The Big Story, January 14, 2013; Nelson D. Schwartz, “In Hiring, a Friend in Need Is a Prospect, Indeed,” The New York Times, January 27, 2013)

[photo: “121006-F-LX370-103,” by Justin Connaher, used under a Creative Commons license]

Aesha’s Complex Story: Fleeing the Taliban and “Spreading Her Wings”

Two years ago, Aesha Mohammadzai, came to the US from Afghanistan after having her nose and ears cut off by her Taliban husband and in-laws. Her face was on the cover of Time and became a symbol for the Taliban’s persecution of women. This past Thursday, the 22-year-old was admitted to  Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to begin the long process of reconstructive surgery.

As stated in the CNN video below, when Aesha arrived in the States, expecting surgery, she was “deemed too emotionally fragile to undergo the procedures.” Since then, her story has been of a young woman dealing with the trauma of her past, adjusting to life in a new culture, and preparing for a future that is far from what she could have imagined as a girl growing up in her home country. Watch “Saving Aesha: Life after Taliban Attack” to get a sense of where Aesha is now.

But stopping with the video will give you only part of the story. If you don’t remember seeing many reports about Aesha since the Time cover, you’d not be alone. That’s because Esther Hyneman, a 73-year-old volunteer with Women for Afghan Women who had become Aesha’s “unofficial guardian,” barred the media from filming, photographing, or interviewing her. This was an effort to protect Aesha from the pressures and harmful influence of fame. In a CNN article from May, Hyneman says,

We’re hoping she’ll spread her wings. But when you’re 20 years old, from a village in Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan where you’ve never been to school and can’t read or write in your own language, and you’ve never heard of France or Italy or Canada, and you don’t speak the language in the country you’re living in, and you’ve been through hell—it’s a little hard to spread your wings, even if you want to do it.

The author of this in-depth article is journalist Jessica Ravitz, who had to interview those around Aesha to learn her story. Her opportunity to talk with Aesha directly came only after Aesha moved away from New York—and the influence of Women for Afghan Women—to live with an expat Afghan couple in Maryland.

When I first watched the video, attached to a story announcing the start of Aesha’s surgery, I was struck by the progress Aesha has made and the community of people who had gathered around her. I particularly enjoyed the scenes from her ESL classroom, scenes that should inspire anyone considering a future in teaching English. It made me want to find out more, and I’m glad I kept looking, otherwise I wouldn’t have found the earlier article that, while not denying the progress and inspiration, deals more with the complexity and difficulties of Aesha’s life in the US: the tantrums, the “psychologically induced faux seizures,” the borderline personality disorder, the manipulations from a victim who “hurts people before they can hurt her.”

The difficulties are sobering, but they shouldn’t be surprising. What a life of trauma and upheaval this woman has experienced. Now that Aesha’s surgery has begun (actually a series of surgeries that may take two years to complete), we are tempted to smile and move on, happy that she is finally “OK.” But it will take more time and more hard work and more help from wise and compassionate people before everything will be OK. I am grateful for Ravitz’s article. It shows that frustration, disagreement, and disappointment often accompany our best efforts to help others, especially those who have the greatest needs. It makes me glad to know that when we keep trying to make a difference in complex situations, when we do our best even though it’s not appreciated, and even when we loosen our grip to let others find their own way, we are walking on the same path as those who have stepped into Aesha’s life. Their stories, and Aesha’s story, are inspiring, not because they are simple and tidy but because they are complicated and messy and hopeful and real.

(Jessica Ravitz, “Saving Aesha,” CNN, May 2012)

Returning Soldiers, “Fitting Back into That World”

NPR is running a series on the members of the 182nd Infantry Regiment, which has recently returned to the States after spending a year in Afghanistan. Reporters will be following the group as they adjust to life in the US over the coming year. I’ve never served in the military, but I have come “home” after living overseas. I can only imagine the loss and trauma and stress that these soldiers have experienced, along with the challenges they are now facing. But I’ve also learned that it doesn’t help to compare experiences: every situation is unique, and different levels of loss and trauma and stress are all still loss and trauma and stress. When I read/hear stories such as these, I’m reminded how much we all have in common when we come back to the US after adjusting to another culture. And while serving in a war overseas certainly adds to the challenges of readjustment (war has a “culture” all its own), I know other repats, former missionaries and NGO workers who served in harsh circumstances, who carry some of the extreme baggage that soldiers bring back with them.

Following are some pullouts from the report. If you are readjusting to life back in the States, regardless of where you were or what you did while you were away, change a few words here and there and see how many of these ring true to you. As I said, I’ve never fought in a war, but I’ve tasted some of the challenges of reentry. I will pray for the 182nd Infantry Regiment today. . . .

Once they settle back home, they’ll begin the transition from soldier to civilian. Some could face unemployment and financial problems; others may struggle with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Their families face challenges as well, trying to integrate these men back into their lives.

“But listen, something is no kidding going to slap you right across the face when you get home within the first 72 hours, and it’s going to let you know that life has continued on in your absence,” [says. Col. Tim Newsome].

Newsome says these war wounds [like PTSD or depression] should be treated like any other. . . . “Somebody has got something wrong with their foot, they go see the podiatrist,” he says, “no harm, no foul. Nobody says anything. It’s when they got something wrong up here, that’s when we want to put a stigma on somebody.”

But going home comes with its own kind of stress. Like many guardsmen, [Spc. John] Nestico had a civilian job before he deployed. He worked at Radio Shack selling cell phones, but a lot of his friends there have moved on, and he’s worried about fitting back into that world.

“For a while, admittedly I was in a bit of a free fall,” he says. “It just took a change of environment and the ability to talk to someone who wasn’t in uniform to allow myself to open up a little bit [and] to feel like what I say here isn’t going to be held in contempt or against me, but in the best interest of what’s good for me.”

They’ll return to their civilian lives. . . . For some, that will mean packing up their uniform and picking up where they left off; for others, it will mean picking up the pieces and starting over.

(Rachel Martin and Tom Dreisbach, “A Rest Stop on the Road from Soldier to Civilian,” NPR, April 1, 2012)

[photo: “110828-F-JP934-057,” by ISAF Public Affairs, used under a Creative Commons license]