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I want freedom

Asylum seekers in an Indonesian detention centre. Source
Reza, an Afghan refugee, shares a difficult story about his life in a detention centre in Indonesia   after he was forced to leave Afghanistan on account of threats from the Taliban.  

My name is Reza and I am an Afghan refugee. I am 25 years old, and I am racially a Hazara from Afghanistan. It has been more than two years since I was forced to leave Afghanistan. I was studying at Ghazni University at the time, and had to leave my family because of threats from the Taliban. I studied until I turned fourteen, and then left school to start working as a car mechanic. Sometimes, I worked with my father as a car porter and as an assistant driver.

The Taliban knew that we carried government's load as porters. On a lot of occasions, they issued notices for my father, forcing him to stop working with the government. But my father did not give them any attention. Finally, on September 12, 2014, when we carried things from Ghazni to our district, Malistan, the Taliban attacked us in the Karabakh District. We were two cars in all, and our car was the second. The first car caught fire and my father slowed down. He told me to go out, and I was very scared. I left the car and ran, but when I turned back, I saw that our car had caught fire.  I came to the city  and called my mother. She cried and told me that I should leave Afghanistan. She was not sure if the Taliban would come home and kill us, and said that for all our safety, I had to leave Afghanistan. We don’t know where my father is, and I don’t know if he is alive or dead.

Over two years ago, I made my journey from Pakistan, to Thailand, to Malaysia, and then, arrived in Indonesia. I registered in UNHCR office in Jakarta. Here in Indonesia (Pontianak), refugee and asylum seekers have no opportunity to work, or perform any other activity.

I am the oldest son in my family. My work was in Afghanistan as a mechanic . Back at home I have five sisters, all of whom are younger than I am. It has been about 15 months since I saw them last. My brother is only eighteen, he has left school to work as a tailor and my mother works as a farm hand. Sometimes, they send me money - I feel awful saying this, because they are supporting me when it should be the other way around. They know that I am in a detention camp. I don’t have a work permit and I feel horrible that I cannot work or do anything for my family. I really wish my sisters study and don’t remain illiterate like me. 

Because, here, there are two kinds of refugee. One kind is those who have economic supporters from outside this country. They can rent a home and buy food and other essentials, and are free to go anywhere around the city. The UNHCR have no responsibility for them, and their refugee process is a lot smoother than the "other" kind. The other kind of refugees have no supporters, and must surrender to the immigration services. Immigration brings them into the camp or detention centre. They must accept the life of a prisoner. They are confined to their camp.

I am that "other" kind.

In December 2016, one of the UNHCR members came here and told us we should be "more patient than we think". He said we may be here for 10 years, and if we can't tolerate it, we should "go back to our country". In other words, prison or the Taliban. After two years, I have not had a single interview with immigration. I am fit and healthy and will do any kind of work. I am learning English in the camp, from teachers who are also here. Fitness is one way I focus my energy. It's my only true escape. I have been here for 20 months now.

If you want to know what life is like in the camp in which I live, I only have a video to share. I hope, if nothing else, it will give you a better understanding of what we face daily.  My dream is to be with my family in my country. This is a shared dream among all of us, here at the camp.

The next best thing is simply to live as a free human being, with hope and the opportunity to realise my potential.
(Video credits: Refugee life in an Indonesian Detention Center: A film by Habib Rahimi)

The Danger Chamar

Ginni Mahi
Singing about the caste-system and pursuing a goal that one of India's legendary leader, Dr B R Ambedkar, dreamed of, teenager Ginni Mahi is a force to reckon with. Through her thoughtful music and her undaunted fight against inequality and the social malaise in the form of the caste system, Ginni remains one of the most enduring and empowering youth voices in India today. 

My name is Ginni Mahi, and I’m also known as Gurkanwal Bharti. I was born in Jalandhar, Punjab, in a region called Doaba, which is largely Dalit-dominated. My parents, Rakesh and Paramjeet Kaur Mahi have always encouraged me. I began singing when I was seven – my father had taken me to his friend, who then began to train me. I sang in several multi-artist albums, but have also done a bunch of solo albums, as well. I’ve also been sought at to perform at the cultural and religious congregations of the Dalit community, especially the Ravidassia community, which is a breakaway religion of the Dalit community from Sikhism.

I am from a middle-class family, and my parents have been my greatest support. My father, especially, has been one of the biggest factors in shaping my journey with music so far. My grandmother is also a fierce source of strength and support for me, because I get my strength from her. I never leave the house without her blessings.  

I began singing when I was quite young – having learned devotional and classical music at first. My intention was to begin by remembering my gurus and Gods, and then progress onward in the journey of music. I didn’t think of myself as an activist or as someone who was doing something beyond singing. It is only recently that I began speaking out about social issues that need attention, through my music. 

I sing in Punjabi. My song, Danger Chamar, has a story behind it. A classmate in school asked me
my caste, and I told her I belong to the SCs. She asked me which, and I told her I was a Chamar. She laughingly told me that she had to be careful because Chamars were “dangerous.” Although she was innocent, the casteism stung.  She is still my friend, though – but the song certainly was in aid of addressing a social malaise. On YouTube, the song has over 80,000 views,  and my sequel song, Danger 2, has crossed over 4,00,000 views. My songs hold reverence to the likes of Sant Ravidas and Dr B R Ambedkar.  

I began singing when I was quite young – having learned devotional and classical music at first. My intention was to begin by remembering my gurus and Gods, and then progress onward in the journey of music. I didn’t think of myself as an activist or as someone who was doing something beyond singing. It is only recently that I began speaking out about social issues that need attention, through my music. 

That said, I don’t say that I sing only caste-songs. I sing about equality – like Dr Ambedkar explained, the essence of it is non-discrimination and basic humanity. Sample these lyrics: (translated from Punjabi)

I am the daughter of Baba Sahib who wrote the constitution. We are earning our bread by what he wrote. I am such a fan of such thinking, I am a fan of such thinking who gave sacrifice for us. He was a lion who made his pen an arrow. He fought fir rights and truth and changed our destiny. He became an angel for the community. The whole world knows this.”

I don’t write my own songs – my songs are usually written by other lyricists. It is really important, though, for me, to sing these songs about the caste system, about equality and about the value of a free society because having been born in a family with many, many stories of caste oppression, I have learned a lot from my family and my grandparents.  



I am also a fierce supporter of gender empowerment. While it is definitely important to empower women, it is also important to acknowledge that there are other genders who are oppressed. In their interests, we must make all efforts to include them in any quest for equality. With that in mind, it is my dream and aspiration that everyone in society should study, and should work hard to get an education, especially girls. There are many parents who prevent their daughters from being educated, and I really want to tell them that in today’s world, especially, education is as vital as food, shelter and clothing. Don’t deprive your girls of it. I am a firm believer of Dr Ambedkar’s words – Educate, increase awareness and mobilise. People should educate themselves and understand what is happening around them, in the world immediately around them, and beyond.

Someday, I want to sing in Bollywood. I value Lata Mangeshkar a lot – listen to her voice over the years, and you’ll see it has remained the same. Someday, I want to be as great as her. I want to leave a legacy that people will remember me by, for years and years to come.

  

Revisiting Women’s Political Participation on the International Day of Women 2017

By Ameena Mohyuddin Zia

The 1995 Beijing Platform For Action recognized that women faced barriers to full equality and advancements in society due to factors of race, age, language, ethnicity, culture, religion or disability, indigenous status and obstacles of family status, socio economics, living conditions, environmental disasters, diseases and violence. These barriers translated into lack of women’s capacity to participate in political discourse, decision-making and leadership. As a result, strategic objectives of the Beijing Platform outlined measures to ensure women’s equal access and full participation in power structures and decision making (Strategic Objective G.1., UN 4th Conference of Women, 1995).

Fast forward 21 years and in 2016 the world witnessed women leaders working towards shattering the glass ceiling with the United Nations Secretary General Selection and the United States Presidential Election. These events served as global reminders that women are still sidelined and excluded from key discussions, policy and politics are still perceived as a male dominated spaces and half of the world’s population continues to be marginalized by the lack of access and participatory avenues.

Women’s representation is just one of the many factors that measure gender quality and strong female participation in politics is viewed as a transformative change. Although it is difficult to measure the quality and nature of women’s political participation, researchers have resorted to understanding part of the puzzle by investigating the number of women in office to serve as a reflection of participation and indicator of empowerment.  A critical mass of 30% is identified as a facilitator of representation.

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day 2017, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) data (http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/WIP2016-e.pdf) identifies a worldwide increase of women in national parliaments by 6.5 percentage point gain over the last decade as 23.3 percent women now serve as parliamentarians. Similarly, progress is witnessed in the number of women Speakers of Parliaments with a 3 percent increase as now 19.1 percent of parliamentary chambers are headed by women. Although these increases signify positive steps towards inclusive representation, these percentages remain much lower than the established critical mass required for balanced gendered representation.

It is an observed phenomenon that impactful participation of women in parliaments brings new perspectives on political issues and modifies the stereotypical role of women in society. Therefore, institutional structures must continue to make space for women to not only receive an invitation to the decision-making table, but rather have a seat at the decision-making table so they have access to discussions on poverty; education and training; health; violence against women; armed conflicts; economy; human rights; media; environment and the girl child. 

Hillary Clinton stated at the 2011 High Level UN Women Event on “Women and Political Participation” in New York City that women’s political participation “begins by the universally valuing the girl child, and providing support for families to fulfill the promises and dreams of education for the young girl and then make sure that the doors are open” (UN WebTV, 19/09/2011). Governments must continue to ensure institutional reforms allowing women space to participate and to change the historic imbalance of power structures if we as a global community are to value the girl child, the young girl and the woman.


Ameena Mohyuddin Zia serves as the UN ECOSOC Civil Society Representative and an Adjunct Lecturer. Her PhD coursework included political economy & gender politics and her work examines social constructs through both research and visual documentation. She is also involved in community development advocacy and philanthropy education.  

A Boy named Sue

By Akhila Jayaram

That title makes you take note doesn’t it? Sue, being short for Susan, is traditionally a girl’s name and if we view the world with a binary lens, then much of this may not make sense.

In our current society, life seems to be divided into two parts – male or female, based on biological reproductive organs. Whether it be clothes stores, family roles or the fight for equal rights, seems to be polarized around the two genders. Even those who are born intersex are suggested to undergo reassignment surgeries in order to fit in one of the two boxes.

However, this approach may not suit all. My first experience with someone whose identity went beyond the binary approach towards gender was with a hijra in India. As a five year old, I was perplexed by how they did not partake in traditional gender roles in society yet were somehow seen as a part of it. This thought remained at the back of my mind until I arrived in the UK, where I was exposed to a number of gender identities including neutrois, agender, gender queer which finally led me to the world of ‘gender fluidity’.

What is gender fluidity, you may ask? It is when a person’s preference for gender identity changes over time. For example, they may choose to be more masculine this week, but feel feminine the next. Or they may not feel anything at all. This is usually reflected by their style of dressing, although others may just feel it on the inside. That’s the thing about gender fluidity, there are no barriers to it, imposed by any external construct, but something one chooses for themselves. There is also a need to understand that gender identity and sexual orientation are be two different things; for example, one cannot assume that a gender fluid person is also bisexual.

If you think that gender fluidity is just another passing fad, a survey conducted by the Guardian in 2016 showed that 104 people felt that they identified as non-binary. People in the public domain such as Ruby Rose and Miley Cyrus have come out about how they don’t identify with traditional genders. There might be more out there who are unable to explain how they feel or do not want to speak up due to fear of rejection; the latter could be a genuine concern as evidenced by a study conducted by UC Berkeley which stated that trans and gender-fluid teens were more three times more likely to face physical and mental abuse at home/school than their gender-conforming peers.

That is why, we at the Red Elephant Foundation, are releasing this campaign #BeingGenderFluid. It aims to start the conversation about those who do not identify with the binary gender construct. They are also people with hopes, aspirations and dreams and they deserve to be treated as equal. We campaign passionately about women’s rights, but we also need to think of those who function beyond the binary if we truly want to achieve SDG #5 ‘Gender Equality’.

What can you do to help?
  • If you know someone who is non-binary/gender-fluid and would like to share with the world on what it means for them to be who they are, contact info@redelephantfoundation.org.
  • If someone tells you that they are gender-fluid, please ask which personal pronoun (he, she or they) you should use while addressing them.

References:

1. The gender-fluid generation: young people on being male, female or non-binary, The Guardian. March 2016. Link: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/23/gender-fluid-generation-young-people-male-female-trans

 

2. Trans and gender-fluid teens left with few ‘safe harbors, Berkeley News, Feb 2017. Link: http://news.berkeley.edu/2017/02/27/gender-fluid/



An Everyday Guide to World Peace

Linda Coussement is the author of the Everyday Guide to World Peace. Now embarking on a journey to help more and more people find peace within, so that they come together to build world peace, Linda's work is a slowly expanding and inclusive process. Here is her story. 

I grew up in what I guess qualified as a middle class family. We didn’t have a lot of money but were not poor either. I was very lucky to have grown up in a family with parents who stimulated me to do my best. They stimulated me to go to the best schools and to attend the university I wanted to. They always gave me the opportunities and chances to do all that I wanted to. But while my education helped me develop my rational, logical and educational side, I missed out on the emotional side.
It took me a long time to understand emotions and how they work in a human being. I was very sensitive as a child, and was very easily influenced by things that happened around me. So, from a very young age, I shut myself off and kept myself away from the things that would bring me down emotionally. I had a fairly happy childhood, and then went onto studying international business. Because at the time I thought I wanted a big career, a big house, and a car.

I went onto work at Vodafone, where I discovered that I was great at managing projects and processes, and I did that for a while in a consulting capacity later, for many telecom companies. I noticed that in whatever portfolio I held under this spectrum, I was always managing change in some way or the other. It is not easy to manage change: people see the need for change, but people are not always willing to change. I realized then, that the people side of life is far more important than the theoretical side.

Soon, I moved to Amsterdam, where I got into yoga and connected with the spiritual side of life. I began to develop my softer and emotional side, and worked hard on developing both sides of my brain equally. After doing some freelance business consulting, helping my brother with his start up for a few years, and dabbling in startup coaching, I realized none of these things truly aligned with my dream and my vision. Later on, I did however realize that all these steps were necessary in order for me to get to where I am right now.

But..I wanted to do things differently. To step away from the big career and house and really follow my dreams and intuition.

I decided to take the question I had been working on in the back of my mind: “How is it to be you?” out on the road. The question had come to me when I was hiking by myself in Normandy. After a few days, my too small shoes caused me unbearable pain. And when you are on your own, hiking and in pain, you begin to face things with a renewed clarity.

It came to me that you get a manual for everything, even the smallest of contraptions, like a pair of earphones, for instance. But humans, they pop out and grow up without any manual or instructions whatsoever! If you are lucky, you have parents who help you figure things out. But if you’re not lucky, you don’t have anyone to turn to. So I decided to write this ‘manual to life’ – but, a few hours later, I found myself wondering: “Who am I to write this?” So, I decided to find out how other people experience how it is to be them instead.

One and a half years ago, I rented out my house, and moved to Berlin to study documentary filmmaking. I then travelled onwards to countries in Eastern and Southern Europe to make portraits and talk to people. Though it was very valuable and a lot of fun, I felt like something was missing. A few months into my travels it came to me: World Peace. The refugee crisis and terrorism around the world made me realize that world peace is the goal I had to pursue, and that led to the creation of the Everyday Guide to World Peace. The manifesto upon which my entire life and business is build.

It took me a year to write even though it’s only 19 pages long. The first draft started with all the pain in the world – terrorism, war, dead children… I gave it to my brother and a few friends to read, and they got back saying that it wasn’t upbeat or happy – or something that made them feel good reading, it was depressing. It was good feedback, and I had a few more iterations. The process of writing the book was very difficult because I had to zoom into the pain of the people affected by all the horrible things that are happening in the world right now. But finally, after many rounds, it clicked, and it is now a very positive and uplifting book that can definitely make a positive impact in the world.

The basic point of the Everyday Guide to World Peace is that even though World Peace is a very big and probably impossible ambition; it is very well possible to find peace in yourself and in your relationships. So don’t be blindsided by the hugeness of it all; you don’t have to be a big shot philantropist – you could be a school teacher or a business consultant and everything in between – and still make peace in your own way. One little smile, or a random act of kindness – they all count and they all make a big difference.

The response has been wonderful. Everyone loves it – it is not setting the world on fire, but that’s how it is with a goal like world peace. It is a slow goal and a long-term one. Connecting with others to share the message has been the most rewarding part of the journey. I want to keep the networking going, and keep doing the interviews. I want to add more depth to the process by creating a bigger ‘World Peace’ book and make a bigger, and even more positive dent in the universe. I have also developed another concept called “Design your Life” with which I help individuals get to that inner peace. It is one of the ways to get the larger ideal of world peace going. Each one that is happy can make others happy too.





Read Linda's book here.

The Hues of Humanae

Angelica Dass (c) 

To Angelica Dass, colour was never a means to divide people: but rather, a means to unite. This led her to curate a powerful project, called Humanae. Here's her story. 

Nearly a century and a half has passed since slavery was abolished. Over half a century has passed since Martin Luther King pronounced his "I Have A Dream" speech. And yet, we continue to live in a world where the colour of our skin precedes everything else. I was born in a family that was full of colours. My father is the son of a maid from whom he inherited an intense dark chocolate tone. He was adopted by those who I know as my grandparents. The matriarch, my grandma,has a porcelain skin and cotton-like hair. My grandpa was somewhere between a vanilla and strawberry yogurt tone, like my uncle and my cousin. My mother is a cinnamon-skin daughter of a native Brazilian,with a pinch of hazel and honey, and a man [who is] a mix of coffee with milk, but with a lot of coffee. She has two sisters. One in a toasted-peanut skin and the other, also adopted, more on the beige side, like a pancake.

As you can see, I was born in a very colourful family. Within my family, we always saw each other as equal, but outside, it was all different. Being black in Brazil comes with a lot of tags. Being black is often associated with being poor, a slave or not knowing how to read and write. A lot of people tend to associate colour with a range of stereotypes. The idea is that it is better to be blonde and white as opposed to being curly hair. When I had my first drawing lessons at school, there were so many different feelings. It was exciting, it was creative – and confusing. I couldn’t understand the unique flesh-coloured pencil – I was made of flesh, but I was not so pink. I was brown, but people said I was black. Later on, when I took my cousin to school, I was usually mistaken to be the nanny! When I was helping in the kitchen at a friend's party, people thought I was the maid. I was once treated like a prostitute just because I was walking alone on the beach with European friends. Many times, visiting my grandma or friends in upper class buildings, I was invited not to use the main elevator. Because in the end, with this color and this hair, I cannot belong to some places.

I think I fought a little bit with who I am. When I was six years old, my mother straightened my hair, and until thirty, I lived with straight hair. I had no idea who I really was. But now, when I see myself in the mirror and see my hair for what it originally, really is, I see my authentic self. Now, I see it as a statement. I am very proud of it. I spent my whole life being someone else I was not. There are a lot of adjectives associated with colour – prejudices and stereotypes – that my hair was not good hair as it was curly. It is not about the aesthetic alone. I was mistaken to be a nanny or a server, because people couldn’t see someone of my colour being in a university as a student, because to them, it didn’t fit. This is the kind of everyday fight against the many issues we face.

Years later I married a Spaniard. But not any Spaniard. I chose one with the skin color of a lobster when sunburnt. Then onwards, there was a new question from people around me. What will the color of my children be? This was my last concern. But thinking about it and my own experience with colour, I began on my personal journey as a photographer. That was how Humanae was born. Humanae is a pursuit to highlight our true colors, rather than the untrue white, red, black or yellow associated with race. It's a kind of game to question our codes. It's a work in progress from a personal story to a global history. Humanæ is a chromatic inventory, a project that reflects on the colors beyond the borders of our codes by referencing the PANTONE® color scheme. PANTONE® Guides are one of the main classification systems of colors, which are represented by an alphanumeric code, allowing to accurately recreate any of them in any media. It is a technical industrial standard often called Real Color.

Exhibition in Sao Paulo (c) Angelica Dass

At Humanae, I portray my subjects against a white background.  I choose an 11-pixel square from the nose, paint the background, and look for the corresponding color in the industrial palette, Pantone. I started with my family and friends, then more and more people joined the adventure, thanks to public calls coming through the social media. The project had a great welcome! Invitations, exhibitions, physical formats, galleries and museums - it all just happened. And among them, my favorite: when Humanae occupies public spaces and appears in the street, it fosters a popular debate and creates a feeling of community.

I am very happy with the work that I do exactly because I don’t choose my subjects. It started very simply – whenever I have an exhibition, I put a studio in one place – am museum, school or university. I put online that I am doing this work, and people come in. I started with family and friends. I am doing this work – trying to prove that no one is black or white, and I tell people that if they are interested and believe in it, they can come along. It is always a surprise who comes into the studio. So the first question I ask when they come in, is, “What are you doing here? What brings you here to participate? Why did you decide to be part of this?” For me, it is very important that I have this personal engagement with each one that sits in front of the camera. It is very important that each one I sit with understand what I am doing, why I am doing it. They are really conscious of the issue behind it. It is beautiful because people start to share their stories with me: “Oh, I want that because of my family,” or “Because I have a story that connects with the work.”

Copyright Juan Miguel Ponce. Valencia


It doesn’t only connect to skin colour, but a lot of different things. For example, a transgender woman in Brazil came in and asked me if I had ever shot a picture of a transgender in the studio. I told her I had no idea as I never asked this kind of thing. She told me, I don’t know if you have but I want to be there. This is an equal space – you don’t see who is a transgender or not, who is poor or rich, or who is on the Forbes List or a refugee! Everybody is equal. Even if I am doing the work of pressing the button, it is because of all those four thousand people who believed in my idea and gave me their time and participation. That is why it is empowering.

As a photographer, I realize that I can be a channel for others to communicate. As an individual, as AngĂ©lica, every time I take a picture, I feel that I am sitting in front of a therapist. All the frustration, fear and loneliness that I once felt ... becomes love. Personally, I feel very lucky. I am doing what I love – that’s making photos and being a photographer. And the best thing is that I really know that I am helping a lot of people, and this work is touching a lot of people. When people say I want to change the world, I say I want to change people. And maybe, when I change thousands of people, maybe we can change the things in the world. But, the credit really does go to those 4000 people who, as volunteers, decided to participate in this project. They are the ones that make this project possible.
Offline, there has been no resistance. But online, because of the anonymity the internet allows, there is a lot of rubbish that people say. For instance, one person had commented on the YouTube video of my TED Talk, that my family has been of all colours and that if one burned all of us down we would taste like chicken. Another person actually said that I was trying to destroy the white race by trying to talk about colour equality and asking for multicultural things. People can be so narrow minded that they cannot understand even a word that I am trying to say. People don’t have the basic power to understand one word after the next – not just to complete the sentence. This is violence, and much more than racism. It is sad and stupid. I am a bit radical – when you talk about my family like this, I do feel very angry about it.


I want to work with more people and transform Humanae into a foundation. I want to work on the educational part of the project – I do work with a lot of schools and teachers, students, and psychologists, associations of families that adopt foreign children – and I want this part to evolve. I want the educational part to grow in an organic way. I want to try to be a little more professional and use the power of the work in making an impact. 

The girl who survived

Susannah Birch
Susannah Birch is a birth doula, a writer and an activist in Toowoomba, Australia. She is working on her first book about her bipolar mother. Having survived violence as a child, and later, being catfished online, Susannah has truly been an exemplary example of what it is to rise out of adversity. Here is her story.

Could you share your story to the extent that you are comfortable? 
It was Australia day, 1989 and I was 2 and a half years old when my father came home from work to find police cars surrounding the small cottage where we lived. My mother was sitting in the back seat of a police car and I was being rushed away in an ambulance.
I can still vaguely remember my mother sterilizing the knife in boiling water, then laying me on the sheepskin rug...putting my hands up in front of my face to stop the falling knife. My mother had cut my throat and held me for 40 minutes as I bled. After awhile she realised what she'd done and called 000 - fortunately for me they didn't think she was a prank caller.
My mother was in her late twenties and this was her first psychotic episode. This episode was going to start a long and complicated saga in our lives.
My mother was rushed into a mental health ward and I was to spend 3 months in a hospital and then live with a tracheostomy tube in my throat for a further 11 years. After a year my mother was discharged from hospital and came home to live with us. She was originally diagnosed with Schizophrenia and it would be years before she was re-diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. She wasn't allowed to be alone with me at first, so by the time I was 6, we had built a house with a granny flat so we could live with my father's parents.
As a young child I didn't have much of an idea about what had happened - I remembered it and knew my mother took medication, but never really grasped what it meant. That was why it was such a shock when my mother had her second breakdown when I was 10 years old.
This time my mother didn't hurt me, but during our morning prayers and bible reading, she started talking about seeing an angel and tried to help me see the vision. At this stage I still looked up to my parents and believed they knew more than me - so I tried my best to go along with what she was saying, despite my confusion. But, after a little while, she began to scare me. I finally managed to ring my father who was working five hours away. He immediately realized what was happening and instructed me to go straight to my grandparents. My father drove straight home but by the time he got there, my mother appeared fine. It wasn't till years later that we realized this episode had begun her downward spiral.
Till the beginning of year 8, I had been homeschooled by my mother. By the time I got to year 6 and 7, she basically left it up to me, just handing me books and then returning to such occupations as the phone and spending money. My mother never held down a job during this time - except for a 3 month part time job at a nursery.
By the time I was 13 I knew there was something wrong with my mother but was still too young and scared to figure out what it was. When I tried to tell people they labelled me as rebellious or told me that I was rude. My father was running his own business so often didn't see or hear all that my mother did.
When I was 13, we travelled to the other side of the country for my youngest uncle's wedding. I found out later that my mother had been talking to relatives while there about my father's 'abuse' of her. Within a week of returning home my mother told me to pack my bags so we could stay at a nearby family friend's house. Upon arrival I found another uncle that had driven a long way just to pick us up. I was upset and surprised when told that we'd be travelling back across the country. The adults kept telling me that my father was "volatile" and "like a volcano". No one asked me what I thought.
After a long drive - full of verbal abuse about my father - and then a plane ride, we were finally at my Nana's place. Of course my mother told stories of my abusive father and spent hours buying things, meeting new people and telling all sorts of untruths. I tried to interject but my mother simply explained that I hadn't realized the full extent of my father's abuse.
Thanks to having a tracheostomy tube in my throat for 11 years, I developed the uncanny ability to talk without taking a breath in between sentences.
We spent more than a month at my Nana's house, my father frantic with worry. I was allowed to write to him but never to reveal where we were. During this time my mother was socialising all day, every day, and had at least one affair. Finally my Nana started to get worried and called my father. Once my father arrived I went to pieces - so glad that someone else realized how sick my mother was and that it wasn't all just in my head.
My father left a voice message on the phone and my mother must have heard it - she disappeared that evening wearing nothing but a tiny dress that barely covered her undies. The family spent hours looking for her and finally the police found her, taking a taxi to one of her various new boyfriend's houses. She yelled and screamed, claiming the right to be taken to the address she'd asked for in the taxi and threatening to sue the police and everyone else in sight.
My mother spent several weeks in hospital there and then we finally returned home. Before this episode, our house had almost been fully paid for. By the time we got home, between plane tickets, living costs and lost work time, we were $50,000 in debt. My father had had enough - within a few months I was enrolled for the first time in school and by the school holidays my parents announced their split. I was overjoyed.
I still haven't reached a resolution - in fact I'm sure that as long as she lives my mother will always be somewhere in the background. But I can't hang around and wait for her to cause trouble or decide that she wants to get healthy again. There comes a point when it's no longer my responsibility as a child to care for a parent who won't help themselves. And I know she can - I've seen her more than once control a manic episode, easily fooling a doctor or someone she wants to impress before letting her bipolar disorder loose once she is in 'comfortable' surroundings.
I may not have come to terms with everything - but for now I just need to get on with my life - my work, family, university and hopefully one day, a book. To anyone out there who has stood years of abuse at the hands of a parent, sibling, child or lover, that's all I can say. There comes a point when you need to move on with your life, no matter how selfish you feel doing it.

For a child to have gone through such violence at the hands of her own mother is nothing short of traumatic - and to have risen like a phoenix out of that violence is really powerful. Would you like to share a little about your thoughts growing up, the mind space you had and the self-talk that went into your growing years?
As a child, I saw the other adults around me treating my mother as normal, despite what she'd done. I also talked a lot with my father about what had happened, and he was very honest and open about her illness, the attack and her treatment. Because of that I viewed her as two people - the bad one who attacked me and the good one who was my every day mother. 
When I became a teenager, I began to feel as if that was very simplistic and naive. My parents separated the year I turned 14 so I began to question my mother more and more. She eventually moved away and I rarely saw her, but when I did, it was often emotionally traumatic for both of us. I found forgiveness while working with ABC on a radio documentary about the attack, but I still don't communicate with her.

Later in life, you were catfished for 12 years. Could you talk about that?
“How can someone be dumb enough to believe a lie for 12 years?” The fact that I considered myself so web savvy was a big factor in why I did…
“The email you supplied to us is linked to the Facebook account we’ve provided below. We believe Brent Murphy* is at least 60 years old.”
I read the email in shock, not really believing the first few lines.
‘I can’t believe we’ve been talking on the Internet for 12 years,’ I’d told Patrick Brent* just a few months earlier, ‘It’s amazing. But I feel like our busy lives stop us meeting in person and I really really want to meet you.’
I’d met Patrick in a teen chatroom, when I was 15, in 2002. He was 17 and in his last year of highschool. He lived just ten hours away from my Australian home, an amazing coincidence in a chatroom filled with Americans. I wasn’t new to the chatroom scene; my house had had the Internet connected since I was 9, so I considered myself fairly web savvy.
Shy and inexperienced with boys, I was delighted to find a guy who I could have deep conversations with and who showered me with compliments. I wanted to impress him, so I read War and Peace and sparkled in the praise he lavished on my intelligence.
Not everything was rosy though. Patrick was prone to outbursts of temper, often ending in a breakup and a promise to never talk to me again. More often than not, the outbursts would come when I’d refuse to send a nude photo or when I asked too many questions about his life and why he wouldn’t visit. I’d spend a night crying myself to sleep before he swore he’d never hurt me again and begged me to resume the relationship.
The first time Patrick phoned me was scary but I loved the sound of his light Irish accent, even after my best friend talked to him and announced ‘He sounds like an old man.’
For three years we ‘dated’ via the Internet, exchanging photos, talking for six hours straight on occasional weekends and even picking out names for our future children. Patrick made plans to apply to a nearby University so he could come visit me on weekends. Unfortunately, plans changed and Patrick had to move to a different town.
Although a few close friends knew of our relationship, I never told my father or claimed publicly to have a boyfriend. One part of me was embarrassed while another felt that the mature and deep relationship I was in would be tarnished by outside opinion. I’d take any chance I could to spend a few hours home alone, hoping Patrick would be online and maybe even phone me. Something just felt so right when I was talking to him. Due to trauma in my past I was mature beyond my years in some areas but immature in others and Patrick seemed to share many of my own idiosyncrasies.
When I was 18, Patrick proposed. I said yes without a second thought. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. But just two weeks later, we broke up again.
The big pile of breakups, culminating with the cancellation of our engagement, was just too much. I told Patrick I couldn’t keep being his virtual girlfriend, but I was willing to be friends.
Two years later, I married a wonderful man who was both very real and very upfront, a refreshing change from the secrets involved with dating Patrick. But the question was still there; who was Patrick Brent and what was missing from our relationship that stopped him following through on his promises?
We’d still talk by email or on the phone and Patrick would always mourn his biggest mistake in letting me go. But he refused to come visit me, claiming University, travel and work commitments.
I kept him at arm’s length but Patrick teased me with just enough promises and guilt trips to make me want to continue talking to him. So for 7 more years, we continued to talk. Our relationship was comfortable and we talked about everything from his latest girlfriends through to my breakups with the friends I’d had in highschool.
I’d always suspected Patrick was lying to me about something. I thought it was something embarrassing such as Photoshopping his pictures or not having the University degree he claimed. For the 12 years we talked, I always tried to gather enough information to find him. But he’d phone from a private number and all my Google searches found nothing. He worked for his father’s company which took him around the world. Phonecalls often saw him hanging up when executives entered his office, meetings were about to begin or his latest girlfriend came to visit.
When we started talking, I was young enough to believe I couldn’t be tricked and by the time I was old enough to know better, he was just another part of my every day life. Patrick had talked to me for hours, sent me hundreds of emails and helped me deal with so many of my mundane problems. He’d never asked me for money and he’d continued to talk to me for years, so I knew he had to be legitimate. I just wanted to be absolutely sure.
I knew not to ask him for more information.
‘I’m a very private person,’ Patrick would tell me, ‘You know I share more with you than with anyone else. I don’t like newfangled sites like Facebook. Don’t see the point and I’m too busy working, anyway.’
It wasn’t till 2014 that I discovered the term ‘catfish’ and found a site (SocialCatfish) that promised to dig up information on any online suitor even if there was only an email available. I didn’t expect much, but I thought it would at least be nice to know the name of the company he worked for or some fun details I could surprise him with during a conversation.
But I was the one who was to receive the surprise when I found out the truth about Patrick. He’d spun a web of lies which had taken him around the world, given him a fancy career and kept him too busy to ever come visit. In reality he’d never left the town where he’d first said he’d lived and the photos he’d sent me were stolen from a younger friend’s Facebook account.
Patrick Brent was Brent Murphy. Brent Murphy was married with children and grandchildren. A part of me didn’t really believe it, not until I rang the phone number of the office where he really worked.
‘This is Brent Murphy’s phone…’ the voicemail began.
Then I knew it was true. Part of me felt relief, glad that I no longer questioned the breakup all those years ago. Another part of me was sad for my first love, which was nothing but a lie. And another part of me was disgusted by the fact that someone had groomed and lied to a teenage girl, then continued the farce for 12 whole years.
I confronted Brent Murphy when he rang me later that night. His denials and hurt rang true and for a few moments I wondered if I was wrong. Then I remembered the phonecall to his office. Suddenly the Patrick I knew crumbled into the Brent I didn’t, first claiming that he was too scared of hurting me, before trying to emotionally blackmail me.
‘My wife and family don’t deserve this.’
‘Goodbye Patrick.’ I hung up the phone.
Six months later I still have a hole left where Patrick once existed. It’s hard to look at a 12 year friendship from a whole new perspective, reexamining each detail and applying a whole new layer of information. More than anything I’ve learned that just because we accept something as normal, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question it. The experience has given me some humility, making me realise that believing I was ‘Internet savvy’ actually made me more vulnerable to a person who could convince me to trust them and who displayed none of the obvious ‘scam’ markers till too late.

Today, you are a writer, a doula and a blogger, and a digital media expert. Could you talk about your journey since all the violence you faced, into this place in your life that you own and hold in your hands?
I'm not short on my own mental health problems - particularly depression and OCD. However I think the biggest thing for me was seeing how mundane things were in relation to what I'd been through. Doing something daring isn't half so scary compared to where I’ve been. I was told a lot growing up that I must have survived for a purpose, so I think a part of me also feels invulnerable. I guess I feel as if I have to think big, to reach this mystic purpose people keep telling me I have. I experience anxiety, so I have been known to cry or get nauseous before public appearances, or even when my story has gone viral and I can't tear myself away from watching. Fortunately though, nothing triggers me, other than contact from my mother. Even an email or hearing she's in town stresses me quite a bit and makes me very reactive. 

You have a book coming up! Could you talk a bit about that, so that our readers can pick it up?
It doesn't have a title as of yet unfortunately, but it's currently in editing (the hardest part). It examines how I was catfished, how it felt being homeschooled by my mother, my rebellion during my teen years and the steps I took to find healing and forgiveness - at least some of the way if not all, because I think there's no such thing as once off healing - it's a never ending process.


The selfless champion

Maysoon Zayid
Maysoon Zayid is a Palestinian-American actress, comedian, known as one of America's first Muslim women comedians and the first person ever to perform standup in Palestine and Jordan. She is also a social worker and does some amazing work with children. Here’s her story.  

I do a joke on stage that tells my story. I say “In the oppression Olympics, I would win a gold medal. I am Palestinian, Muslim, a woman of color, disabled, and I live in New Jersey”. I grew up with three older sisters in a small Italian Catholic town in New Jersey. I spent my summers in Jerusalem. My parents couldn’t afford physical therapy so they sent me to tap class. I blame that for the fact I ended up being a performer.

Every day, I am hustling. In order to be a comedian, you have to write. So few people realize how much writing goes into doing comedy. I love my job. I get to cure the world making people laugh. I’ve been on the road for thirteen years so I’d love to settle down and have a talk show like Oprah. I am currently developing a comedy series. I am excited about getting back to acting and privileged to also be writing for the show. It’s called “If I Cancan,” stay tuned.

My biggest challenge as a writer is that because of my Cerebral Palsy, I am awful at typing. I write everything in my head and hire someone to type for me. It’s frustrating when I get a great idea in the middle of the night and have to wait to tell it to my typist. I’m pretty good at not forgetting though, so that’s good. As a comedian, I’ve been blessed and lucky. The biggest challenge is the fact that men get paid more. I have never been discriminated against as a comedian, but I have as an actress. Hollywood shuns disability. We are the largest minority in the world and the most underrepresented in media. Often when you do see disability on TV, non-disabled actors are playing the parts. This is inauthentic and offensive. 

I initially was rejected admission by my local public school when I enrolled in kindergarten. They wanted to send me to a school for children with Down syndrome. My parents fought the system and won. I believe if I hadn’t been mainstreamed, I would not have the life or success I have today. I wanted to give that opportunity to disabled and wounded Palestinian refugee children also. Our main challenge is the Israeli occupation. it is hard to accomplish anything under violent oppression. Our other challenge is that there is very little early intervention. Even though these children have the ability, they lack the basic skills necessary for mainstreaming. Our goal was to use interpreters and technology so that kids with disability could be mainstreamed between the third and fifth grade. We are currently working with Al Shurooq School for Blind Children in Deit Jala, Palestine.  



Life is not about hatred, but about love

Rupande Mehta
Rupande Mehta founded and runs The SAR Foundation, which works with the aim of eradicating violence against women and girls. Here is her story in her own words.

I was born in India to conservative parents. We were very poor and didn’t have a house of our own, so I lived with my grandmother and her family for five years. My parents bought a home and we moved there after that. My father is a very traditional man and believes in very sexist, gender roles and ideas surrounding that. And yet, this is perhaps because of having experienced poverty, he was also very keen on educating me and making me independent. I think he was hoping for a boy and may have been disappointed. He encouraged me academically and supported my choices when it came to academics and education. It was ironic, though, that he supported me with this, but was very harsh and sexist otherwise.

I close my eyes, and all of these memories are very vivid. My cousins lived in a joint family, and the house next door had a family friend of ours. He was married and had a daughter my age. I used to go play with her and spend time with her, and once, her grandfather told me to stay back and play with him. I had no idea what he meant by “play” – and I would find out, unfortunately. He molested me, and it happened to me twice more. I didn’t see him until much later in my life – but he had sowed the early seeds of violence in my life. It was my first experience being objectified and being seen as an object rather than as a girl, a person, a human. There is some research that says that sexual abuse can tend to make you favour the opposite sex or sex itself. My experience was similar. I was attracted to boys and got along very well with boys at a very young age. I had a few boyfriends, too.

I was six when my brother was born. We were very close, and grew closer over the years. We have a very good relationship, and I always make sure to let him know that he could always talk to me about anything in life. Not because I wanted to know anything, but because I always wanted to make sure that he was dealt with fairly and that he dealt fairly with others. I always looked at him as someone I needed to protect. I was a tomboy at school – and always tended to protect those around me. He was younger, and that automatically made me gravitate towards taking care of him. Until a few months ago, he knew nothing about my life. He had no clue that I was beaten and abused so much at home – he was always kept aside and safe in one part of home before they dealt with me. He grew up very protected, and they made sure that he got all that he wanted. He was babied. Our rules were different – he had none and I had very rigid ones. It was strange that we had the same parents.

I had a lot of friends when I was at school, but my father was very strict about it. I couldn’t step out, and so I didn’t make very deep friendships. The only thing that gave me solace was reading. I was a very good student, and was constantly with a book. I had a favourite spot in the house – and occupied it to such an extent that my father would tell me that whenever he entered the house, I had to be sitting there. That was the extent of his control – so the few friends I had were all driven away.

My father was extremely strict, and I think he controlled my mother, who turned out to be that way, too. My father would beat me up when he found out that I was in a relationship. My parents were vicious in their physical assaults of me, and that later became a way to control me. There was also vehement emotional abuse. There was never any fun for me outside of the cloud that hung over my head. My parents didn’t care if anyone was around – they would call me names, beat me and abuse me. I had faced all kinds of abuse in their hands, except sexual abuse.

When I was about 12 or 13, I had my first real boyfriend. He passed away when I was fifteen, in a tragic accident. He was very handsome – quite like Akshay Kumar, who was the heartthrob back then. He had come to see me, and the two of us walked on the road, not even holding hands. My father circled around, looking for us, and when we were about to leave, we saw him turning in a white Maruti Van. He began to speed towards me, and didn’t stop – he knocked me over and I was left with a bleeding knee. He got off the car and punched my boyfriend, holding him by the throat. It was all happening in the middle of the road in Mumbai. My father left, and the two of us walked our own directions. My father’s violence was uncalled for, and simply another way for him to control me. But, it didn’t change our relationship, though, and although later we did break up, we remained good friends till he passed away.      

I was in college when I fell in love with someone. My parents asked me why I fell in love with someone – my parents asked me why I looked for love outside – didn’t I get enough at home? I would always stay quiet in response to that question. The boy I had fallen in love with was the college darling. He showed some interest in me and I fell for him. I didn’t pick up on any clues. But, he also started abusing me – there were times when I would come home after being beaten up by him, and come home to being beaten by my parents. He raped me a couple of times, and I got pregnant twice. I had to abort the baby both times. I forgot all about them until a few years ago when I was doing surya namaskar, and openly wept in the memory of those I had forsaken.

I simply needed to get out of that life. Despite all the things that he did, my father supported my choice to go to the USA to study. It was an escape for me. Somewhere deep down, I always believed that life was not about hatred, but was about love. It was time for me to get tough and take charge of the situation – up until then, I just wanted to run away and be invisible. On the day of my appointment for a visa to the USA, I stood in queue behind four men, all of whom were rejected. I didn’t know what to do – if I was rejected, my life was over. Not figuratively, but literally. I clung to the hope that life was about love. The visa officer looked at my application, and looked me in the eye, and said that I could go, get my visa. Those words meant that I could live, that I would not die!

I left India on August 15, 2002. I looked at my family as I was leaving and said, the day India got independence, I got free. They laughed it off, but it meant so much to me. I landed in Lea Guardia and then arrived at Pittsburgh. I lived in a small town called Clarion. It was a reverse culture shock – there were no tall buildings, it was a really small town. I had landed in rural USA! I was coming to grips with reality, this new life where there was no fear in waking or sleeping or being a target for someone’s rage. Although I had left, my ex still controlled me. He would call me at odd hours, threatening to kill my brother and such. It was surreal. I summoned all the courage within, and decided that he had to go. It takes an average of 7 times for a woman to face physical violence before she walks away. I took nine months to break it off with him, in May 2003.

I became my old self, making friends, learning new things, partying and enjoying myself. I truly did find myself. It was the first time that I was finding who I truly was, and I absolutely loved it. Towards the end of 2003, I broke the last shackle. I dated someone in Clarion. I had told an aunt about it, who told my cousin, who told my father. He told me to pack my bags and leave to India the next day, and that he would get me married off to someone of his choice. He told me he would call me the next day for my response. I went to college, spoke to the dean, who encouraged me to take my own stand. I ran into a friend, who then told me she would take me to her mother, to help me find an answer. It was a mystical conversation – one that turned my life around and made me realize what my true purpose really was! I stood my ground, after that conversation, and told my father I was not coming. He told me that I was dead to him since then. That day, I became free. I had only one person to please: Me.

I came to New York City in 2005. From the day my purpose was revealed, those words never left my heart. I began to volunteer for a South Asian Domestic Violence agency.  I worked on advocacy, not services meeting victims one on one. Part of the reason was that I had issues that were still unresolved. From then on, I did a lot of different things – I didn’t think about abuse, and moved on. I met my husband, Andrew, and married him. He is the absolute anti-thesis to all things violent, and is a compassionate, kind person. My parents had nothing to say – they were happy I was getting married. They met him for the first time on the day we got married – and my mother once told me that had she found someone for me, she wouldn’t have found anyone as good as Andrew.  
When our daughter was born in 2012 – it was a magical moment. As she grew older, there were times when my husband would notice my reactions to her, and told me that I was replicating my parents’ behaviour with her. It was happening without any realization and conscious choice but a harsh reality to confront. My abuse hadn’t left me. I started seeing a therapist and told her about my old life I didn’t want to, but I started reliving it. It was the worst nightmare – and I had to go through it. I looked at good and bad responses, and began to understand them. I see my relationship with Sophie, our daughter, as a work in progress. I make sure that she is not impacted by what happened to me. I do all that I can to make sure that I parent my child while fighting what seems natural – and tell myself that it is perfectly okay. Sophie is a loving child, an angel, even. She changed my life, literally, and showed me what to do.

Growing up, no one knew that I was going through all of this. Today, my cousins and extended family ask why I didn’t go to them – some cousins even may have been jealous of me because on the surface, I had it all. But the truth remains that it was, and is not easy for a victim to find a way out of violence. There are many reasons – shame, denial and fear. The fact of the matter is that love and violence do not go together. My parents told me they loved me, but they controlled me.
Today, my father lives in denial. We speak once in a while, but there is no depth in the relationship we share. I realized that the environment I had grown up in was toxic and dangerous. My mother and I have a decent relationship.

I founded and run the SAR Foundation; an orgainziation working to end violence against women and girls. The idea is to use comprehensive approaches such as providing services, resources and information to victims of domestic violence so they can get out of dangerous situations and cycles of violence. SARF will also conduct workshops with corporations to promote awareness around the issue of domestic violence. Since the idea is to make it inclusive and all encompassing, and to start early, the goal will be to conduct workshops with schools and colleges to promote awareness of domestic violence, consent and healthy dating. 

Food for School

Marilyn and Zari
Girls are vulnerable to being married at a young age when families cannot afford to buy food and children do not go to school. For $60 a month an entire family can be fed. Food4School provides needy Afghan families with money for food in exchange for sending their children to school. One of the conditions for receiving the funds is that the girls as well as the boys remain in school. Marilyn Mosley Gordainer, the founder, shares the story behind Food4School.

It has been my life mission and work to start schools. The most long lasting of all the schools I’ve started is the Laurel Springs School. It began in 1991, with 72 students, and it was the first time that there was an online home-schooling option in the US. There was a need for alternative education that was personalized and allowed children to express their feelings and become great citizens in the future. There weren’t many schools in the US that offered that opportunity for children.

In 1994, following a massive earthquake in Los Angeles, many libraries and schools were closed. Students were interrupted in completing their critical thinking and research assignments. They needed to have the right resources to support their endeavors, and with the libraries closed, it was difficult to access information.  We decided to search online for information. We found 50,000 links giving information justabout the topic of Romania. We were excited and thought, “Online education -- what a great idea!” We had no idea that this was the beginning of a new wave in education – we were just trying to respondto a need. We made it into the news media, and a lot of people started talking about what we had pioneered – online education.Today, Laurel Springs enrolls about 4,900 children a year. We have established ourselves as the primary education program for children who want to find their inner strengths, learn creatively, and learn at their own pace. 

We wanted students to have an educational program that would help them explore their powers and dreams. The school has done very well, and it has constantly explored and created different learning environments for children.

My daughter, Ramaa Mosley, is a filmmaker. She did a documentary for a group called Girl Rising, where they told the stories of nine girls seeking an education. She filmed a piece on a girl from Afghanistan who was married at the age of eleven and had a baby at twelve. While Ramaa was editing the film, it was too hard for me to watch it. I realised that the solution was to educate these girls. I spoke to Ramaa, and she connected me with her writer, Zarghuna (Zari) Kargar, who was in New York City for the premiere of the film. I told Zari that I wanted to help but that that reaching girls in Afghanistan was beyond my experience. She told me that as long as we found a way to feed a family, they wouldn’t marry off their daughters. The familieswere simply not able to afford a meal. Zari suggested that we could give a family on a stipend in exchange for educating their daughters and not marrying them off. We had two BBC reporters helping us, who continue tothis very day. They helped us find families in dire need who would agree to send their children to school. We soon came to learn that the people of greatest need were the widows whose husbands had been killed in the war. Through her work, Zari knew quite a lot of women who were struggling to survive.

This became a great grass-roots program. In the beginning, we delivered food to the families because the women were not allowed to go to the market. As they became more confident, they began going to the market. We always gave the money to the women to empower them.The men are often unwell or addicted to drugs – but when these women receive the money, they become the ones in charge of the family, and they themselves go to the market. They change and become more confident, and their husbands respect them. It has been a very successful program throughout, and all the children in the families we work with are in school. There have been no drop-outs, and also no early marriages.
In our work so far, there have been two forms of resistance. 

In the beginning there were some fathers who refused to let their daughters participate in the program. There was one girl whose brother strapped a bomb to here that was meant to be detonated in the market place. The girl went to the police who promised to take care of her, but they sent her back home to her family. Zari intervened, but three months later, the girl had disappeared. There was no way to find out where she was, and no trace of her. Her brother was with the Taliban, so she may have been married off. We felt terrible – we did all that we could from a distance. The only way is to deal with such challenges is by staying focused on the families we help.  That keeps us going. We watch the children grow – it’s also a beautiful thing to see them gain weight and get healthier – and we send them notes of encouragement. The need is so tremendous, and we’ve had to stay focused.
Zeba, studying with F4S' colleague from BBC 
Most families that we work with are in Kabul, so we can make it a point to see them each month. But there are some outside of Kabul in areas where the Taliban are stronger. Working with families there is tougher. It is a huge learning experience to find such levels of inequality and girls being hurt in such extreme ways. We must make it relevant to their culture, and so we empower our colleagues who work in Afghanistan. We send the families messages and photos and let them know that we are thinking of them.
When I look at the journey so far, there are some very empowering stories of success. For instance, there was a lovely young mother who was twenty-six, and her husband had been killed in war. Her family wanted her to marry one of her husband’s brothers, but she didn’t – and it’s fortunate they didn’t drive her out of the house. But she lived in a secluded and provincial environment. She wore a burkha and was very shy. We began bringing her food a few times. Once, she took off her burkha when we visited. The next time, she waited for us and greeted us outside the house. The time after that, she accompanied our team to the market. Then, she began going to the market herself. Recently, she’s been making a few trips to the bank by herself. There is such a difference now, and the children are much happier, too. One donor offered her more money, but she refused, saying that someone else deserved to benefit from it. 


Saara and her little one, from Mazhar
In another family, there were two young girls, orphans. One was 17 and the other 7. We gave them a houseand food and helpedthem to go to school. Now they’ve rented out a part of their house so they can afford an education and save money. They feel like they have a chance to really grow, and they feel much safer. In another distant province,there was a family where the parents were deaf. The daughters risked their lives and travelled to Kabul to reach us. That they made this dangerous journey itself proved how badly they wanted to do this. They started their own school, and now the girls at their school meet every day. They did it despite how dangerous it was. I can’t imagine how it must have been for the parents. 
Saara's kids now.
Looking ahead, I want to continue expanding the program. One way to do this is to put more staff on the ground. We now have a waiting list of families. We would also love for people to write letters of support, send a donation to Food4School.org and tell their friends about us.  We could make such a big difference, and the solidarity truly matters. We want to let our girls know that other girls care about them.
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