Vacation Becomes Gratitude Trek

On April 23, 2017, I left Seattle for a vacation to Japan, a country I had always wanted to visit. Flying into Osaka, I zipped across land on the Shinkansen (the infamous Bullet Train) to Hiroshima to meet up with my long-time Canadian friend, Shona, who was teaching and mentoring for her 7th year in a program sponsored by the United Nation’s Institute for Training & Research (UNITAR), the Fellowship for Afghanistan.  I was going to sightsee, of course, but also to observe some of the sessions in the two-week long intensive course provided to 30 Afghan Fellows at the end of their six-month program. My mission was to learn about the program, projects and the Fellows and do a feasibility study on how crowdfunding might be an alternative for those that were not fundable by their own organizations, government departments, or external Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).

After two days of amazing sight-seeing in Hiroshima (for another post or two) at the Peace Museum, the A-Bomb Dome, Miyajima Island, Hiroshima Castle and the Art Museum of Hiroshima, I settle into my Fellowship experience.

I quickly learn there one is not allowed to just watch in the UNITAR family. Within the first day I am engaged with Fellows in conversations at breaks, listening to stories and taking photos. The next morning I meet with the staff to discuss the study. At lunch Shona and I meet with a Fellow interested in writing a book about Afghanistan.  When I ask him if he has any concerns for his safety if he was to write such a book,  he shrugs and says, “I might already be considered killable by the Taliban.” Then he smiles and laughs. I wonder if his reaction is a mask for underlying fear. How could you not be fearful with that kind of threat in the very air you breathe?

That evening Shona tells me of some of the many dangers faced by workers, women, families and others in Afghanistan…just a few of the many stories she has been told over the years by her students.  I had also seen evidence of the many social struggles in presentations made by the students during the workshop…issues of child labor, cultural lack of respect for and violence against women, and more.

Who are they?

The Fellows (28 men and 2 women) come from many walks of life–private sector, government departments, NGOs, universities and a good number from the Aga Khan Foundation. They are, as a group, demographically quite young, with the bulk of them being between mid 20s and mid-40s.  Many of them hold high-level positions in their organizations. The presence of only two women is a long-standing issue; creating a more representative number is one of the goals of former program director Berin McKenzie. “It’s very difficult, but I’d really like to see us figure out a way to get more women Fellows here. When they do come, they are very successful, and often become coaches or mentors for future Fellows.”

On the last morning of the workshop, the five groups make their final pitch presentations on their projects.  I am surprised by an invitation from the staff to join the judging panel, and am honored and humbled to do so. I am the only one of the panel who has no prior knowledge of the work that had transpired over the past six months, so I decide to focus on how I might react as if I was a donor. I try to provide whatever supportive comments and thoughts I can as the five presentations whip through at six minutes each. I feel this is a very small contribution, so I am overwhelmed at what happens next.

Enough love to go around

Following the commencement ceremony, thanks are given all around, and traditional gift-giving ensues. One of the Fellows calls up various staff and facilitators, bestowing beautiful handmade items from their provinces. It’s beautiful to watch. And then I hear my name called. I am bewildered, and filled with a sense of unworthiness. But I go to the front, and accept with great gratitude a beautiful lapis lazuli pen holder, so appropriate for my role as writer and communicator. Mina, from Kabul, hands it to me, with a hug and tears, describing its origin as she thanks me for my support. I am included thereafter in both formal and informal picture taking, and receive another gift from one student of a beautiful hand-made hat from his region.

Shona says to me, “They’re the most appreciative students you will ever see, and there is plenty of appreciation to go around.”

Mina from Kabul says to me later, “There are many of my friends [in Afghanistan] who think all Westerners are bad and don’t care about our situation and if they help us it is only to line their own pockets, but i tell them that I have seen so many examples that that is not true. Here, at the Fellowship, we see all of these Westerners who care very much. We are so grateful for any and all support.”

The love goes both ways

One of the long-time former staff and current mentors, James, says to me when I wonder at all this, “Now you see why people fall in love with this program. There is so much gratitude, for the smallest show of support. It just makes you want to do more.”  The resource people all volunteer their time, and they are folks who can, and do, charge a great deal of money for their consulting time in their professional lives. But this…this, they willing do for free. Said James, “I was at dinner the other night (with other mentors) and had a moment where it hit me and I said out loud , ‘Not only would I do this for free; I would pay to do it.'”


Michael, a senior executive at Microsoft in Seattle, is one of the earliest founding members of the program, and says, “Yah, I’m pretty busy, but this is the best thing I do every year.” (In addition to his full-time job at Microsoft, he teaches at Stanford and has numerous other commitments.) He tells the Fellows at the end of the workshop, “I am honored to watch you and work with you on this journey. It’s the highlight of my year, every year.”

And my friend Shona, a very talented, smart and gifted facilitator and consultant, says this. “Every year when I get ready to leave Hiroshima I look around the room and think, I’m going back to my safe and secure home, and they’re returning to violence, instability,  and all the issues they face as people trying to be positive change agents in a dangerous environment. It’s very sobering, very emotional.”

On the way out of the building and onto the bright, warm streets of Hiroshima, we encounter some of the mentors having coffee and celebrating another successful year. Apparently there is no rest for the weary–within minutes of the final ceremony Jennifer, a finance officer with the US Treasury in Washington, DC, is bubbling over. She comes up to me and says, “I’ve got it! I know what my next project will be! I want to create a training program for women in the Ministry of Finance [in Afghanistan]! We can train Afghan women to train their colleagues.” I respond, matching her enthusiasm, because it truly is infectious.

A strong focus of the program (and what makes it unique among many others) is the focus on capacity-building among Afghans, rather than the traditional (and egotistical) colonial approach of doing for them. The program wants to create sustainable, capacity-building skills and experience in those who are committed to creating change from inside Afghanistan.

Of the 128 projects previously created in the years of the program, 55% have become funded and implemented. They range from …finish

Why Hiroshima?

They study in Hiroshima at the end of their program to immerse themselves in the environment of a city that completely rebuilt itself at great effort over the past 71 years since the A-bomb dropped, eviscerating the cityscape and surround landscape for a five-kilometer radius.

There is hope for you, Hiroshima says to the Afghans. We did it. You can do it, too.

And you feel from these courageous, talented, smart people that they will go home, and they will make change.