Thanks to Alberto Cairo and the ICRC, I was afforded the opportunity to visit Jess in Afghanistan and be a part of the Men’s National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament as the film assistant to Michael Glowacki. I will do my best to bring some of this to life through relaying of my own experiences, but please understand that the work happening in Afghanistan is powerful beyond my ability to adequately communicate.
 
Flying into Kabul from Dubai, I feel nervous.  What will it be like?  Will I be safe?  Can I wrap my headscarf properly?  The headscarf issue and what to wear to be seen as culturally appropriate consumed more of my time in preparation than I would care to admit.  I joked with Jess before I left that all he had to do to prepare to go to Afghanistan was put on pants and a shirt just like he would anywhere else. Not so for us female travelers from the West. Thankfully I had more experienced women give me great advice before the trip, so I hope as I draw closer that I don’t need to be too concerned.
 
On the flight in, I get views of the mountains that rise dramatically all around Kabul – the foothills seem to be dotted with some vegetation but mostly covered in dry dirt while even in late May, the higher peaks are covered in snow.  These mountains are dramatic and raw.  When I land and walk from the plane to the airport terminal, it is warm and dusty.  Afghan military police greet me as I walk toward passport control.  It is on this walk that I see a sign in large letters that reads:  “Afghanistan, the Land of the Brave”.
 
After navigating my way through the airport to connect with the ICRC representative responsible for picking me up (and noticing a large contingent of fully armed US soldiers at the airport to greet an arriving general – yikes, bad timing!), Jess and Michael Glowacki welcome me in the airport parking lot.  I struggle to maintain a friendly distance from Jess (apart from a light kiss on my forehead, which he was informed would be within the boundaries of propriety since we’re married) to adhere to social protocol.
 
The streets of Kabul are jammed with late morning traffic.  The city has more than doubled in size over the past 10 years as its population has swelled due to migration from outlying villages and neighboring countries.  Small shops, many of which are no more than free-standing metal storage sheds, line most of the major streets, and pedestrians and cars zigzag between each other haphazardly on the way to their destinations.  The mountains loom over the city and houses made of dried mud crawl up the steep surrounding hills.   We arrive at Alberto’s house and are greeted by his delightful cook, Fatah-jan, and Toro the cat.
 
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My temporary family: Jess, Michael, Alberto and Toro (Not pictured: Fatah-jan)
 
 
Michael asks me later if I had impressions of Kabul before I arrived.  I admit, other than images of war in the media and some of the pictures Jess has shown me, I didn’t have a clear image in my mind because I hadn’t thought very carefully about how the people of Kabul really live. It is a passionate place that rests on thousands of years of rich history.  I realize very quickly upon arriving that it is a place that, even after a short visit, will ensure I never see the world in quite the same way again.
 
A day and a half later, I am taken on a tour of the ICRC Orthopaedic Center. The Centre is run primarily by Afghans (apart from Alberto and a couple other expatriates), the vast majority of whom have a physical disability of some kind.  It operates like a series of perfect assembly lines, with various workshops where prosthetic limbs and orthotic devices are created to meet patients’ needs and wheelchairs are modified for the same purpose.  It is a huge operation and Alberto informs me later that the center refuses no one.  All patients are welcome, including members of the opposition forces, and all leave the Centre better able to manage their disabilities.
 
Thursday morning the basketball tournament begins and is the highlight of my trip.  This is where I get to see Jess greet the coaches and players who deeply appreciate the impact he has had on their lives.  There is an intimacy here, a friendship, an understanding and a profound respect shown between Jess and these men.  “Mr. Jess,” as he is called, knows all of the players and seems to have an inside joke with each of them.  All the players welcome me with an openness that I do not expect, especially as a woman.
 
Teams from Herat, Jalalabad, Kabul, Kandahar, Maimana and Mazar all go on to play an INCREDIBLE tournament.  It was competitive, it was exhilarating and, after three full days of games, I didn’t want it to end.  This means a lot given my virtually non-existent knowledge of basketball… just ask Jess.

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Posing in front of the official tournament banner and scoreboard

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The teams from Mazar and Kabul line up for free throws in the tournament’s final game as Jess yells instructions over the din of the crowd

Jess will never say it, but the players and coaches told me on several occasions,  “Jess has helped to break down barriers for the disabled community in Afghanistan.”   Even more importantly, these coaches and players have broken down their own barriers built by a society that doesn’t typically empower the disabled to function independently.  “The Land of the Brave” is an apt description.  These men and women are breaking new ground every day against  established social norms.  I am so honored to know them and cannot wait to be a witness to their ongoing success.  Thank you to all of the Afghans and expatriates who I met on my trip.  Your kindness made me feel… strangely… at home.
 
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Jess, Alberto and expert scorekeeper Ashraf (in hat) pose with the team and fans from Kandahar
 
An addendum:
 
I would be remiss not to mention that, on the second afternoon of the tournament, a loud explosion echoed across the court.  We found out shortly thereafter that the Taliban had attacked a UN affiliate’s offices in Kabul. Luckily, the Afghan security forces did a phenomenal job keeping the attackers at bay during an hours-long battle.  I was very nervous and could hear the sounds of fighting late into the night, but was reassured by the ICRC staff and Afghan players alike that, unfortunately, this type of attack is not entirely uncommon and we were in good hands. Thankfully, this was indeed the case.
 
Then, just hours after Jess left Afghanistan on his flight to Geneva, the ICRC compound in Jalalabad, where he had stayed just a month prior, was directly attacked by suicide bombers and gunmen.  This was the first attack of its kind on the ICRC in the 26 years since it started operations in Afghanistan. An Afghan ICRC guard was killed, but the local Afghan authorities managed to quell the attack over a two hour battle without any additional ICRC fatalities. According to one of Jess’s friends who was there, the Afghan ICRC staff were incredibly courageous in helping ensure the safety of their colleagues during such a traumatic event.
 
Just yesterday, scores of disabled people in Jalalabad gathered outside the ICRC compound to stage a protest of the attack. Jess was told that several of the basketball players he coached were part of this very moving demonstration. 
 
Jess and I are deeply hopeful and optimistic that, while this terrible incident will undoubtedly impact the way it operates, the ICRC will find a way to continue its amazing and comprehensive work in Afghanistan, as it directly and positively impacts the lives of so many in this wonderful country.