When I met Patricia Smith Melton at a conference held by the Millionth Circle Initiative in Glen Hill, New York, I was in a state of outrage. Six months after 9/11, our country had bombed the already devastated Afghanistan and was planning a war on Iraq. With a naive idealism, I wanted the women of the world to protest with one voice.
Patricia had another approach.
In the weeks following 9/11, she had been similarly inspired to call women together to make a move towards peace. But her plan, unlike mine, was feasible.
One weekend, she gathered eight women for a meeting at her home. Sitting in a circle, with no one in charge, they talked about creating peace. From this meeting sprung a project that they had the means to accomplish - a film about women who were working to sustain and improve their communities in war-torn countries. The aim was to record the difficult and invisible work of women worldwide and to use the film to build a global network of women's circles. They called their new organization Peacexpeace (read peace-by-peace) and planned to distribute the film widely through public television networks.
After the conference, I gathered a group of friends to form what we called the Sonoma County Women's Council and meet in a circle. We wanted to see what we could do to bring our women's voices into the conversation about healing our world. As our discussions progressed, we found that we all felt compelled to help the women of Afghanistan. Our first idea was to help in supplying food.
Knowing that Patricia was soon to be traveling to Afghanistan, I asked her to find out whether the women wanted to set up a food distribution network. She said she would explore its viability there. When she returned, Patricia said that what Afghan women needed most was friendship with American women. Would we like to be the first women's circle to be paired up with a circle of women in Kabul?
We agreed and our relationship with this Peace Circle produced a wonderful exchange. It taught us a lot about Afghan culture, the needs of Afghan women and the problems of the developing the world. And, to our great satisfaction, we have been able to help.
The first thing we did was to pass on the brochure of a scholarship programme - the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women (IEAW) - to a young woman in our circle who had expressed an interest in attending university "in a developed country". She applied for the scholarship and got it. Six months later, she was in the United States! That Christmas, we invited Alean Haider and another young woman, Samira Panir, to visit us in California. Meeting the young woman with whom we had corresponded and her college friend was rewarding. We knew that we had made a difference in the life of one young woman who possessed tremendous dedication and the ability to improve the lives of her sisters.
But we wanted to do more. We held a couple of fundraisers and sent a few hundred dollars to Kabul. But the money was small and the need so great that we knew we had to do something more.
In 2005, I was introduced to Marnie Gustavson, a woman who has worked in Afghanistan conducting leadership training programs. She suggested we start a micro-lending programme with our women in Kabul and offered to help. We described the project to Suraya Perlika, head of the Afghan Peace Circle, when she visited the US that year. Perlika expressed interest, and we discussed our idea with Alean, who offered to help with fundraising.
As it happened, one of our members, Mervis Reissig, became acquainted with Susan Moore, a founding member of another women's circle in our locale. Though this group did not do projects, they invited us to make a presentation on ours. Unlike us, these women had access to wealth. Alean's presentation to some 100 women from the 'No Name Circle', as they prefer to call themselves, garnered nearly US$ 5,000 for our project!
One of the requirements of the IEAW scholarship is that students return to their countries for the summer break. During the spring, we discussed the project with Alean and, when she went home in May 2006, she had agreed to work with Suraya to set up the micro-lending programme. For this, she also earned internship credits at Montclair State University, where she was entering her senior year. Since Suraya does not speak English, Alean was the intermediary - a challenging assignment for a young woman to deal with an elder who has spent years of her life selflessly helping Afghan women.
We discussed our suggestions with Alean, through e-mail and phone. She and Suraya selected five capable women who would be likely to repay their loans. And, in August 2006, we were able to deliver the funds to Kabul. Days later, the five women were awarded loans of US$ 1,000 each. Their gratitude was felt by everyone across the globe.
Now that Alean has returned to school, Suraya will administer the loan repayment process, depositing the payments in an account set up in Kabul for that purpose, and once US$ 1,000 has been collected, another woman may apply for the loan. In this way, five more women will eventually be able to benefit from the project.
None of us has yet gone to Kabul to meet the women. The project has been initiated and will be run by Afghan women, with the understanding that their success in repaying their loans will inspire more donations from American women. Next spring, I will travel to Kabul to celebrate their progress and to learn more about what it is like for women to survive in Afghanistan.
We did not stop the war on Iraq nor did we save the world. But befriending a circle of women in Kabul has made Afghanistan a place for which we now feel personally responsible to a small degree. As other Western women engage with sister circles across the world in this Global Network, we will build, piece by piece, a web of active relationships that will continue to creating peace.
And who knows, I may live to see the day when women across the globe, connected via Internet and personal communication, may yet rise up and put an end to the cruel bloodshed of war.
(Stephanie Hiller is a freelance writer and publisher of Awakened Woman e-magazine.)
(To join the Global Network, contact Peacexpeace at www.peacexpeace.org.)