Originally published in Castine Patriot, April 26, 2018
Hard news: Carolyn Coe reports on youth in Kabul, Honduras
The Street Kids School, one of the programs run out of the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre in Kabul, Afghanistan, teaches nonviolence, Dari, and math to very poor Afghan children. Many of the children work in Kabul’s streets, washing cars, selling small items, and collecting scrap metal. The teachers at the school are student volunteers from Afghan high schools and universities.
by Anne Berleant
After following reports from Voices for Creative Nonviolence peace workers on the ground in Afghanistan, Carolyn Coe, an Orland resident, formerly of Blue Hill, first traveled to Kabul in 2014 to report and volunteer. “I was so inspired by their work, I wanted to meet them,” she said in a recent interview. “I didn’t know it would be possible.”
She contacted Voices for Creative Nonviolence, and was asked, “Can you go in two weeks?” Coe went but needed a little more time.
“I’d just got back from the West Bank,” she said, where she had been reporting on Iraqi refugees since a first trip in 2008-09 as part of a Code Pink delegation. “I thought the work I was doing reporting on refugees was important….I was deeply troubled by[their] plight.”
For her first trip to Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, a country involved in international conflict since 2001, Coe intended to listen and observe “with the hope of sharing some of the stories [heard] with people in my community. I didn’t know what I’d be asked to do.” She recently returned from her fifth trip working with student peace volunteers and helping in whatever capacity is needed, from teaching audio computer editing to yoga asanas and pranayama. “I photoed, wrote, attended strategic planning meetings,” she said.
While sometimes her stays in Kabul coincide with violence, as when a peaceful demonstration over the shift of power lines through different provinces ended with over 200 people killed, Coe said the students she meets are traumatized yet still affected by fresh instances of violence.
“As is true anywhere, people express grief in different ways, from talking to holding meetings to taking concrete action,” she said.
On her most recent trip, snow had fallen but was melting in the warming weather. “The snowfall has decreased in the last few years, contributing to the problem of reduced water supply,” Coe noted, while the Kabul population grows as people move to what they perceive as a safer area and away from war violence.
While Coe’s trips are sponsored by Voices for Creative Nonviolence, she pays her expenses out of pocket and “once there, I’m on my own.” She stays anywhere from students’ houses to the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre, where she volunteers and often tutors students. After five trips in four years, some are familiar faces, like Amrullah, who is now 11 years old.
“Like many kids, he used to sell things in the street, had not been very good at school,” she said. As he attended the Street School, a Friday program that supplements the government-operated school, Amrullah “became more confident. He used to have a reputation as a fighter in his neighborhood with kids who had more money, [nicer] clothes. After studying at the school, he decided it wasn’t his way and stopped fighting.
His neighbors didn’t understand, Coe said, “because they expect violence at every level—home, school and on the street.”
A stop in Honduras
In January, Coe flew to Honduras after Kabul, staying for 10 days to report on student protests for a democratized University of Honduras.
“They want transparency in finances, want to sit at the table for decision making,” and are opposed to the implementation of a cut-off exam for attending university, she said, advocating instead for courses that enable youth to succeed.
The youth situation in Afghan and Honduras is “disturbingly similar,” Coe said. One-fourth of Afghan children need to work to help support families while in Honduras, 45 percent of workers earn less than $2 a day. There is violence in both countries, with militarized police using weapons of war against non-violent protest. Students in the university student movement in Honduras have been subjected to physical abuse, persecution by paramilitary groups, and sequestered, Coe said.
“Every day, the students I visit in Afghanistan say that they don’t know if they will be alive the next day. In Honduras, I would hear a similar phrase.”
She added, “Honduras is a country in which it is very common for a person to appear dead in a bag out of nowhere.”
Coe has shared her stories from Kabul and Honduras at the Blue Hill Public Library and the Reversing Falls Sanctuary in Brooksville, apart from WERU Community Radio reports.
But she said returning home can be challenging.
“Any time I go someplace it deepens my concern about the people in that place. As difficult as it is to hear people’s stories, and recognize what I’m asking— people to [tell] experiences of trauma—it’s a big ask. But there, I can support people in some practical way. Here, I’m powerless.”
Coe, a teacher of English as a second language at Eastern Maine Community College, publishes her reports online with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Her most recent report can be read at vcnv.org/2017/12/25/stepping-stones-to-change-carolyn-coe/. Her WERU report can be heard at archives.weru.org/?s=carolyn+coe.