Platts: An Afghan meal means altering misconceptions around the dinner table
September 13, 2015
Before even entering the house, I could smell powerful scents of qorma curry, coriander and turmeric. I didn't know they were those spices at the time. I just knew that something behind that door smelled incredible. Once I entered, my nose was overwhelmed with flavors. Perhaps apart, those scents would've been familiar, but cooked together, over a six-hour period, they became something I had never tried before: traditional Afghan food.
This type of dinner is certainly not typical in Aspen, where finding any kind of authentic ethnic food is close to impossible. Fortunately, I knew Paula Nirschel, a New York native, and Maryam Laly, an Afghan woman. They knew not only how to make food from Afghanistan, but also how to provide a courteous type of hospitality that is routine in the country. After meeting with them a few times, we agreed that showing this to others was important. So I opened up my family's place here in Aspen for a traditional Afghan dinner and let the two pros take it from there.
I met Paula a couple of years ago over lunch laps on Ajax. We hit it off immediately. As I got to know her better, outside of skiing, yoga and all of the other fun activities Aspen has to offer, I began to hear more about the work she had been doing for the past decade. She started a nonprofit in 2001, which focused on getting young Afghan women college scholarships in the U.S. Paula brought many young ladies back to the States, helping 55 of them to graduate, an unheard feat in a place where a woman receiving an education could lead to demise for the her family. Paula's passion for what she had accomplished was evident when she shared stories of the girls. It became concrete when she told me about the recognition she had received from President George W. Bush and Laura Bush on separate occasions. I was inspired when I heard these stories and was eager to get involved when her next goal for helping Afghanistan came to fruition. Which I knew, for someone with an indefatigable generosity like hers, would not take long.
The nonprofit that Paula started in 2001 sounded incredible to me. But I didn't realize quite how well-known it was among Afghan women until I met Maryam in July. A 23-year old college graduate, Maryam was born in Afghanistan and had been through a lot to get to the U.S. for her education. We quickly got to talking and she was courteous enough to share her story.
“It’s a good way to bring people into the loveliness and yumminess of the country by food and clothing. I can talk to them about the hospitality and show them the Afghanistan I know.”- Paula Nirschel
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When Maryam was 6 years old, her family fled Afghanistan due to a civil war that had broken out. She and her family lived as refugees in Iran for three years and then went to Pakistan, in hopes of her parents being able to find work. When she finally made it back to her homeland in 2003, her father suddenly passed away.
In 2007, Maryam got the opportunity to come to the U.S. when she became involved in a youth exchange and study program. After a couple of turbulent years of dealing with scholarships and immigration details, she was enrolled in a boarding school in 2009. She's been living in the U.S. ever since, recently graduating from St. Lawrence University in New York and taking an internship at the Aspen Institute this summer.
"For me, this transformed my life for the better. It's not easy, but it provided me with so many opportunities and I think I'm a better person as a result," Maryam said.
When she shared this story with me, I told her about my good friend Paula and the work she had done in Afghanistan. Maryam had heard of the organization and was eager to meet the founder of it. A week or two later I introduced them. A short while after that I found myself dressed in a purple chapan (a modern Afghan outfit) drooling over a large batch of qorma (chicken) and a plate full of banjan-seyah (eggplant) along with 30 other excited guests.
Hosting Afghan dinners is one of Paula's favorite things to do. She finds them so important because it gives people a chance to see Afghanistan in a different light. Not as it is portrayed on the news, but as it really is in the homes of families through the country, where meals are a chance to spend time with each other.
"It's a good way to bring people into the loveliness and yumminess of the country by food and clothing," Paula said of the dinners. "I can talk to them about the hospitality and show them the Afghanistan I know."
At this particular dinner, most everyone was new to Afghan food. We weren't even sure what to expect. But once everyone arrived we soon found out. To our delight, but not our surprise, the food tasted just as amazing as it smelled.
After dinner, Paula sat the guests down to tell the story about how she came to develop her second nonprofit organization, Action for Afghan Women (AFAW).
In August 2013, one of Paula's students inspired her to focus on women's health in Helmund, one of the more dangerous areas of Afghanistan where 98 percent of women are abused daily. The graduate, whose name is Basima, is from there and longs to go back as a doctor to help women, who are currently not allowed to seek medical care because all of the doctors in the area are male. Once this idea came to light, Paula wasted no time to get an organization off the ground.
"AFAW came from Basima's care for women in Afghanistan and her desire to be a doctor," Paula said.
The organization's first steps are to financially support Basima through medical school (she is currently in her second year) while simultaneously building a medical clinic where she will be able to practice when she has her degree. Once all is complete, Basima will be able to serve approximately 20,000 women annually. Once the women are behind the protected walls of the medical clinic, they will also receive human rights counseling.
The room fell silent as Paula and Maryam told the story of AFAW and the bigger problems occurring in Afghanistan today, opening us up to a culture that we all probably had predetermined judgments about. Tensions with Muslim countries are at an all-time high with millions trying to cross borders into Europe to escape the violence and danger in their home countries. That and the constant terrorist threats from groups like ISIS have many people in the Western world scared, and even angry, with Muslims.
But meeting someone like Maryam rids you of all those fears. She is kind, welcoming and startlingly genuine. She's more than willing to share her history and her beliefs and she listens to others with just as much care and interest. Maryam often becomes frustrated by people always seeing her as a representative of her country, but her personality helps me to understand why Paula finds such passion in her work.
"I'm not a representative of the entire country," Maryam said. "I'm just a single person from that part of the world and I have my own biases and my own story.
But I do feel obligated to at least show different sides of the country to others."
Toward the end of the talk that evening, another board member stood up to add a thought to the conversation. He said he had a discussion recently with someone about empathy versus compassion and how people usually confuse the two. Empathy helps us to feel the emotions that someone else is feeling, but it does not bring up an actionable course for change. Compassion is what we need to have in order to relate to others and fix the problems we are facing. We all must strive to have compassion for one another. Only then can we work toward a positive change, he said.
To learn more about the Afghan dinners and AFAW, please visit afaw.org.
Barbara Platts feels so inspired by women like Paula and Maryam. She's excited to help with the mission of AFAW in the coming years. Reach her at email@example.com.
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