Combat Apathy: The Blog

Find out what's latest and how you can get more involved in Shannon's efforts. The Combat Apathy blog features Shannon's writing accounts of her ongoing outreach, adventures, and activism.

H&M Boycott Takes Aim at Fast Fashion

I have been lucky to know the badass in the photo above and call her a friend and fellow activist.  We are staunchly feminist and outspoken and fight the good fight on opposite sides of the country. Amy DuFault, aka @amytropolis, has been a fashion writer for the past decade and more recently has been waging a war against our culture of fast fashion.  Where we intersect is where fashion meets human rights.
A few days ago, Amy along with Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, staged a protest outside H&M in New York City.
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         Photos by: John Gamache
I asked Amy to give me her words about the protest and why she and Elizabeth took to the streets to amplify this issue and the voices of garment factory workers around the world that make our $5 tshirts and $20 blue jeans.  Just saying that makes me wonder how we could think that clothes could be sustainably and humanely made that cheaply.  Are we so insulated from reality that we don’t consider that the clothes we wear require actual people to make them, and that they, like all humans, deserve a living wage for the work we do?  Are cheap clothes really worth more than slave labor?  Or do we leave our morality compass at home when we go shopping?  What are your bluejeans worth?
“I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that we’ve gone way far away from being a humane people able to consider things happening far away. We see atrocities in the news through graphic images and the media, but it never seems to happen to us Americans. It’s just not in our backyard enough.

When the Rana Plaza collapse happened three years ago, many people, for the first time, got a view of what the fashion industry had become. That 1200+ people could be killed making fast fashion and 2500 more injured, was pretty deplorable. And yet, it’s still happening, it’s just not a news story that’s big enough to reach us on the daily.

When I heard about the International Labor Rights Forum staging a global day of action against H&M who is one of the largest manufacturers in Bangladesh (where Rana Plaza once was) I felt compelled to be part and created a protest with my good friend and author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline.  

As a sustainable fashion writer for the past 10 years, a story like Rana Plaza altered me forever. It made me a certified activist.

The ILRF writes: “H&M is still not indicating acceptance of real responsibility, and continues to provide its customers with misleading information and, according to the company’s own data, 61% of the company’s supplier factories still do not have all required fire doors installed – this means that hundreds of thousands of workers in these factories are at risk of injury or death should a major fire occur.”

Our protest was very specific, to cause noise around the fact that they signed a legally binding agreement three years ago that has still not been fulfilled. And all of these people did it on the day of H&M’s annual shareholder’s meeting. So all around the world, people protested and H&M did provide more information because of the pressure. Yet it’s so hard to wrap my brain around the logic of us even having to do this. That a company that makes 50 billion yearly can’t install fire doors in their factories so that people don’t die as they have time and time again.

It goes against every moral fiber in my body to not freak out and to keep challenging H&M on policy, safety, environment, ethics. As consumers, we’ve let large companies like H&M get too irresponsible and now we bear the burden of having to continually make noise so they know we exist, so that they know they can’t just rest on their laurels, and you know, until the next battle we need to wage against them.

Peace out!” 
So next time you go shopping, consider, who made your clothes?  Is cheap fashion sustainable?  Is it humane?  Its time we start paying attention to the supply chain that supports slave labor.  How can you learn your clothing’s supply chain?  One great place to start learning more is at Project Just.  They just launched a denim index you can check out.  But don’t stop there… educate yourself and use your wallet to vote for change.

Corruption in Afghanistan All but Cripples Women’s Team Sports – NYT

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                                                         Photo in New York Times by Adam Ferguson

Today the story of the ongoing corruption and mismanagement and possible abuse in Afghan women’s sports federations finally was published by Rod Nordland of the New York Times, titled Corruption in Afghanistan All but Cripples Women’s Team Sports.  I spoke with Rod several weeks ago when he contacted me about my withdrawl of support for the Afghan Cycling Federation.  I shared with him my experiences and frustrations and discovered he had found proof of some my accusations against Coach Seddiqi and against the cycling federation that had fallen on deaf ears when I voiced my concerns.  I had confronted Coach Seddiqi last July in Kabul about the corruption and mismanagement, and as I have written about in previous blogposts, not only did he deny any mismanagement to my face, he made it worse with the South Asian Championships debacle in India that he didn’t take the girls to, denying them the chance to race and represent their country.  The Afghan Cycling Federation’s Secretary General, Fazli Ahmad Fazli, denied any mismanagement and was insulted that I would even mention the word corruption.  He made it clear that our help wasn’t needed, and I made it clear that Mountain2Mountain would remove all formal support from the cycling federation immediately.

While the NYT article saddens many people that have reached out, it makes me happy to see the systemic abuse of power be exposed so that those in power cannot hide behind each other anymore.  Change doesn’t happen in silence, voices, many voices, must be willing to speak up to challenge corruption.  Even as I write this, I hear news that there may be a new Afghan Olympic Committee President, this despite the continued disputes since the election last year.  Its just another sign of the lack of leadership, stability, and the corruption that has plagued the sporting institutions in Afghanistan from the very top of the food chain, all the way down.  This affects not just the women, but the men’s teams as well….corruption is genderless in Afghanistan.

But as in all things in Afghanistan, its usually worse for the women.  When women are forced to remain in structures were the men are in the positions of power, even something as empowering as cycling, or soccer, or cricket, it becomes another source of oppression and entrapment.  The women in Afghanistan may be breaking barriers, but the biggest barrier to women’s sports in that country is ironically the same institutions that are in place to allow women to compete.

Coach Seddiqi was finally removed in an election last month as the President of the Cycling Federation. He was replaced by a man I met in Bamiyan in 2014 who was the head of the local Provincial Olympic Committee.  I don’t know what kind of man he is yet. Coach Seddiqi has also been fired by the men’s team, but he remains as coach of the women’s team because they are afraid.  Afraid that if they stand up to him, they will lose their only chance to ride, their only chance to compete.  He holds all the control.  And they know it.

The tentative plan is to bring the girls to the US this fall for a training workshop with the hope of creating an all-Afghan cycling team here in Colorado that could support and train these women to become the next generation of leadership for the team in Afghanistan.  This allows us to bypass the majority of the corruption and empower women to be in charge of developing the women’s cycling program.  This has been being planned for many months with an incredible team of cycling professionals who believe in these girls and in their ability to create a two wheeled revolution that puts women in the leadership positions and provide real coaching and training for those that want the opportunity to race.

Beyond that I plan to meet with the Afghan Olympic Committee leadership and the new leadership of the Afghan Cycling Federation, alongside the men’s and women’s team to discuss the future of this sport in Afghanistan.  These talks will determine how I, and Mountain2Mountain, plan to move forward.  Stay tuned, more to come.

 

#UseYourVoice

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Today I decided enough was enough.

For over a year I have been stalked and harassed and demonized privately and publicly by one man.

For over a year, two fabulous men in my life have been stalked and harassed privately and publicly.

Why?  Because a man decided he was obsessively in love with me.  A man that I had become ‘friends’ with over Facebook because of my work in Afghanistan.  After a couple of years of occasional contact through Facebook, I was going to be in Chicago for a book signing and public event and reached out to meet in person.  We had coffee, I met his daughter who was the same age as mine, and spent time in his art studio.  We talked about Afghanistan, art, and our daughters.  I spent about 24 hours in person with this man and had no physical contact other than an awkward hug goodbye when I left Chicago.  He is 20 years older than me and I was impressed by his art and his vision and enjoyed our friendship based on art and Afghanistan.  I considered him a friend.

Soon after we met in person he began to twist the friendship into an obsession and love affair.  This obsession quickly turned within a few short months into rage, and continued to cycle through that bi-polar’esqe pattern several times over the course of 14 months. He then emailed, Facebook messaged, left phone messages, posted on Instagram and Facebook, and tried to text until I blocked it. Every day.  Multiple messages a day.  He tagged me in endless posts about his paintings. He sent long rambling messages about art, about his life, about whatever he was thinking about, all the while professing his love, or his hatred towards me.

During this 14 months, most disturbingly he also relentless tore about two men I care deeply about.  One is a close friend and colleague, Allen Lim. The other is my boyfriend, Steve Bouey.  He stalked them and demonized them, not just to me, but to other people in my life.   He reached out to my best friend and several work colleagues about me, him, the perceived notion of ‘us’, and the two men in my life.  Then he made it public, posting on Facebook and Instagram social media ‘responses’ to posts that I, or my boyfriend, made. Every day either of us made a post, he ‘responded’ to me directly in an email, or passive aggressively on an instagram or facebook post.  Replicating the same hashtags, or simply a direct commentary to our posts.

He is a master manipulator and classic narcissist. Three times I forgave him after appalling behavior that I would never forgive under normal circumstances.  I felt sorry for him, I wanted to believe the good in him could overwhelm the darkness. Each time I believed him when he said it would never happen again, that he wanted to make amends, he was so devastatingly sorry.  He would then beg me to let him help me.

Just writing that I want to smack myself in the face… typical cycle of abuse, right?  He made me feel bad for HIM.

Several days ago, he sent me an email, showing me yet another note that he had sent to my best friend, Christiane, a woman he’s never met, nor been introduced to.  He just decided he needed someone to unburden himself to, and to completely tear my choice of boyfriend apart, so of course it follows that his best choice to do so would be my best friend, right?  That’s perfectly acceptable behavior.  Or that he should start emailing my previous Executive Director.  First about art of course, then about demonizing my friend, Allen.  Why?  Who the hell knows.  Because again, defaming my friends to my colleagues is completely acceptable behavior.  The irony being that throughout it all, he continued to tell me how much he loved me, except when he hated me.

His argument would be that he did nice things, he tried to help. And yes, he did.  Several times he tried. Mostly as a way to make amends. But each time it was twisted to prove how ungrateful I was, how blind I was to his kindness.  But these so-called, ‘acts of kindness’ do not outweigh months of asking him to leave me alone, to go away, to stop harassing me, to stop stalking me every day on social media, to stop making commentary on my life and my choices, to stop stalking my boyfriend, to stop demonizing my friend.

So I finally said enough. Why is that the victims are always asked to sit on their hands and play nice?  “Don’t say anything.  Just ignore it.  He’s harmless.  You’ll make it worse.”

I’m supposed to remain silent while he posts photos of my memoir in trashcan on Instagram while accusing me of using Afghanistan as a ‘photo op’ and that I am a manipulator of tragedy as a way of self aggrandizement.”  “A good tree died for this book, – perhaps as landfill it can be of more genuine value and worth.”  This from a man who in the next breath is sending my best friend letters of how much he loves me, and that he only wants the best for me.

He made it public.  Over 40 instagram posts prove it. So do hundreds of emails. So do Facebook posts and blocked phone messages.  So do messages sent via FB that have been screen-grabbed by my friends and colleagues and sent to me as proof.

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Wesley Kimler, you made this public. You stalked me and my loved ones for the past 14 months.  You did this.  You were warned that I had had enough and wasn’t going to be silent anymore. You then posted awful things about me for the world to see, not just my friends and loved ones.  I refuse to be silent and let you continue to hide behind social media.  I refuse to allow this fantasy to play out in private or public any further.  Let the police deal with this now.

#notrespassing

April 12th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: |3 Comments

Corruption in Sport Not Limited to Afghanistan

As we continue to look at ways to support the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team, we delve a bit deeper into the issue of corruption and how it affects all the sports federations, not just cycling.

In an Al Jazeera report last year, a journalist looked at how Afghanistan’s endemic corruption, warlordism, and power politics were beginning to erode Afghanistan’s athletic establishments too.  Corruption weaves its way through every facet of life in Afghanistan, and lies at the heart of the ability or inability for Afghanistan to move forward.

This isn’t just an issue in Afghanistan, “In 2012, the IOC suspended India Olympics Association for failing to comply with the world sports body’s regulations for holding independent elections without the government’s interference. Indian athletes thereby lost the right to compete in any Olympics event under Indian national flag.

Beyond the region all we have to do is look at the recent scandal rocking the international governing bodies of FIFA for soccer, or the UCI with cycling, even the International Olympic Committee itself has been plagued with scandals of corruption in the past. Sports is not immune to corruption, especially not when we are operating in a country where corruption is a daily part of life.

According to research done by Women’s Regional Network, women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India agreed that they find corruption unremarkable because it is so pervasive that they did not think it could change.

We have navigated corruption throughout our eights years of working in Afghanistan, whether it was in the women’s prisons, trying to secure a land donation for a school for the deaf in Kabul, even remote mountain school supplies deliveries were subject to corruption.  It should be no surprise then that our work with Afghan Cycling Federation is not exempt from corruption or mismanagement.  Going further, the majority of the women’s sports federations are controlled by men – perverting opportunities for empowerment through sport subject to the same structures of oppression and misogyny as any other program in the country.  When men control women’s sports federations, the women and girls that participate at the highest levels of Afghan sports find themselves in another form of dependence and potential oppression.  It also creates opportunities for sexual harassment and potential assault to occur without a system to protect the girls.

A recent report about the sex scandals of the USA swimming program in Outside Magazine highlighted that again, this is not endemic to Afghanistan.  If female swimmers in the US are sexually assaulted by their coaches, why would be shocked to see misogyny and corruption play out anywhere else?

The question becomes for us, as an organization that believes in the power of sport to empower young women, and the sport of cycling in particular to catalyze a change in the taboo of women riding bikes, how do we support the athletes affected by this corruption? How do we say ‘NO’ to a corrupt system but still support the girls that risk their lives and their honor to ride a bike?

When we contacted the Afghan Cycling Federation to report recent instances of deliberate corruption and mismanagement with the Coach and the federation, I was rebuked.  When I removed our support of the federation they shrugged it off.  Meanwhile, I looked at how a change of leadership could potentially change support for the girls.  This is slowly happening, after years of control by Coach Seddiqe of both the mens and women’s cycling teams, the Coach has been removed from control of the men’s team.  There are calls for an election to replace him as the President of the Cycling Federation – something he has refused to step down from amid ongoing calls of corruption.  Time will tell if he can also be replaced as the coach of the women’s team.

In the meantime, we have found some solutions and working towards getting the girls serious coaching and training here in the US are putting them into action.  We will return to Afghanistan to meet with the families of the team, the new President of the Afghan Olympic Committee, and the new President of the Cycling Federation in hopes that we can navigate the pervasive corruption that has hamstrung this team, preventing them from racing while parading them around like a dog and pony show to embassies and Kabul organizations that want to congratulate them on their Nobel Peace Prize nomination. They are cyclists that deserve to be coached and to race at every possible opportunity, they deserve to be treated as athletes, not shown off around town like the Coach’s private harem.

For those that have asked, are we giving up?  Absolutely not, in fact the last year has helped develop some very real solutions outside of Afghanistan that can address many of the issues they are faced with.  We will need the support of our community more than ever as we prepare to announce our next steps with the team, and we know that you will love what we have planned.  In the meantime, these girls, and others like them, need to know none of us are giving up on them.

#pedalarevolution

 

 

April 10th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: |0 Comments

M2M’s Necessary Changes

I posted this originally on Mountain2Mountain’s blog.  As I prepare to move forward with plans to bring the team to the United States – its important to look at the very real corruption that affects these girls and the entire Afghan Cycling Federation. 

It is with a heavy heart that we officially removed our support of the Afghan Cycling Federation.  After 3 years of working to support the women’s national cycling team I have determined that the mismanagement and corruption of many involved at the Afghan cycling federation cannot be fixed.  Its difficult to come to this conclusion on the heels of the team being recognized as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year and their nomination as part of Bike the Nobel for the Nobel Peace Prize.  It’s a dream come true that these girls are being recognized for their bravery and courage on two wheels.  Yet supporting the infrastructure doesn’t support the girls.  Time and time again, I’ve seen mismanagement and corruption, yet I have tried to work directly to find solutions, discuss future plans, and advocate for the girls.  Mountain2Mountain, myself, and the Afghan Cycles film crew have created a powerful PR machine that has elevated this group of girls into worldwide acclaim.  Press and media have been covering these girls and my work in Afghanistan steadily for the past 3 years and that is ramping up again on the heels of the Nobel Peace Prize nomination.  They are the darlings of the media right now, doing interviews, and sharing their story.

photos by Deni Bechard

Yet in parallel to the success of the team at breaking barriers and inspiring other girls to ride, there is a system of corruption that I can no longer deal with in good conscious.  During the formal announcement of the Peace Prize nominations, the team was supposed to be racing in India at the South Asian Championships.  We sent over racing kits and the funding to get 5 girls there plus the Coach.  Instead, the team got to Dehli and stayed there instead of traveling on to Guhwati.  There they visited Coach’s extended family, he took his new wife to the doctor, and they had one group ride through town.  The girls were denied their chance to race and represent their country because of mismanagement at best, corruption at worst.  This is just the most recent example, there have been many throughout the past three years, this one was simple the most blatant.

There is no effort by the cycling federation in Kabul to support and encourage the other groups of girls that are starting clubs and teams.  Instead these young women that are riding without the safety or direction of anyone but themselves are mocked and ignored.  Girls like Zhara who started teaching girls to ride as a social movement, registered a team with the sports federation and yet is excluded from the federation, and insulted by the Coach.  Instead of understanding that bike clubs only give the federation more strength, that more girls riding strengthens the national team in the long run, the Coach sees them as a threat to his power and control of his fiefdom.

Fiefdoms and power struggles exist throughout Afghanistan, even in the most benign areas like a federation of a sport deemed not worth supporting by the Afghan Olympic Committee.  The previous President of the Afghan Olympic Committee told me directly that it was difficult to get the AOC to even do the paperwork to send the girls to the Asian Games last year in South Korea, even if they were funded, because they are considered a C level sport, and the AOC only wants to support A level sports like football and cricket because they don’t want to look like amateurs.  We fought hard together to get one girl allowed a spot to go.

There is much more to be said about the past 3 years, I intend to focus on the gains.  Since I started working with the team in 2013, they have raced out of their country, been part of training camps where I taught them and the Coach, how to shift, how to draft, and how to ride in a pack.  We discussed nutrition and hydration because the girls and the boys weren’t eating or drinking anything on their rides, and then bonking. Hard.  We discussed a longterm plan, barriers to involvement, and how to expand.  The girls improved, we donated new bikes and helmets with Liv Cycling.  Their story is in two museums as examples of sports diplomacy.  They have been in over a hundred press articles in over 30 countries. They were recognized by National Geographic and the Nobel Peace Prize committee this year.

That said, I am not giving up on the girls.  These girls deserve to be supported and I have determined that the best way to do this is to support them directly.  We will be making an announcement soon about this, and until then we are grateful for everyone who believed in these girls and helped support them over the past three years.  We have to get creative and recognize that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

As this year unfolds, we see their story only spreading more, and with the post production of Afghan Cycles finishing up, their story will soon be told on the big screen.  The future sees a new chapter in this story as we continue to work to support the girls in Kabul, in Bamiyan, and elsewhere to continue to ride, to break barriers, and to believe in their own future for years to come.  Stay tuned, this is going to be good.  #pedalarevolution

 

April 10th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: |0 Comments

Reflections Forward

photo by Deni Bechard

                                                                                                                                                            photo by Deni Bechard

7 years ago I first mountain biked in Afghanistan.  It was on a dry riverbed in the Panjshir Valley, and it was a first attempt in a series of rides to challenge and explore the gender barrier that prevents Afghan girls from riding bikes.  It was four years, and multiple trips in multiple provinces, before I met an Afghan girl that rode.  That meeting changed my work dramatically, in Afghanistan and back home, and as I get ready for another major shift in this work I found myself looking back at photo archives and reflecting on the past 8 years of work and adventure in Afghanistan.

The irony was that my memoir, Mountain to Mountain, was in its final stages of editing with my publisher in New York City when I met these girls.  So it ends, right where everything came full circle.  I’d spent several years working on various women’s rights and ’empowerment’ projects in Afghanistan, and the theme I had evolved my overall focus around was ‘voice’.  I spoke specifically about the power of voice and how it validates, informs, and empowers and why it matters when we look at the effectiveness of international aid in my first TED talk in 2012. Since then I have focused on projects that amplify the voice of those at the forefront of changing perceptions of women’s rights and their role in society.  Graffiti artists, photographers, activists, and athletes in particular.

Each trip, twenty in total so far, I took time to ride and explore a different part of the country on my bike. Always on a singlespeed mountain bike, always exploring the ‘whys’ that make Afghanistan such a conundrum for everyone that lives and works there.  Specifically, ‘Why can’t girls ride bikes?”

Fast forward a few short years, and today there are Afghan girls riding bikes in various parts of the country for the first time in their country’s history, and while the numbers are still incredibly small, the effect is rippling out in unique and overlapping ways.  I’ve spoken often about the Afghan National Women’s Cycling team and my work with them for the past 3 years. Fatima Hadairi started a bike club in Kabul as a Girl Up project, it only lasted one summer, but one girl, Naheed, went on to join the the national team, and another, Halima co-founded Afghanistan’s newest bike club the BorderFree Cycling Club.  Zahra Hosseini started teaching girls to ride in Bamiyan, and organized three races and public events to spotlight the right of girls to ride, involving the community at all levels to gain traction for social acceptance of girls riding.  Last year she formally registered a cycling team with the sports federation to give her a more legitimate platform to continue to develop from.  There are young women like Kabul-based musician, Ramika, who cycles often and encourages younger girls in her neighborhood to join her.

The girls aren’t operating in a bubble, they are inspiring people around the world through the extensive press and media attention that gives them voice beyond their community. The Afghan Women’s National Team were chosen as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize which only amplify their voices and their story of a two wheeled revolution further.

As I look ahead to my next trip and a major change with my work and Mountain2Mountain, I am overwhelmed and proud of the the progress these girls have made.  At the same time, I am also saddened by the increased violence in Afghanistan that threatens the progress that has occurred throughout the country for women and girls in all sectors of life.

On a project level,  I’m deeply frustrated and disgusted by the continued corruption that has played a large role as a roadblock for the national cycling team in particular.  I wrote about it in detail on the Mountain2Mountain Field Notes blog.  As I continue to work in support of these girls and others like them, its amazes me that the same men and institutions that are put in place to support and encourage these girls are also the very same ones that lie and cheat these girls out of the opportunities ahead of them.  While I slammed the door shut on the corrupt cycling federation, another door opened with a solution.  I am working hard to make it a reality so that I can continue to support these girls so they can in turn have a bigger say in shaping their own destiny, on or off a bike.

Stay tuned and pedal onwards….. You’re going to love what’s a little bit further down the road.

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photo by Jenny Nichols

Bike the Nobel

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There are days that make the world seem a little more just.  Hearing the official nomination of the bike for the Nobel Peace Prize as a vehicle for human rights was one of those days. As if that wasn’t good enough, the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team was announced as the human part of the nomination.  My heart is happy to see that the courage of these young women is recognized as a inspiration and their actions are revolutionary.

Next step is a bike relay from Milan, Italy where the nomination campaign originated with RAI Radio 2.  The relay will end in Oslo, Norway to hand deliver the nomination on two wheels to the Nobel Peace Prize committee.  No matter who wins this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the Afghan women that dare to ride have shown the world they are pedaling a revolution.

#BikeTheNobel

January 17th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: |0 Comments

Next Steps in Sweden

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I was happy to hear that my good friend Mohammad is settling in to his new home in Stokholm, Sweden.  We last saw each other in Lesbos, Greece as Mohammad was on the refugee trail.  He still had a long road ahead, borders were closing, winter was coming, yet he was determined to make it to Sweden and kept me updated along the way.

One of my favorite memories of Mohammad is from the first time I rode with him, he joined a training ride I arranged with the Afghan Women’s National Team in Bamiyan.  He was a member of the men’s team, but lived in Bamiyan and regularly rode with the local girls learning to ride. I was impressed by how much he helped support the girls, even encouraging the weaker girls that fell behind.

It made me excited to hear that he had found a cycling community in his new home.  In the midst of a cold Swedish winter, he was out riding with members of the Reklers Cycling Team.  One of the coaches had lent him a bike so that he could train.

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I reached out to our friends at Giant Bicycles to see if we could do better now that he is settled and has a place to train.  They have agreed to send him a new bike, helmet and some gear to help him restart.  I’m excited to see him continue to train with the Reklers Cycling Team as a new member and hugely grateful for the cycling community’s support!

January 17th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: |0 Comments

National Geographic Adventure Picks Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team

Its is with an enormous smile that I can announce something I”ve been holding in for a couple of months now.  National Geographic Adventure has chosen the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team as ‘Adventurers of the Year’.  This is a huge honor for the girls, honoring their efforts at breaking new ground as the first generation of female cyclists.  It also makes me incredibly proud to be part of the National Geographic Adventure family, as they expand the definition of what it means to be an adventurer.  Its not just about first ascents, big wave surfing, or extreme outdoor feats, its also about breaking social and gender barriers, challenging the status quo, and standing up with dignity when the culture around you is telling you ‘no’.  These girls epitomize bravery and dignity every time they ride and it is truly an honor to know them, to ride with them, and to support them.

Read the story, watch their video clip, and vote for the People’s Choice Award!

Congratulations ladies, I wish I was able to be there in person to give you all a hug!!

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November 14th, 2015|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: |0 Comments

Witnessing Ground Zero in the Refugee Crisis

I arrived in Lesbos (Lesvos) Greece, last week.  I wasn’t planning to come here but I received a message from a young Afghan man, Mohammad, that I’ve known for the past three years.  He is a member of the men’s national cycling team and has helped several times with the girls team.  He has built bikes with me, he has gone on training rides with the girls, he has supported the efforts in his home town, Bamiyan, of the girls that are cycling and riding bikes to school.  He was with me in July when I finally liberated the stolen bikes in Bamiyan and then helped build them with the girls.  I consider him a friend in Afghanistan and when he reached out for help, that loyalty of friendship kicked in.  He had fled Afghanistan as a refugee and was in Turkey, having walked across Iran.  He was sleeping in a park with other refugees and was preparing to cross to Lesbos in a smuggler’s boat, with no more money, no phone, and no identification.

The short version is I flew to Greece.

What I found there was staggering.  I read the news, I understand that this is the largest mass migration of people since WWII.  I’ve traveled through Syria when I lived briefly in Beirut, I’ve worked and traveled throughout Afghanistan for 8 years, I know and care for this region of the world.  Yet its hard to understand the overwhelming numbers of refugee migration until you see them.  I often talk about the need to humanize the numbers in order to combat apathy, but that’s usually when I’m speaking about gender violence.  Its exactly the same thing when we are discussing the refugee crisis.  The numbers are too overwhelming to contemplate and we lose the humanity in the crowd.

I picked up a rental car at the airport in Lesbos and headed towards Mytiline to find Mohammad who was at Moria refugee camp trying to get registered so that he could travel off the island and get through Greece.  Five minutes into the drive, I see orange lifejackets on the beach at occasional intervals.  This isn’t even the part of the island where most of the boats are landing because it’s farther away from Turkey than in the north where its only a five mile distance between the two countries.  There are piles and piles and piles of lifejackets, and rubber life preservers, and destroyed rubber rafts littering the beaches.  There are multiple crossings every day, people paying smugglers $900-1500 a person to get on a dodgy rubber raft and told to steer themselves, point toward land. They arrive in the daylight and at night, most have lifejackets, some I’ve met didnt.  People are dying in numbers so large trying to make that crossing that the Lesbos cemetery is filled to capacity and they have started storing bodies in a makeshift morgue.

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Moria camp is as awful as you read in the media, and the irony that this camp is a former prison is almost painful.  Google ‘Moria Camp war zone’ and you’ll see.  It is where everyone but the Syrians get registered. The Syrians are registered in a separate refugee camp, Kara Teppe a little bit closer to Mytiline.  Sanitation is awful, lack of shelter and food create desperation.  Police have used extreme force and tear gas to control the crowds.  During the rains that hit before I arrived, young children and babies were literally dying of hypothermia.  Tent cities have erupted outside of the camp to escape the crush, tents and clothes drying in trees dot bursts of color across the hillside.

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It’s an hour plus walk from the port town of Mytiline which is where  the enormous ferry boats are located that make the 12 hour journey to Athens.  Many families have simply set up temporary camps in the ferry boat parking lot, which is safer, and more convenient to restaurants and supplies.

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After I picked up Mohammad, we got him to Athens on the ferry boat, and he is going to try his luck heading for the border tomorrow in a bus for Macedonia. He has some money, a phone, and a few nights sleep so that he could rest and make rational decisions.  It’s not much, but it’s more than he had when he got here.  There was a offer of a home and job here in Greece, but despite the news about borders closing and Germany and Norway deporting Afghans back to Kabul, he is determined to go.  He wants to be a professional cyclist and won’t be deterred from trying to get to Germany or Sweden.

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I stayed behind, I had several days left here and ‘worked’ as an ad hoc taxi service and ferry boat ticket translator.  I met Syrian families, and other young Afghan men like Mohammad. I met a young Afghan woman from Mazar i Sharif traveling with her brother.  I collected piles of life jackets from the beach when I needed to clear my head.  I spent time in the camps and tried to better understand the situation from a variety of perspectives. The biggest issue beyond the numbers and physical resources themselves is lack of communication.  With boats landing all over the island there is simply not enough accurate information relayed.

The Syrians I have given rides to, or met in town, are without a doubt, the epitomize of graceful dignity. Families taking care of each other, men and women holding hands through town, gracious when offered help. They have left destroyed cities, and ruined homes, and most of what they treasure most is handheld, each other, and their phones – which today hold their memories and their contact with family.  Photo albums are digital, Skype and FaceTime and WhatsApp all allow connection to extended family and friends.  Apps are developing rapidly to also acts as maps and border crossing navigation tools with real time data uploaded to advise of closing borders, or new routes opening up.  I haven’t met one Syrian yet that doesn’t dream of going home again if the war ends.  The desire to rebuild, to stay rooted to the country they love, is tangible.  These are doctors and teachers, I even met a physicist who insisted to me, as his wife blushed, that his wife was much more intelligent than he was and he was lucky to have her by his side through this journey.

These are the moments that break my heart.  Not the overwhelming numbers, the deaths at sea, the seemingly hopelessness of a situation that has more people spilling across the sea to Greece, only to be met with countries building fences and closing borders, and futures spent living in refugee camps.  The moments that make me cry are the moments of pure humanity, of humans helping each other, loving each other, and smiling despite the despair.  The moments of normalcy that we don’t see in a crisis. Teenagers taking selfies by the harbor.  Families eating together at restaurants.

I have no answers.  Only more questions than I started with before getting here.  There is no real solution, but I do now that closing borders is not the answer.  Greece is overwhelmed as it’s a country facing its own economic crisis, yet everyone I met said, “Greece will not close its borders.”  I arrived home to the tragic Paris attacks that have sparked a refugee backlash.  A refugee camp in France was set on fire, anti-refugee rhetoric nearly indistinguishable from anti-Muslim hate speece, borders closing, all against those that are fleeing the same people that killed those in Paris.  Over twenty US states, proudly not Colorado where I call home, declared they will not allow refugees to come to their state.  Europe, the United States, and Australia need to realize this isn’t going to go away because they shut the door.  Humanity is realizing that we are all the same.  Only the geography is different.  We have the room, we need to invite everyone inside and we can figure out the details as we go.

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