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.

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.


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.



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.


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.


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.

The Dragon’s Spine

Afghanistan is not a place I tend to take chances.  Yet your guard eases up a little when you get to Bamyan.  Its a special place, high up in the Hindu Kush, famous for the giant buddhas that once looked over the valley that were blown up by the Taliban .  The niches where the buddhas once resided are still there, as is most of the rubble from the statues themselves.  But the buddhas aren’t the only thing the valley is famous for.  Band e Amir lakes have been designated part of the first national park in Afghanistan and are a popular spot for locals and tourists.  Its rare that you can say Afghan tourist, but in Bamiyan, it feels natural.  So natural in fact that there is a tourist board, aimed at bringing in more local and foreign tourism, thanks to the natural beauty of the landscape, the cultural history of the buddhas and the foladi caves, and the unique activities like the Afghan Ski Challenge and the Tour de Bamyan.

We were walking through town (the capital of Bamyan is Bamyan City, which is more of large village), when a man stops his car as he drives past and immediately gets out and starts talking excitedly.  In Kabul I would be on guard, but in Bamyan I was curious, and Fatima translated that he was excited to see foreigners here.  There are fewer and fewer every year and he loves it with foreigners come to Bamyan.  He would like to drive us wherever we need to go.  I was charmed.  Mohammad’s eyes were animated and kind and it was gut instinct that made me smile and say “tashakur’.   I looked at Steve and Fatima and they followed me into the car.  Once in the car, I realized that I had just accepted a ride from a complete stranger, something I wouldn’t do in any country, much less Afghanistan.  But soon we were flying through Bamyan towards the Screaming City ruins.  He wouldn’t accept any money for the ride, but I insisted and asked if perhaps he would be available to drive us to Dragon Valley the next day.  He smiled wide, and we had a plan.

The drive to Dragon Valley is remote, dusty, and completely barren.  As we drove I began to question my willingness to trust Mohammad’s intentions so readily. We drove as far up a rocky dirt road as we could and then Mohammad parked the car, and we began to walk up the road in clouds of dust as herds of goats came down the side of the mountain searching for shade.  As we neared the top I saw a little turquoise colored stone hut, I asked Mohammad what the hut was, but he just waved and said, “that is for the end of the tour.”  He apparently had this all planned out.

We got to the top, and a spine of rocks became apparent.  We were at the top of the dragon.  Mohammad turned out to be a fantastic storyteller, explaining the legend of Dragon Valley and the slaying of the dragon by Ali.   We walked along the spine, and it did feel like the spine of a dragon carved into rock.  As we neared the end of the spine, Mohammad pointed at a small slit in the rock and said, this is where the dragon is crying.  Sure enough, in the middle of dust and dirt, without a tree in site, the slit in the rock was leaking water.  Mohammad looked pleased at our reaction and his ability to weave a tale.  We walked further into the open space beyond.  Then I realized that thanks to previous experiences with land mines in the area, I didn’t want to be walking around off trail.


I must have looked nervous, and asked about safety, and Mohammad’s face turned serious. “I will not let anything bad happen to you, but if trouble comes, I will step in front of you and let it happen to me.”  I picked the right man, driver/tourguide/bodyguard all in one. We turned around though, he can’t protect us from land mines.

As we came back, I saw the turquoise hut come into view, with a few flags waving in the breeze, and Mohammad said, “See, I told you this is the end of the tour.”  Curiously I followed him around the hut, and saw him disappear into the entrance, which was dark inside.  As I was about to walk in, my eyes adjusted to the dark and I saw a body lying across the floor.  Dead.  “the end of the tour” seemed a lot more ominous now that I’m being led into a hut where there’s a dead body.  My heart pounded as fight or flight response began to flood my veins, and then I heard it.  Snoring.  The body was dead, it was snoring. It was the shepherd seeking shade while his goats hid underneath a rocky outcropping below us.  I walked around the other side of the hut and told Steve and Fatima what just happened and I started laughing in relief.  Mohammad came out and asked Fatima why I was laughing, and she explained to him that I essentially thought he was going to murder us and leave us in the turquoise hut.  His eyes widened, and then he started laughing too, patting my arm.  “No, but I do want to invite you to have lunch with me and my family.”

November 12th, 2015|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , |0 Comments

Visiting Farkhunda

It’s a difficult thing to pay condolences, what do you say to someone that just lost someone they loved?  I discovered its more difficult when you are invited to pay condolences to a family you don’t know, but whose daughter has become a martyr.  Farkhunda was a young woman violently killed by the river in the center of Kabul.  Accused of burning the Koran, when in fact she was protesting the corruption of the mosque she stood outside of, she was beaten, run over by a car, thrown over the wall into the riverbed below, rocks were then thrown on her and finally, her body was set alight.  It was mob mentality at its worst.  Her death shocked Afghanistan, the brutality and the ineptitude of the police nearby to prevent, or even stop, the beating in the center of Kabul took over the nation.  When it was discovered that she didn’t burn the Koran, the nation rallied around her death, and for the first time in anyone’s memory, women carried her coffin through the streets.  The beautiful part was that men created a protective barrier around them as they walked.  I saw photos of the march ad of the women carrying Farkhunda on twitter and tears ran down my cheeks in my home in Colorado.

Visiting her family was an honor, but I also felt that I was trespassing on their period of mourning.  But I was invited to join by Malalai Joya, a famous Afghan activist and former parliamentarian who is in hiding.  I couldn’t say no to her, and joined her in a borrowed armored car her to pay our respects.   The home was marked with a large poster of Farkhunda’s face outside and a security detail.  The tone inside was understandably somber, but within 5 minutes sitting in a bubblegum pink reception room, her father, who spoke German from studying at university as a young man in Germany, was cracking jokes with me and sharing some of his story.


 Sitting with Malalai Joya at Farkhunda’s family home in Kabul – photo by Steve Bouey

Farkhunda’s mother and sisters were in another room and Malalai and I were allowed to go sit with them.  There the tears flowed, and stories were shared, photos were brought out, and the sisters and mother graciously accepted our respect.  Before we left, I asked Malalai to translate to Farkhunda’s mother, that I was honored to pay my respects, that I am foreigner, but that America saw what happened, and is grieving for Farkhunda too, and thank her for welcoming me into their home.  She looked at me, held my hand, and said, “It doesn’t matter that you are a foreigner, we are all human.”

The next day, I asked my taxi driver to stop at the memorial set up by the riverbank where Farkhunda was murdered.  This is the longest I have seen focus remain on a story for a long time.  There was a march a few days later past her memorial.  My hope is that her spirit doesn’t get forgotten in the short attention span of news cycles and media.  Her death was senseless and we should never forget.  And the visit was a reminder that we should never doubt the importance of paying our respects when offered the opportunity, we are all human and we need to remember to connect.


November 12th, 2015|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

The Girls of Afghan Cycles

8 years.  20 trips.

Deaf school, computer labs, women’s prisons, street art, and remote school supply drops in the mountains. Meetings with activists, educators, politicians, prisoners, jailers, soldiers, artists, musicians, and athletes.   A variety of projects and conversations that challenged me, inspired me, and allowed me to understand Afghanistan from a variety of perspectives.

But it’s the young Afghan women that dare to ride that keep me coming back now.  Its the young women that believe that change doesn’t happen by staying home and waiting  Change comes by action, and voices need to be heard.

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For three years I’ve been working to support the first generation of women that dare to ride their bikes, I’ve been lucky to train with them, ride with them, sweat with them, fight for them, and try to fund them.

For almost the same amount of time, I have been working with an incredible group of women that came together to tell their story through the power of film.  Afghan Cycles is a feature length film that has evolved from telling the story of the first ever Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team, to telling the ground breaking story of young women using bikes as vehicles for change. Fighting for their rights one pedal stroke at a time.

In conjunction with the launch of the new trailer for the film, we took a risk and launched a Kickstarter Campaign to fund the final production trip to Afghanistan so that we can deepen this story in all its complexities for a 2016 premier in conjunction with the Summer Olympics in Rio.  While these girls will not be competing, I am working hard to get them there as observers as a first step to a potential bid for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

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But for now – what matters is voice.  Film is a powerful way to amplify voice and change the narrative that has surrounded Afghan women and girls for decades.  Oppression, victimization, poverty, rape, abuse, subjugation.  How about we focus on something else for a change? How about hope?  How about catalysts for change?  How about believing in the power of the young women living their lives everyday in this country inspiring men and women around the world by their actions?  By sharing this story – we can challenge the narrative that women are victims, and show that through their everyday actions, they are heroes in their own narrative.

Change doesn’t happen by playing it safe.  Change happens through action.  We need YOUR action now.  We are taking the risk that the community that has shouted their support for these girls, will do more than ride in solidarity, or share a link, or ‘like’ a post.  We believe that the cycling and human rights community needs to come together, en masse to help tell this story.  We’ve leveraged our credit cards, sent out emails, and wrote endless grants to get this film fully funded.  The time is for all of us to put our money where our mouth is.  Do we believe that hope is stronger than fear?  Do we believe that voice matters?  Do we believe that film can inspire change?

If the answer is YES, please donate today, we have 11 days left, and be part of this two wheeled revolution.  Help tell this story and help show the world the strength of Afghan women is the strength of all of us!  You can spread the word after you donate by tagging @AfghanCycles on Twitter and Instagram and helps pedal a revolution!

photos by Jenny Nichols

Video by Let Media


Gunah: sin

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These are peace bears.  They are made by the Silk Road Bamiyan Handicrafts in Afghanistan.  A cooperative that trains women to make these bears and other handicrafts and sells them to support Afghan women and families through traditional skills common to this area of Afghanistan. They are unique and exceptionally detailed in a variety of traditional dress.  One of the more unique peace bears, the only one not wearing Afghan clothing, was even designed by a woman who had worked with MOMA.

Hiromi is a dear friend that created the program.  Originally from Japan, she runs The Silk Road guesthouse in Bamiyan with her Afghan husband, and runs Bentoya, the only Japanese restaurant in Kabul.  The project was one aimed at supporting Afghan women that had handicraft skills, but no jobs to help support their families. Adorable, sellable, and helping support Afghan women.  Recently, at a craft exhibition in Afghanistan, local mullahs told her these bears were ‘gunah’.  She told me that they said, because these bears are dressed in Afghan clothing they are a sin.

I give up.

June 28th, 2015|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: |0 Comments

What is the Price of History?

As I write this I am sitting at a table with a cup of tea, on a covered porch in a small corner of central Afghanistan high up in the Hindu Kush. When I look up from my computer, I am staring directly into a massive sandstone rock wall that houses the large niche where an enormous Buddha status once lived.  If I turn my head slightly to the right I can see the smaller Buddha niche and hundreds of cave dwellings that are no longer inhabited, but still hold clues to life here hundreds of years ago.


The Buddhas were built in the 6th century and each took about 50-60 years to construct.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, the two buddhas once looked over this valley, standing at 190 and 124 feet respectively.  They were destroyed by the Taliban in mere minutes thanks to dynamite when they declared in 2001 that they were anti-Islamic.

Now the world watches as ISIS follows in the Taliban tradition, destroying ancient culture.  In Mosul they took sledgehammers to priceless artifacts in the Mosul museum, they have bulldozed ancient sites, and most recently they destroyed shrines in Palmyra.

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The destruction of Iraqi culture by ISIS prompted global outcry, representatives at the Louvre in Paris spoke publicly stating, “This destruction marks a new stage in the violence and horror, because all of humanity’s memory is being targeted in this region that was the cradle of civilization, the written word and history.”

Once destroyed, these artifacts can’t be rebuilt.  Markers of culture and civilization help us better know our own history and humanity are lost forever.

In Afghanistan there is another, less radical but just as destructive, cause of cultural annihilation.  Business.  In Logar province, just 25 miles outside of Kabul, there has been a major archeological find, inside a mountain called Mes Aynak. The site the remains of an ancient settlement with over 400 Buddha statues, stupas, and a monastery.

Archaeologists believe that Mes Aynak is a major historical heritage site. It has been called “one of the most important points along the Silk Road” by French archaeologist, Philippe Marquis.  It also contains Afghanistan’s largest copper deposit.

In November 2007, a 3o year lease was granted to a Chinese mining company, which plans to blow up the mountain to mine the copper beneath the.  It is estimated that the copper would yield tens of billions of dollars. The site was due to be destroyed for mining in 2012, but that was delayed, and today’s declining copper prices may mean that a longer delay is possible, giving archeologists time to recover more artifacts and for the international community to apply pressure to the Afghan and Chinese government.

Brent Huffman, a professor at Chicago University, created a film, Saving Mes Aynak to try to direct the world’s attention to this site and the potential to save culture.  At a time where the world decries the destruction of culture by ISIS, it is placidly unaware of the chance to save culture in Afghanistan.

Saving Mes Aynak follows Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori as he races against time to save a 5,000-year-old archaeological site in Afghanistan from imminent demolition. Many believe that future discoveries at the site have the potential to redefine the history of Afghanistan and the history of Buddhism itself.

As I explored the caves around the ancient Buddhas in Bamiyan yesterday and continue to speak with locals about how local and international tourism can invigorate the community, it is heartbreaking to know that there are chances to save more sites like this from destruction, but that we need to engage.


You can donate to the crowd funding campaign at where you can also watch videos, learn more about the history of the site, and the race against time to save Mes Aynak from destruction.  #savemesaynak

Mountainfilm Reunions

Telluride Mountainfilm kicks off tonight with an upcoming four days of Afghan centric festival programming.  There are so many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances converging in one place that I can hardly believe it.  Rarely in the work I do, are so many that I admire, love, and respect brought together in a place outside of Afghanistan itself.  The interesting thing to me was how deep the threads from previous Mountainfilm’s weave through many who will be part of this festival. Many of the people I have now worked with, and traveled with to Afghanistan were women I met at previous Mountainfilm festivals.

Really what is special  are the memories attached to so many of the people who are part of the festival this year. Filmmaker and friend, Sarah Menzies  and I met in 2011 Mountainfilm, she made a film about me, and two years later we were neck deep working on a film project, Afghan Cycles.  In 2013 we interviewed one of this year’s symposium speakers, Afghan Parliamentarian, Fawzi Koofi in 2013 as part of the Afghan Cycles production.  She is one of many Afghan women working in the political system that I’ve been honored to meet and often work with who raise their voice every day despite the death threats and corruption.


Photographer James Robertson will have a art show as part of the Gallery Walk – he is one of the few people I know besides myself that has skied with the Afghan girls in Bamiyan.  His photography is stunning and he’s a recent convert to fat biking – rocking our Mountain2Mountain Afghan inspired jersey in the snow!  This will be the first time we’ve met in person after years of correspondence.


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The Reading Frenzy on Sunday includes friends like James Edward Mills, who will be there with his first book, The Adventure Gap.  James is actually was the first person to ever interview me way back in 2007 when I was first starting to work in Afghanistan.

Then there is Anna Brones.  We met in 2010 Mountainfilm, and she has become a dear friend and partner in crime.  On the promise of great food blog material and adventure, she traveled to Afghanistan with me to assist me on Streets of Afghanistan street art installations.  She is also a producer on Afghan Cycles, and separate from our work together she is author of Fika and the Culinary Cyclist which means that I have been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of recipe testings!  Of course, we made sure to have Fika in Kabul.

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As for the actual films – obviously the film nearest and dearest to my heart is that of Afghan Cycles.  Sarah Menzies will be presenting a behind the scenes talk about production and storytelling based on her experience filming in Afghanistan with Afghan Cycles, which is in post production as we work to complete for a 2016 premiere.  Our first production trip together was in in the spring of 2013 and Jenny Nichols joined the team soon after and joined Sarah on a second trip last fall. Sarah will also be speaking alongside Afghan photographer, Afghan photographer Farzana Wahidy, and Mo Scarpelli of the film Frame by Frame.  The threads connect further as we worked with Farzana on a dusty day on the Afghan highway north of Kabul, and I introduced Farzana to the crew of Frame by Frame as a strong female subject for a film about Afghan photographers.




I was part of the initial production trip of Frame by Frame which will be screening this year.  I had met both Sarah Menzies and Alexandria Bombach at Mountainfilm in 2011 when I was a speaker and the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition was the backdrop to the symposium.  Sarah and Alexandria subsequently made a film about me and my work, MoveShake and Alexandria had asked if there was ever an opportunity to shoot in Afghanistan that she would like to be considered.  I brought up the idea of a film about the power of owning your own story and the Afghan photographers I knew in Afghanistan.  Anna Brones soon joined the team as did Mo Scarpelli, and I brought the team there in the fall of 2012 to coincide with the premiere of the Streets of Afghanistan exhibitions in Afghanistan which features two of the photographers that are now subjects in the film. My  fixer Najibullah worked with them on their subsequent trips as did my friend, Mountain2Mountain photographer, and Afghan road trip partner, Travis Beard, who was a mentor to the AINA Photo Agency and these photographers while he lived in Kabul for over eight years.

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More exciting is that the four Afghan photographers will be at Mountainfilm as guests. Farzana and her husband Massoud will be speaking at the symposium and in break out sessions. Najibullah Musafer and Wakil Kohsar will be in attendance, and both were part of the Streets of Afghanistan project after I met them and several other AINA Photo photographers in Kabul in 2008.  That is one of my favorite parts of Mountainfilm each year when subjects are part of the festival, not just the storytellers. Their history though has a prior thread through Mountainfilm as their first mentor, photographer Beth Wald, has had two exhibitions at Mountainfilm previously.  She was the woman that first told me about AINA Photo where these photographers honed their skills and banded together as an Afghan photo agency.


Outside of Afghan-centric films there are going to be old friends like Dominic Gill of Encompass Films presenting their short film set in Brazil Above the Alley Beneath the Sky.  Tenuous Afghan connection… Dominic and his partner in crime, Nadia, reading my Streets of Afghanistan book at Denver airport!  You may know Dominic best from his Take a Seat adventures!

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Brendan Leonard and Forrest Woodward will be presenting their film, Frank and the Tower.  I have had the joy of sharing many cups of coffee with Brendan in various parts of Colorado, sharing stories, and I remember hearing about Frank.  Simply put, I cannot wait to see this man in action and get the whole scope of the story on the big screen.  This ironically does have another tenuous Afghan connection as Brendan, aka, Semi_Rad is also a huge supporter of Mountain2Mountain’s work in Afghanistan -100% of proceeds from his tshirt sales on his website benefit my work with women and girls and its one more tug at the heartstrings to see his project at Mountainfilm!  Long story short, this is a man that Gives a Shit.

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There are even connections made at Mountainfilm like with Ted Callahan, who I met at my first Mountainfilm in 2010.  He works in the Wakhan and other remote areas of Afghanistan, and we reconnected randomly on an airplane out of Kabul months later.  We spoke briefly just a month ago, which shows the connections made at Mountainfilm run deep.  NY Times journalist, Matt Rosenberg and I also met randomly on the flight out of Kabul in 2012 and thanks to our mutual role as parents, a rarity in the ex-pat world in Afghanistan, we struck up a conversation that has continued on subsequent visits.

So many more connections I’m probably missing, but I know that people I greatly admire like writer, Dexter Filkins will be at the Reading Frenzy, as will Sebastian Junger and all three of his films will be screened.  Then there’s writers like Cheryl Strayed who speak to the importance of owning your own story, all of it, good bad and the ugly.  Books, film, speakers, and the incredible interactions colliding on the streets and cafes of Telluride, its what Mountainfilm does best.  I myself will be at the Reading Frenzy with my memoir Mountain to Mountain, and the Streets of Afghanistan photography book.

Truth be told, I’d love to see young Afghan and Afghan-American voices of the next generation at the festival because they are the ones that are radically changing the landscape in Afghanistan, outside of the confines of traditional Afghan culture.  Afghan-American fashion designer KingNoorLA, Afghan graffiti artists like Shamsia and Kabir, Afghan rock bands like Kabul Dreams and District Unknown, and Afghan-American singer songwriter, Fereshta who is a spiritual goddess with the soul of a rocker. Afghan-American musician and filmmaker Ariana Delwari who had the film We Came Home and launched an powerful “Be Gone Taliban” social campaign. Afghan activists like Noorjahan Akbar who got young women to march in the streets to protest sexual harassment in Kabul, and set up the first women’s internet cafe.  These young men and women, and so many more like them, are the next generation of change makers and signal a change from the norm… I wish that there had been space to discuss the future though this lens as the time has come to let their voices be heard.



Today in Misogyny and Protest

Today was a morning of contrasts in women’s rights and everday sexism.

In Cannes, with its self-proclaimed, “Year of the Woman”,I awoke to see headlines and twitter hashtags lambasting the red carpet controversy. ‘Heelgate’ was in full throttle thanks to the women who were denied entry or physically forced off the red carpet. Not because they didn’t below there. Not because they weren’t invited. Because they weren’t wearing high heels. They dared to wear flats with their outfits, and thus were deemed unworthy to walk the carpet.



The silver lining is that many men are fabulously on the side of women and that they are recognizing that the ability to ‘flip the script’ is in their hands, or their feet to highlight the ridiculous misogyny women still live with today that they, as men, are immune to.   Scarlett Johansen and Mark Ruffalo infamously switched questions in an interview with Cosmopolitan during the Avengers press junket.  Men like Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin have pledged to wear high heels when they walk the carpet tomorrow as a statement of solidarity of the ridiculousness standards women are continued to be judged and pigeonholed by.

Back here, bearing a much heavier load than would be bearable in high heels, Colombia student, Emma Sulkowicz climbed the stage to accept her diploma with her dorm mattress. Emma has famously carried a mattress with her the entire school year after the university dropped the case against her abuser and allowed him to remain in school. Part protest/part performance art, the concept of “Carry that Weight” was the centerpoint of her senior thesis. She has born the brunt of public dismissal, abuse, and ridicule that few rape victims bear because she chose to not just speak out, but call attention to herself and her victimization every day, every class, hauling the weight of her attack in the form of the mattress she was raped on.

Change happens when we use our voice.  Every damn day.  When we no longer accept the misogyny and the sexism and the judgement thrown our way because of our gender.  #useyourvoice

May 19th, 2015|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: |0 Comments

The Threads that Connect Us, an Attack in Kabul

I am sitting with my computer, watching the twitter feed unroll #Kabul. For the past three hours I’ve been watching as the Park Palace Guesthouse is under attack.  This is ‘my guesthouse’.  Its my home away from home in Afghanistan.  I have stayed there over a dozen times over the nearly 20 visits. I know the staff, and many of the longtime guests who literally call it their home as some have lived there for years at a time.  I have met new friends, odd ducks, and networked over breakfast with members of other NGO’s.  The security guards have taken turns riding my motorcycle, and my mountain bikes, which I used to keep there when I was in country.

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I have had interviews, meetings, and brainstorms here.  I had an important relationship bloom here.  We’ve unloaded and reloaded the Streets of Afghanistan art exhibition endless times into a minibus behind the security gate, I’ve built up bikes for the afghan women’s national team, and the security guards have ridden my motorcycle when I used to store it there each visit.  I planned the deaf school in that courtyard with the members of the Afghan National Association for the Deaf.  The Park Palace is where staff reheated me a late night meal of leftovers from dinner when I arrived near midnight after a failed attempt to summit the Anjuman Pass. I have made dear friends with guests, drinking tea in our rooms.  I even fell into a brief romance here.

Many have stayed at the Park Palace with me.  Two separate all-female film crews, photographers, a news cameraman, writers, and an ex marine who helped build bikes for the Afghan women’s cycling team.  One of you has sat with me in the tea room as a car bomb destroyed a guesthouse three blocks away and a gun battle raged outside, and inside, the guesthouse walls.  Some of us have woken up to earthquakes here.  Some of us have been evacuated on threats of attack.  One of you is no longer on speaking terms despite having given birth to a beautiful project together, which continues to break my heart.  One of you that I met through Travis struck up a friendship over tea in your extra-secure, UN compound side of the guesthouse, which cracked me up when I had to go through security INSIDE my own guesthouse to visit your room.  This place holds memories for me that run deep.

Its a reminder of how not to take anything for granted.  I have seen so many close calls in my visits, and I know that nothing is safe, especially not come spring time in Afghanistan. Its a shell game of where to stay, where to travel, and what offices to visit, and when.  While attacks happen every day that break my heart with worry for the colleagues and friends that I have made over the past 7 years in Afghanistan, when it strikes so close to a place you think of as a home, and where I am anxious to return to in a few short weeks, it makes things swing into focus.  The choices we make, the lives we lead, the relationships we nurture, and those we end.
Reflecting over 7 years of memories launched at the Park Palace is a good place to spend some time before my next trip.  Life is short and unpredictable, but the work that we all do is so important, whether that is filmmakers, writers, activists, photographers, humanitarians, storytellers, or aid workers… I have been lucky to call you friends, and colleagues, and I am aware today of the ties that bind us all together in this very small world.
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May 13th, 2015|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: |0 Comments

Does Rape Culture Need a Ribbon?

This Wednesday, May 13, The Hunting Ground will screen in my home of Breckenridge, Colorado thanks to students at the high school and one parent working to the bring the film here to educate and build awareness of campus rape in America.

I’ve seen the film, and I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in College Town, which delves into campus rape at Missoula as an example of one town that unfortunately represents our nation’s epidemic.  The book focuses a great deal on acquaintance rape, the culture rape,  how much victim blaming still exists, and the way that universities and police fail victims. It is meticulously researched and even I was shocked at the statistics and how few view rape as a crime in the same way we view other violent crimes.

I am a victim of a violent, random rape when I was 18 and walking home from work one night in downtown Minneapolis.  My only sister was a victim of a campus rape at Alamosa State University in southern Colorado.  Neither of us had good experiences with the police.  Neither of us went to a hospital for a rape kit. Neither of us had advice on what to do next.  We both are strong, independent, women that refused to be viewed as victims, and neither of us are.

But I decided to start talking about it in 2009, after I ‘came out’ on Dateline NBC while speaking about my work in Afghanistan with women and girls.  I realized then that it was at the core of my motivations, and it was still at the core of my being.  We are all made up of our experiences, our relationships, and our interactions with the world, to lead an authentic life that means we have to own our lives.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  More importantly, for me, I see the stats.  Globally, 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.

Breast cancer will affect 1 in 5 women.  But rape survivors don’t have pink ribbons, or 3 day walk-a-thons, or survivor badges.  People don’t run races in honor of their mother who survived rape.  Yet many more women will be sexually assaulted.  Violated.  Stripped of her dignity through no fault of her own.  Yet the stigma of rape is one that not only means that few women speak up about their experience, the few that do often wish they hadn’t.  As Krakauer states in his book, “Rape is the most under-reported serious crime in the nation. Carefully conducted studies consistently indicate that at least 80 percent of rapes are never disclosed to law enforcement agencies.”

Rape is not treated like other violent crimes.  Rape is considered ambiguous, fraught with he said/she said, even when there is evidence of physical violence, victims are often blamed for their attack.  She was drinking, she was dressed like a slut, she flirted too much, she didn’t fight back, she was in the wrong place, wrong time.  Stabbing victims aren’t blamed for getting stabbed.  Murder victims aren’t blamed for being murdered.

Women are raped because someone raped them.

The questions we  should be asking are not; was she drinking, what was she wearing, did she fight back?  It should be, did she consent?  Yes or no answer.  If the answer is no.  It is rape.

Amy Schumer covered the culture of rape with football players brilliantly in a recent skit, as only she could.  When the coach tells the players that things are going to change this season, starting with ‘no raping’.  the blowback from the players is hilarious, and heartbreaking. “What if I am just the one holding the camera?  What if my mother is the DA and she won’t prosecute? Can we rape at away games?  What if she thinks its rape but I don’t?”  and anon…

The skit is brilliant because it encompasses the major issue we have in this country, at high schools, on college campuses, and beyond, that rape really isn’t seen as a crime.  Until it is, no woman is safe, and few will find justice.

My daughter deserves better.  So did my sister. So did I.

If you are in Breckenridge, you can attend the screening at the CMC and the panel discussion afterwards – all the information is here

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