Refugee Cyclist

I first met Amir, briefly in Afghanistan in October 2012.  He was in a sea of faces of young Afghan men in cycling gear that I was meeting up with at a petrol station on the north side of Kabul to go for a training ride on the Afghan highways.

Several months later we met briefly again once I started working to support the Afghan National Women’s team, but it wasn’t until I brought the girls to Bamiyan for a training camp that we rode together.

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We struggled with the same battles with the dysfunction, mismanagement, and corruption of the cycling federation and Coach Seddiqe, but neither could find a good solution.  Still we tried.

Subsequent trips to Bamiyan he helped me recover stolen bikes and teach the girls some basic mechanic skills to keep the Liv mountain bikes in good condition against the harsh Afghan elements and lack of professional mechanics.

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Last October, I got a message from Amir.  He was in Turkey, he had walked across Iran and Turkey and was getting ready to board a boat with dozens more refugees in two days to get to Lesbos.  He had been robbed, lost his phone, and was exhausted and scared.  I flew to Lesbos, met him, and thanks to a quick Go Fund Me campaign and several friends that stepped up, was able to get him a little money and a new phone.  I got him a hotel and made him stay put for several days, resting, eating, and making sure that his next steps were done with clarity, not out of exhaustion and fear.  He wanted to go to Sweden, that was always his goal.  One month later, he was safely there – with a whole lot of unknowns still ahead.  The life of a refugee is fraught with uncertainty, even once you reach a safe place to sleep.  Yet he always had a smile, even when boarding the ferry to Athens, exhausted from an already long journey.

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We message each other often, he races with a local cycling team and is learning Swedish. He sends photos from training ride and races. He is happy although he misses family and his country.  He is learning to adapt to nordic winters.

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Today he sent me a link from Sweden of his interview on Swedish tv.  You can watch it in full, he speaks English for the interview.  Thanks to the sport of cycling, Amir has found a home in Stockholm and a community of support with the local cycling team.  He is racing, he has even taken the podium at a recent stage race.  Amir is an Afghan story, he is a refugee story, and he is a cycling story.  Bravo, Amir, and Bravo Stockholm Cycling Club.

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August 26th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , |0 Comments

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.

 

Reflections Forward

photo by Deni Bechard

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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

Women on Wheels

Join Shannon at this year’s Women on Wheels event, a celebration of women and bikes, and is the largest of its kind.  Shannon will sign copies of Mountain to Mountain after her presentation.  This is public and open to all.

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.

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.

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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.

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 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

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.

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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.

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You can donate to the crowd funding campaign at www.savingmesayak.com 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

Velo City 2015

Shannon will presenting at Velo City 2015 in Nantes, France.  Details and specific dates coming soon.

June 2nd, 2015|Categories: |Tags: , , , , , |0 Comments
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