TESOL Past President and Executive Director Visit Afghanistan

In April, The U.S. Department of State invited TESOL Past President Dr. Christine Coombe and TESOL Executive Director Dr. Rosa Aronson to speak at a seminar on professionalizing English language teaching at Kabul Education University. They spoke to 200 English language educators, who received them warmly.

As you may recall, the Taliban attacked Kabul and other major Afghan cities on 15 and 16 April (EST), and, as it turned out, Rosa and Christine were there when it happened. Below is Rosa’s account of the seminar and the attack, which caused a tense few hours and delayed their return to the United States. Despite the potential violence, however, Rosa tells us that she would go again. Here are her day-by-day reflections:

9 April
In preparation for this trip, I gave my husband John information that I normally don’t. Hotel in Kabul, flights to and from, and even passport number and State Department contact information. I am aware that this is a trip unlike any other. This is my first time going to a country torn by war. Ever since I left Algeria, where I lived for 10 years during the civil war of independence, I have lived in countries where peace is the norm. This takes me back to Algeria. The curfew, bombings, dead people face down or face up in the streets. My biggest fear is not what might happen to me or Christine. Rather, it is that I will witness some horrific act, or that I will see more suffering than I can handle.

I also thought today about the scarf I will have to wear during my stay in Kabul. Will it affect how I perceive myself as a person, and how I will feel as presenter? There is a French expression, “l’habit ne fait pas le moine,” which means “You can’t judge the monk by his garb.” And yet, being forced to wear certain items to hide your hair, neck, shoulders, and chest feels restricting to a Westerner.

11 April
It’s the middle of the night here in Dubai, and I’m suffering jet lag after a 13-hour flight from Washington, D.C. Christine has kindly offered to host me. Her apartment is like a treasure chest, full of mementos of her numerous and exciting trips around the world. She has so many trophies and plaques recognizing her leadership in ELT that I stopped counting. She is an incredible role model for both teachers and students. In addition to her leadership role at TESOL International Association, she is a well known author and expert on assessment, a leader in Toastmasters, the International Baccalaureate, IATEFL, and, of course, TESOL Arabia.

Rosa Aronson and Christine Coombe
Rosa Aronson (left) and Christine Coombe
12 April
We have to leave tomorrow afternoon for a short, two-and-a-half hour flight. It’s becoming real. I purchased a head scarf today and was reminded that Christine and I will both need to wear one.

The theme of the seminar is professionalizing ELT in Afghanistan. I’m presenting twice. On Saturday morning, I will give a short introduction to TESOL International Association. In the afternoon, I will lead a workshop on best practices in ELT association leadership and management. Christine is doing a plenary on assessment, a topic of great need in Afghanistan.

We expect between 75 and 100 English language teachers and teacher trainers. The U.S. Department of State is funding the event. My approach will be to be very open to the local context. I do have information to share, but it’s important to avoid superimposing one framework without considering the situation on the ground. I also know that ELTAA [English Language Teachers Association of Afghanistan] has been in existence for quite a while, so setting up an organization is not new to them. Of course, I would love it if TESOL could help build the capacity of ELT in Afghanistan and forge an affiliate relationship with ELTAA.

13 April

Welcome to Afghanistan
The day has finally arrived. I am typing this on the Safi Airways plane that is taking us to Kabul. We have very detailed instructions from Steve Hanchey, education program manager at the U.S. Department of State, on how to proceed from the time we disembark to the time we arrive at the Serena Hotel. This morning alone, four emails arrived providing further details. The flight is full, and I am fighting the need to sleep, having had a very short night. As I review my notes for the two presentations, I am not sure what to expect from the teachers. I am eager to meet them, and I hope that what Christine and I have to offer will be relevant to their professional lives and aspirations.

2:15 pm: Starting our descent. Snow-capped mountains remind me of the Alps.

14 April
The seminar went very well. The embassy ended up inviting about 200 teachers and teachers-in-training to attend the event. We were surprised to see guards carrying weapons in the auditorium. Somehow, the presence of a rifle in an institution of higher education feels surreal.

The day started as soon as the associate ambassador arrived. A man came to the podium and gave a reading of the Holy Koran in a deep, soulful singing voice. This was followed by the Afghan national anthem performed by students from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. A beautiful performance by students who all come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Next, the chancellor of Kabul Education University gave remarks. Finally, Steve Hanchey introduced me, and by then I had only twenty minutes to give an overview of TESOL International Association and the value of associations in society. I had prepared a PowerPoint presentation but decided to skip it. I did not want to encroach on Christine’s presentation because I knew she would need every single minute. But I also saw that the the technology was very basic, a laptop that projected on to a small home projection screen. Steve had also warned us that electricity frequently went out in the university building, including the auditorium. So I decided to deliver a very short message that I hoped was informative and inspiring.

Despite the challenging conditions, Christine did a superb job. Her presentation was lively, engaging, funny at times, and she managed to get the audience to participate in the presentation, on a topic that many consider dry, boring, and intimidating. Her presentation was three hours long with a fifteen minute break in the middle, but the time went by very quickly. There was laughter, bantering, and real engagement with the audience.

Christine Coombe onstage
Christine Coombe speaking at Kabul Education University
One funny moment happened when the tech staff decided to improve the visibility in the room. To make the slides in the projector appear more visible, they went outside and covered the windows with black paper. As a result, the slides were now bright and clear but Christine, who was wearing black, vanished in the now completely dark auditorium. Clearly not ideal. Off came the black paper and Christine reappeared as if by magic! All this was done in good humor. She took it in stride, and so did the audience.

When we broke for lunch, around 1 pm, the mood at the seminar was really light and relaxed. We had lunch in the vice-chancellor’s office, a buffet of ragout meats, vegetables, and fattoush, a salad made from toasted pita and spiced vegetables.

Kabul Education University used to be the headquarters of the Communist Party during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By Western standards, the campus lacks even minimal amenities–toilet paper, reliable electricity, even heat in winter. Yet, both students and faculty are rightfully proud of their university and have high aspirations for it.

Rosa and Christine with conference participants
Christine (left) and Rosa (second from left) with seminar participants
As a Westerner, experiencing this seminar is a reality check, a stark reminder of the inequalities of conditions and opportunities afforded to young people as they face their future. I know this is not just a Western/non-Western, or North/South dichotomy. Those inequalities also affect students within the United States as well as in other wealthy countries.

This unequal playing field can have particularly dire consequences when it comes to education. I know there is a prevailing belief in the United States that we are not defined by our birth circumstances. If you have enough motivation, the narrative goes, you can overcome any challenge. We like this story because it allows us to justify the status quo. After all, we can all find examples of individuals who have just done that. But we conveniently forget that they are often the exception.

16 April
On the last day of our visit, Jerrad and Arlene, colleagues from Indiana University who work in Kabul, offered to take us shopping before our flight home. Christine and I were very grateful, as this would be our only opportunity to do so.

We were riding in an armored SUV, a security guard sitting in the front seat, his eyes constantly scanning the crowded, unpaved, dusty streets of Kabul. A boy was selling sunglasses to rare tourists. A woman, dressed in the traditional blue burqa, was trying to cross the street against the unforgiving traffic, holding a toddler by the hand. In the middle of an intersection, an older man was pushing a cart filled to the rim with plastic pipes. The car stopped and we got out under the inquisitive eyes of merchants and passersby.

Surrounded by the driver and the body guard, we began our  quest, seeking  carpets, lapis jewelry, and pottery. A young boy selling old maps of Afghanistan followed us, carried our bags, and fended off other boys.

The driver and bodyguard are highly trained to address all kinds of emergency situations. Their command of English is impressive. Over the course of our walking trip, we started talking with them. They work in two 12-hour shifts, two days in a row, then they take a day off. Driving in a city with no working traffic lights, potholes the size of an entire wheel, and a surprising number of two- and four-wheeled vehicles is no small feat. But just a few hours later, we would witness just how incredibly skilled those two men are.

After a delicious lunch of mint lemonade and fattoush, pizza, or burger taken under a trellis, sitting in cozy carpet covered armchairs, it was time to go back to the hotel, check out, and head out to the airport.

It started with Jerrad reading a text on his iPhone: A suicide bomber had blown himself up somewhere in the city. The traffic, already dense, became impossible to navigate. We were just a few minutes away from the hotel, but the police had closed off the street. Our driver attempted to take a different route, then another, and soon realized the city streets around  the Serena Hotel were blocked off. Soon, more messages came through on Jerrad’s iPhone. Two, three, four, seven attacks now were being reported in the city. The Star Hotel was one of the targets. We were not staying there, but I had seen the signs for it on our way to the Serena, where Christine and I were guests.

It was now 3 pm and bad news kept coming. We needed to find a safe place to stay. Jerrad decided to take us to their place, a gated apartment building surrounded by barbed wire and guarded around the clock.

Abdullah, the man who had organized all the logistics for our seminar the day before, was at the Star Hotel, attending a higher education conference. The hotel was now under attack, and Jerrad was on the phone with him. Suddenly, Jerrad lost contact. Fear of losing Abdullah made Jerrad, a normally quiet person, somewhat tense. Arlene was also beginning to show signs of stress. Christine and I tried to remain calm.

The whole city was now in gridlock. Access to the apartment building proved very difficult. So the decision was made to take the “mountain road.” Kabul is surrounded by steep rocky hills where families live in dwellings with no water. Each day, they have to walk down the hills and carry their water up the road. Driving up and down that mountain road was like trekking on the moon, with rocks protruding from the road and treacherous craters waiting to trap our SUV. It was completely surreal: The calls, the SMS, the back-breaking drive, the city in the distance, the children playing in the middle of the road, unused to seeing vehicles, a little girl carrying bags of food up the road.

Chaos. Civil war. Algeria. That’s all I could think of. It was all strangely familiar, but that was not reassuring.

Finally, we arrived at the apartment and were ordered to wait there until further notice. The U.S. Embassy was one of the targets and was locked down. And so began our long wait. It was clear that we were not going to leave that day. The embassy had already contacted the airline and rebooked us for the next morning. I had to notify John and my friends about the situation.

Soon, the four of us were joined by other tenants in the building, all from U.S. universities on assignment in Kabul. We started watching CNN and the BBC for updates. The Taliban claimed responsibility for a coordinated series of attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan.

As night settled on Kabul, sounds of rocket-propelled grenades and gunshots sounded closer and louder. Even the calls for prayer could not silence the sounds of destruction.

17 April
Against all odds, at 4:30 the next morning, a car from the hotel picked us up and took us back to the hotel for a quick checkout before whisking us to the airport. The city was calm. The heavy presence of the military was the only reminder of the night’s violence.

In the midst of war, our only hope, I thought, is the education of children. That’s why Christine and I were here: To bring our modest contribution to those who have made their mission to build the future of this nation. They deserve our highest respect and admiration. If invited again, we will go back. We owe it to the teachers—and to the children—of Afghanistan.

About Craig Triplett

Craig Triplett
I am a senior editor and web content and social media manager at TESOL International Association, an international nonprofit devoted to promoting excellence in English language teaching. TESOL has 12,000 members worldwide and more than 100 international affiliates. For more information about TESOL, go to www.tesol.org.
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6 Responses to TESOL Past President and Executive Director Visit Afghanistan

  1. Ella says:

    Thank you for sharing this experience with us.

  2. Mary Scholl says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!! I am particularly touched by your description of the realities that these teachers and students live with and how they persist in their learning and teaching – and of how the unequal playing field may not be as visible nor have the results that we might expect – based on our own perceptions/expectations of how life works. Hope does lie in access to quality education for children – and for teachers!!! I am looking forward to more news of your travels – to bring the world to those of us reading your posts!

    • Rosa Aronson Rosa says:

      Hi Mary,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I am sure you have similar stories to tell! Are you based in Costa Rica?
      Best,
      Rosa

  3. Keith Folse says:

    What a great and riveting accounting of this trip to Kabul… and yes, it should make all of us appreciate more the daily life we have, including our jobs and our students.

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