Shared Humanity

In the wake of war, a plea to remember the people left behind

Shared humanity illustration

I worked in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 as a foreign affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Defense. That’s a pinprick in the region’s complex history, and I don’t pretend to be an expert, but there’s no expertise needed to understand the Afghan people.

Look around you. Is your cat perched on a windowsill? Are there dishes in the sink? Have you thought recently about how to ensure that your kids grow up happy and healthy? If there’s one thing my time in Afghanistan taught me, it’s that the human experience is universal in every way that matters. Joy and anguish coexist on the same delicate blade of grass.

We’ll read about an Afghan woman giving birth on a plane packed with refugees and think of it as an uplifting news story, forgetting how painful and dehumanizing that must have been. We’ll shake our heads at the rampant corruption in Afghanistan, failing to consider that the average American is no better equipped to fight fraud among the rich and powerful here in the States. We’ll wonder why more Afghans weren’t willing to fight for their country, never pausing to consider that less than 1% of the U.S. population volunteers to serve, or that tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police have died defending their families and their nation. We may even subconsciously reason that Afghans are somehow better suited to contend with their trauma because of their war-torn history, as if fleeing one’s home is par for the course in such a place.

I worked in an office that overlooked the Kabul airport. Four Afghan men cleaned the building, and we chatted with them nearly every day. We tried speaking Dari; they practiced English. We celebrated Eid al-Fitr and Christmas together. We laughed over the kind of jokes you don’t need words to tell. One day, an attack sent our building into lockdown, and our Afghan friends couldn’t catch the bus home at the end of their shift. We offered them our phones to call their families. I couldn’t understand the words, but I didn’t need to. I could hear the voices on the other end, and I could detect the relief, knowing a husband, a dad, a son was OK.

My memories of the people remain vivid. A group of little girls giggling as we practiced yoga poses at their school. I have a daughter of my own now, and her eyes twinkle just like theirs as she wiggles and wobbles in tree pose. I can still feel their innocent arms squeezing as we hugged goodbye.

Eating lunch with teenage cadets from the National Military Academy. They were brimming with the same idealistic sense of purpose I’ve seen in countless U.S. military recruits. Proud of their uniforms, their training, their potential.

The shopkeeper who proudly and painstakingly designed tiny lapis earrings for my wedding day—something blue. I’m wearing them now and wondering what’s become of the Afghans I knew 10 years ago.

As Americans examine our relationship with Afghanistan, I urge you to remain focused on the future of the Afghan people. Absorb the headlines, then apply them to your own life. It means taking a long, uncomfortable look at you. At us. At this fragile blade of grass.


Alexa Elderkin is a writer, editor, toddler wrangler, and Army spouse. She lives in Germany.