At home in Vermont on a snowy afternoon in April 2002, Jean Kissell opened her email to discover a bold proposal from a man named Mohammad Nasib.
Kissell, then 44, was intrigued. She’d met Nasib 15 years earlier, when he was 22 and she was 29, teaching English to Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan.
At the time, Kissell’s family wondered whether she would return home alive from Pakistan. Before Kissell had left Vermont, an uncle had told her mother, “Kiss your daughter goodbye. You’re never going to see her again.” His concerns were certainly valid. There was a brutal war raging between Soviet forces and the Afghan resistance just across the border from Kissell’s new home.
The Afghan refugees whom Kissell taught had escaped from the Soviet occupation; in exile, they were committed to fighting for their country. On weekends, some slipped back over the border into Afghanistan to wage war against the Russians.
Yet these characters weren’t so different from the people Kissell knew back home in Vermont, she found. They had a dry sense of humor, a curiosity, and an eagerness to learn. “When I walked into the classroom for the first time, I looked at the faces and thought, I recognize these people,” she says. However, she kept a cautious eye on young Mohammad Nasib. In one writing exercise, he had said he needed missiles to battle the Russian occupation.
“Missiles,” Kissell wrote back to him in his journal, “are not on my shopping list.”
Fifteen years later, in that April of 2002, Nasib wanted Kissell’s help to wage peace in Afghanistan. He believed that Afghanistan could inspire its ancient network of local leaders, called maliks, to help in his mission. Respected for their fairness and wisdom, these leaders are known for negotiating a range of disputes, from water rights to murder cases. They also provide the bridge between the people and the government. Nasib’s ambitious plan was to train 20,000 maliks on human rights, particularly on education for girls and women.
On the surface, Nasib was asking Kissell to comment on the proposal, but his true motive was clear: he wanted her to get involved.
“It was an intriguing idea,” Kissell says, in her understated way. She recalls looking out her Vermont window and noticing tulips blooming through a late snowfall. She took this as a sign: she was ready to help. Kissell, who wasn’t working at the time, liked the plan because it engaged rural Afghans in thinking, planning, and discussing how to build their country. She was eager to get involved.
Today, Kissell gazes out the window once again at deep snow. On these windowpanes, however, there are crisscrossed strips of masking tape to guard against shattering glass during bomb blasts. She insists that she never officially moved to Afghanistan, but she has lived in Kabul on and off for the past 10 years, ever since she received that email from her former student. She arrived in 2002 to help Nasib carry out his vision, by launching a nonprofit group called the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan, or WADAN.
Kissell is now the executive director of the group. Every day, her office, in a chilly home in a quiet Kabul neighborhood, serves as a nerve center for the organization, which has established a network of 30,000 trained community leaders, taught thousands of children in community schools, and implemented a training program in women’s rights under Islam. The group now has around 900 Afghan employees.
The organization is also addressing one of Afghanistan’s largest social taboos—its roughly 1 million opium and heroin addicts—by running a number of drug-treatment centers, including inside a prison. The poppy grown in this country is taking its toll on the Afghan people, breeding crime and corruption and funding attacks against foreign forces.
As 2014 approaches and the American pullout becomes a daily reality, the work of WADAN has never been more essential. The question of Afghanistan’s future—a future determined by Afghans—hangs in the balance. The key to the nation’s survival lies in its leadership, and in Afghanistan, no form of leadership is more essential than that in its villages.
In this, Kissell says, rural Vermont and rural Afghanistan have much in common. As she explains, “Everything revolves around trust and relationships.”