A4T Science Fair in Kabul Afghanistan. These students (4.5 to 7 yrs. old) sang the Afghan National Anthem to the audience before the Fair’s presentations.

Today’s special blog  is the last commemorating a decade of Reality Tours in Afghanistan and features the insights of Marsha MacColl, on behalf of our partner Afghans4Tomorrow (A4T). On behalf of Global Exchange we thank all the tremendous energy and efforts of A4T and look forward to a dynamic future of continued collaboration.

Congratulations to Global Exchange Reality Tours on the 10th Anniversary of your tours to Afghanistan and on your partnership with Afghans4Tomorrow (A4T). Each delegation has stayed in the A4T Guesthouse since 2004, enjoying the warm hospitality of the staff.  The house, located in a quiet secure area of West Kabul, has 5 guest bedrooms upstairs and a lovely garden in the back. Depending on the size of the group, the rooms sleep between 2 and 4 people.  The guides who helped plan the tours and activities of these Global Exchange Reality Tours are Najibullah Sediqi and Wahid Omar, who also have volunteered with Afghans4Tomorrow for 10 years and serve on its board. Their tours have included, among other things, interesting in-depth meetings with Afghan women from all sectors of Afghan society, visits to primary schools, hospitals, universities, watching a buzkashi games and attending the International Women’s Day celebration in Kabul.

Najib has also been a wonderful guide for these delegations. The many delegates I’ve talked with over the years highly recommend these tours. They said Najib put them at ease with his warm welcome, his concern for their safety, his quick wit, compelling stories and the Afghan history he shares on the tours. Many have kept in touch with him over the years.  Some delegates in fact have been inspired to get involved in helping one of the many Afghan-related NGOs (or start one of their own) after they return from the tour.

Here are some of the 35 third graders reading in their home school class. If you would like to help us raise funds for chairs and school supplies for these students, please make a donation at: http://www.afghans4tomorrow.org/donate

There have been several GXRT alumni who have helped Afghanistan through A4T since their tours. They are:  Kim O’Connor (GXRT ’04), who joined A4T when she returned in 2004 and recently served as President for the past 2 and a half years;  Adrienne Amundsen (GXRT ’10), who joined A4T in January ’12 after volunteering since ’10; and Asma Eschen (GXRT ’03), an honorary A4T Board member, who co-found the Bare Root Trees Project and has led a group to plant trees in Afghanistan six times since 2005. The Bare Roots group has planted/distributed a total of over 130,000 trees in rural and urban Afghanistan. See Asma’s post on this GXRT Blog in this series.

As an A4T member since 2004, I’ve enjoyed the stories and photos that many GXRT alumni have shared with me over the years. It has been a life-changing experience for many! Our board members have helped the GX program directors over the years with information they’ve needed for their delegates, guesthouse arrangements and helping delegates to meet some of our members and staff. I volunteered to teach English in our A4T school in Kabul for 10 days in 2007 and greatly appreciated Najib’s help with all the arrangements of my work and also a visit during the Nowruz holiday to Istalif village near the Shomali Valley. This reality tours program is great for travelers wanting to learn more about ordinary Afghans, their culture, history and how they’re overcoming many difficult challenges.

The NGO which inspired me to volunteer to help rebuild Afghanistan is Afghans4Tomorrow.  A4T is a non-profit, non-political, humanitarian organization founded in 1998 and dedicated to the development of sustainable, community driven projects focused on education, agriculture and healthcare.  A4T has an all-volunteer board residing in both the US and in Kabul. We are able perform our work thanks to the generosity of our donors and volunteers from around the world.  We hire local Afghans to be the managers of our programs and teachers in our schools. We have established relationships with multiple sponsors, foundations, and non-profit organizations. 

In our Shekh Yassin School, Wardak Province, 162 girls are in three Home Schools, from 1st to 6th grade. Here are the 25 first graders reading their books in Pashto.

Afghans4Tomorrow currently operates a school in Kabul and one in Wardak Province. Our school, located in the Chelsetoon area of Kabul, opened in 2004 and has nearly 300 students, 170 girls in kindergarten through 9th grade and 110 boys in 1st through 7th grade. This school is one of the best private schools in Kabul. We plan to add 10th grade this year.  The school started in 2005 as a “catch-up” school for older girls who had been deprived of an education during the wars. Now most all those students have caught up and are the normal age for their grade level. Several A4T alumni have graduated from high school and are in a community college or a university.

Our School in Shekh Yassin, which opened in 2005, serves students from three villages in the Chak district of Wardak Province. It has a boys’ school of 568 students, in 1st to 9th grades in two shifts per day, and more than 175 girls in three Home Schools, from 1st to 6th grade. We plan to add 7th grade this year. We are unable to add 10th grade to the boys’ school until we can build 3 new classrooms. 

A4T held its second Science Fair program on Oct. 15, 2011 in which 17 students participated in 9 teams. They did research on their experiments for one month, assisted by their science teacher.

The students presented their research results to 4 qualified judges at the fair. After their evaluation the judges gave prizes to the top 3 winning teams. The project that won 1st place showed the filtration of dirty water using four kinds of sand and one kind of charcoal. Government officials, private school principals and the media were invited to attend the Science Fair celebration.  A4T hopes to see this same program in all government and private schools throughout Afghanistan in the future.

Afghans4Tomorrow’s goal for both schools is to help improve Afghanistan’s very low literacy rate, to provide a superior education and to have a substantial number of our graduates continue to college.

Teacher demonstrates an experiment in copper and iron ions in solution to a 7th grade Chemistry Class at A4T Boys School in Shekh Yassin, Wardak.

Since 2007 A4T has operated the A4T’s Abdullah Omar Health Post in Sheikh Yassin village which provides a doctor, pharmacist and staff offering basic health care, medicines and immunizations. Last year A4T added a midwife to better serve the women coming for pre-natal checkups, deliveries and post-natal and baby checkups and to help reduce the high maternal and infant mortality rates in Afghanistan. Our health post has improved the lives of thousands of people each year.

A4T’s Agriculture Stream is pleased to report the successful training of 120 rural farmers the last two years by helping them to raise poultry and supplying them with equipment for their chicken coops, and healthy birds. The women poultry farmers sell the eggs to help support their family.

Volunteers are needed to help A4T continue there great work. Please visit their website to learn about their projects, affiliates, members, photos, videos, and how you can make a difference.

Join Us on an Upcoming Reality Tour to Afghanistan! Learn more. Visit our website for all you need to know about upcoming transformative journeys.



Trip with Jeff Greenwald and Ethical Traveler

Sustainable Cuba Delegation, June 2011

A new revolution is sweeping the island of Cuba. One that the world needs to take notice of if we are to seriously confront climate change. In the past three years, this small island of 11 million people has successfully embarked on an Energy Revolution unparalleled in the world.

In fact, in its 2006 Living Planet report, the World Wildlife Fund declared Cuba the only country in the world to achieve sustainable development due to their high development level and low ecological footprint. 

Interested in traveling to Cuba for New Year’s?

If you are considering traveling to Cuba, our annual  “Sustainable Cuba New Years Delegation” might be just for you.

City Panoramic of Havana

On this annual New Year’s delegation we examine environmental and human aspects of Sustainable Development via four different areas: Architecture and Urban Planning, Health Care and Alternative Healing, Public Education and Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development. You choose your area of preference.

Here are some basic facts about these Cuba Reality Tours:

  • Choose Your Interest: Trip participants will be broken into four groups (depending on what area they work in) and will visit different places at different times but specific to the area they work in.  This means that in each of the subgroups there will be 10-20 delegates.
  • The More the Merrier! The delegation for the New Year’s group is typically larger than our normal group size of 10-18, it is upwards of 50-100 people.
  • Optional Excursions: Each of the groups have optional day excursions outside of Havana planned during the recognized holidays of January 1st and 2nd with many activities for you to enjoy. This is an opportunity for an examination of rural development and provincial realities.
  • New Years Paaaaarty! There is also a huge New Year’s party we throw for our Cuban friends (about a hundred of whom participate) and trip participants. Dinner and dancing the night away – it’s SO very fun!

How to qualify:

  • If you are currently employed full time in one of the areas covered by the trip, then you would qualify under the “general” license of the US Treasury Department’s office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC.  
  • If not, you have the option to travel legally on a special license for an additional administrative charge and will  have to write up a summary of your experience.

What Makes Special License So Special: The special license is not something that can be used on all of our delegations which makes this trip unique. It is also one of the only trips where families, students and retirees can all participate.  With each of these 4 programs  occurring simultaneously there is ample opportunity for you to learn, engage in research, explore Cuba and personally contribute to over 23 years of building “People to People Ties”.

On behalf of Reality Tours and our extended Global Exchange familia in Cuba,  I hope this helps give you a better idea about the delegation and how you might qualify. For more info about our upcoming Cuba New Year’s trips, visit our website.

We at Reality Tours love sending high school aged groups to countries all over the world- it’s an incredible opportunity for young people to learn more about our global neighbors, themselves, and the issues shaping global society today. Recently, a high school group from Missoula, MT traveled to Cuba under a People-to-People license with Global Exchange as a Travel Service Provider. Below, a student and chaperone share their insights as they challenged their perceptions about the island nation and gained new ones.

Sierra Lenox, a recently graduated high school senior, reflects upon culture shock, history, education, health, and community in Cuba:

Photo by Windsor Green

Photo by Windsor Green

The first day I arrived in Havana was a complete culture shock. The weather, culture, food, and language were all unfamiliar. Havana was only an hour from Miami but to me it was a different world. My personal perception of Cuba was completely contrary to reality. Due to the relationship between the Cuban and U.S government, I was surprised at how friendly and welcoming the Cuban people were. Although I was out of my comfort zone I never felt unsafe. Cal, our guide did a great job of making sure our needs were met. He was intelligent, honest, and personable. I appreciated how he gave us a real tour of Havana versus only seeing the tourist sites.

Photo by Windsor Green

Photo by Windsor Green

Later in the trip we had the opportunity to visit the Che Guevara Mausoleum. Che’s face was everywhere we went, plastered on buildings, clothing, books, and other souvenirs. Che valued education and his ideas were reflected by the Cuban people. All of the young people in Cuba were very aware of their history and had pride in their roots. I think that’s something that’s lacking in the United States. History, government, and current issues are not a priority in education.

We visited a cultural center, whose purpose was to unite young people with older generations. We watched the separate age brackets interact. The older community members are mentors to the young adults. They work together to create a stronger community. As a young person in the United States I learned a lot about changes I can make in my own life. My experience in Cuba exceeded all expectations. I hope someday other Americans will have the opportunity to travel to Cuba without restriction.

Kim Bostrom acted as a chaperone with the group and shares her thoughts on keeping an open mind, the health system, and living up to our ideals:

Visiting Cuba was one inspiring, confusing, and educational experience after another. This started during a layover en route, before we even got to Havana, when a Mexican-American from Colorado on a business trip to Mexico told me he would love to visit Cuba but he does not intend to go because he hates communism. Rather than challenging his comment, I set the tone for my trip by replying, ‘I’m curious to see how it is and is not working, and compare it to our system here which certainly does not work for everyone either.’ We parted ways after a bit more chit-chat, but his comment stayed with me throughout the trip. What does this other social system look like, and why is it so feared and hated in our country?

CubaStreetView copyMy first impression of Havana was that the city seemed incredibly clean. An early rain signifying the transition from dry to rainy season had settled any dust, leaving the spotless streets looking freshly swept just for us. There was no sign of the city grime or the desperate poverty I had seen traveling in other cities around the world. The majestic buildings of the elite had been converted to everyday apartments. Their tired exteriors show the neglect of limited resources imposed on the country by a brutal blockade, but no homeless crouched on corners as I have seen in Managua, Nicaragua; San Jose, Costa Rica; Phoenix, AZ; or my own little hometown in western Montana.

During our trip we visited many organizations working to develop strong communities. We visited two clinics and learned that healthcare is a human right in Cuba. Clinics and hospitals treat people because they are injured or sick, not because they have insurance or a Mastercard. Billboards that would advertise car dealerships and shopping in the US carried inspiring quotes or promoted pride in the revolution. One simply read ‘Educate your kids!’

BloqueoI came away from this trip with a very deep respect and admiration for this social project created through revolution that seems to have been unintentionally enforced through the US blockade. What if billboards in the US advertised ideals rather than products? What if our ‘grocery stores’ were cooperative endeavors to grow healthy produce, and healthcare was a moral obligation of our society, provided at no cost with a focus on preventing illness and disease? Is this what we fear and despise? Our guide advised us not try to understand Cuba so much as enjoy the experience. He was right: after an amazing, educational trip, I not only am far from understanding what is happening in Cuba but also question how much I understand my own culture as well!

Thanks to Sierra and Kim for sharing your thoughts with us! Global Exchange is a Licensed Travel Service Provider to Cuba. For more information, contact cuba@realitytours.org.