In days I will say goodbye to Sabira at Logan Airport in Boston. She will have a long journey ahead, with a 24-hour stopover in Dubai before boarding the flight to Kabul.
“Will you be able to sleep in the Dubai airport?” I ask.
“No, Liz, it is too dangerous. I could get raped,” is her response.
I am Sabira’s host mother in the U.S. She just graduated from a girls’ boarding school in Massachusetts, and in August she will begin college on full scholarship at Trinity College.
Our relationship began with both of us wary. After volunteering with a non-profit that supports educating Afghan women, I took on the responsibility for a real live girl. It was one thing to be a Skype tutor for girls in Kabul, quite another to bring one into my home.
According to my adopted 20-year-old Chinese daughter, Lili, I went crazy when she went away to college.
“Yes,” she tells people, “My mom just went out and got herself another daughter.”
This is partly true. A widow, retiree, and empty nester, I was lost. After being married for 30 years, I found myself in 2007, at age 56, alone. I had to reinvent myself as a single woman. One of the first things I did was change my name; no longer Mrs. Clement, I am now Elizabeth Titus. I became a Lucy Stoner (a married woman who who keeps her name) late in life, and wrote an article for Ms. Magazine about it.
Sabira has been home just once in four years, and the upcoming visit comes at a dangerous juncture, with the presidential run-off being contested by one of the candidates.
“Listen to this, Liz,” Sabira commanded me last night. “Can you believe these tapes?”
Since I do not understand Pashto, I had no idea what I was listening to. Sabira explained that Abdullah Abdullah had somehow gotten tapes of phone conversations revealing vote-rigging by his rival.
“How did Abdullah get these tapes?” I asked.
Sabira sometimes gets impatient with my ignorance about Afghanistan.
“How would I know?” she responded. “Maybe the phone company sold them to him. It is all corrupt.”
Sabira’s view of her country’s politicians is dim. She plans to return home when she is done with graduate school in the U.S. and become Minister of Economics. She could do it, given her A+ in economics.
“When will you put your hijab on?” I ask. “In Dubai?”
“Yes, that will be a good time.”
Sabira wore her hijab for her first year at boarding school, until one day she took it off for good. She found that people treated her differently when she wore the headscarf, especially at airport security.
Plus, she felt less conspicuous without it. She does not consider herself super religious, though her prayer mat sits in a corner of my living room.
We often laugh about how she has become an American girl, and I worry about her trip home. Will she feel out of place? Will she be able to leave her home? How will her illiterate mother treat her? Her father is the main reason she is here; having given up his own dreams of becoming an engineer because of civil war, he put his hopes into his oldest daughter.
The other day, we went to the Tiffany store in downtown Westport, Connecticut, where I live, to exchange the silver ring I had given her for graduation. It’s an olive branch, symbol of peace. Then we went to Verizon and got her an iPhone.
With the blue Tiffany bag in one hand and the iPhone in the other, she laughed.
“Look at me, Liz. I am a rich Connecticut girl now!”
How I love her sense of humor. We are an odd couple. While I don’t consider myself wasteful, I am not always aware of what I throw into the trash. After a meal, she will catch me tossing food that could be saved and take it out of the trash and put it into a Tupperware container.
When she saw how much I paid to have my hair colored and cut on Columbus Avenue in New York City, she told me that what I paid–$200–is what her laborer father makes in a month.
“But Sabira,” I plea, “I’m an old lady. And this is cheap compared to what most women pay in New York!”
Do I need this aggravation, this constant scrutiny, from a girl who is not even my daughter? I have enough trouble dealing with my own child, who can be very critical, despite the deep bond between us.
More to the point, do I need to open myself up to the most terrifying feeling in the world–a mother’s fear that her child could die? When friends ask why I am letting Sabira go home, I tell them it is her life, her country, her family. She will return safely in a month, and I will take her to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where she will be the first member of her family to attend college.
I have come to understand that I have already opened myself up to the fears that come with being a mother, not just to Lili, but also to Sabira. But I have also experienced the kind of joy I never felt possible–the joy of seeing a tiny Afghan girl with her first iPhone, the joy of seeing my daughter Lili ask Sabira to watch the World Cup with her, the joy I will feel in a few years when both my girls will have college degrees.
Elizabeth Titus has been a journalist for Gannett, an English teacher, an advertising executive (Doyle Dane Bernbach), a communications director and speechwriter (15 years at American Express) and a freelance writer. You can read more at her blog.