Widows helping others
After Susan Retik and Patti Quigley lost their husbands on 9/11, they began helping women in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries.
Susan Retik and Patti Quigley lead privileged American lives, 7,000 miles away from the hardscrabble existence of two Afghan sisters-in-law, Sahera and Sadiqa.Skip to next paragraph
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But when the four women met this month in Sahera's tiny mud-brick home in Kabul, Afghanistan, barriers of distance, culture, and class melted as they shared two powerful bonds: motherhood and widowhood.
"Our core values are the same," says Mrs. Retik, of Needham, Mass. "We want our kids to be healthy, we want them to be happy, we want them to be educated. It's the same."
What isn't the same is the treatment of widows in their respective countries. When Retik and Mrs. Quigley lost their husbands in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the two women, both pregnant at the time, received an outpouring of financial and emotional support.
By contrast, when Sahera and Sadiqa, who like many Afghan women use only their first names, became war widows, they became impoverished and largely ignored. "To be a widow in Afghanistan is the worst," Retik says. "You're not worth anything."
Stirred by the plight of the estimated 1 million widows in Afghanistan - nearly 50,000 in Kabul alone - Retik and Quigley began a journey born of tragedy and hope. In 2003 they established a foundation, Beyond the 11th, to help women in conflict-ridden countries. They made substantial personal donations from money they received after the attacks. To raise more money, they pedaled 270 miles from ground zero in New York to Boston as part of a fundraising bicycle trek. They collected $325,000 in the first two years. This year they hope to raise $250,000.
"Our goal is to help a woman become self-sufficient so she can give to her children what she didn't have for herself," Retik says, relaxing at home while her three children are at school.
During a six-day visit to Kabul to meet recipients of their aid, Quigley and Retik saw firsthand the challenges widows face in a country that grants women few rights. Under the Taliban regime, women could not work or leave the house without a male escort. Today they have more freedom, Retik notes, "but it's not like the veil has been lifted and there's equality."
Inequality was evident as they watched long lines of burqa-clad widows wait at food-distribution centers for monthly rations. It was apparent in literacy classes, where illiterate women are learning the power of the written word. And it appeared again when they visited widows at their homes, sharing laughter and tears as they sat in one-room houses with no furniture, electricity, or running water.
The magnitude of the challenge is etched in the experience of Sahera and Sadiqa's mother-in-law. She lost seven sons, one to illness and six in war. "All of those widows and all of those children - who's going to take care of them?" Retik asks. "There's nobody left to help out."
Rick Perera, a spokesman for CARE International who accompanied the women to Kabul, outlines the challenge. "Widows are very much dependent on their in-laws. Particularly the husband's brothers, the male members of the family, have a lot of say. The widows can lose their homes, they can even lose their children."
Yet when widows have an education and a way to earn money, those challenges are less daunting. One woman told the group that she had been repeatedly beaten by her brothers-in-law, and her daughter was beaten, because she sent the daughter to school. "That's not an unusual story," Mr. Perera says. "But now the woman has a source of income, so she's able to stand up to them and say, 'I'm supporting my own children, I'm not depending on you, so what business is it of yours if I'm sending my children to school?' "