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"Helping people is what I want to do and now I just want to do it on the international level."
— Erin Gilmer

Erin Gilmer

The magic of Afghanistan

The Kite Runner inspires real-life adventure

Don't believe in the power of books? Then talk to Erin Gilmer. In 2006, Gilmer stepped into the role she had worked hard to prepare for: after receiving her Bachelor of Social Work degree at IUPUI from the School of Social Work that spring, Gilmer promptly found a job with the Healthy Families agency. While she had a full-time job, Gilmer opted to continue working part-time at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore at Keystone at the Crossing. Little could she have known it was a decision that would take her life in a totally unexpected direction.

Power of written word

The book The Kite Runner was attracting a lot of attention and Gilmer had bought a copy. But it sat neglected at home after she realized the story involved a part of the world she wasn't particularly interested in. The book takes place in Kabul, Afghanistan and tells the story of a young boy who betrays his best friend. The story plays out against a backdrop of the fall of monarchy to the rise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The bookstore manager where she worked convinced Gilmer to give it a try. "She had just read it and was raving about it." Gilmer recalls. Once she started, Gilmer found she could hardly put it down.

She couldn't explain why she was suddenly so captivated with this far-off country. "I just chalk it up to Afghanistan's overall magic." A fter finishing The Kite Runner, Gilmer immediately went to a half-priced bookstore, "trying to get my hands on everything I could find about Afghanistan."

Reading about Afghanistan though didn't come close to satisfying her burning interest to experience the country. She had to go there. And that feeling of need to be there hasn't diminished. Gilmer has visited Afghanistan four times and plans to marry an Afghan man from Kabul.

In 2006, though, Gilmer wasn't even sure if it was possible for an ordinary traveler to go to Afghanistan. "I didn't think anyone was going there except the military and aid groups, so it just seemed like an impossible dream."

Women of Afghanistan

But in the fall of 2006, she discovered otherwise. Global Exchange, which describes itself as an "education and action resource center," was planning a trip to Afghanistan in March of 2007.

"From the moment I saw it, I knew I was going no matter what." Gilmer was more concerned about paying for the trip than about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. The trip's focus was women and the rebuilding of Afghanistan. The organizers arranged for the 11 women who went on the trip to meet with women who were participating in the reconstruction of Afghanistan as well as spend time with nongovernmental agencies that work with women.

On the plane to Afghanistan, they awaited word of when they were over Afghanistan. "It was a dream come true,"

Gilmer says when the plane touched down in Kabul. Global Exchange worked with Afghans for Tomorrow, which provided guides and transportation for the women.

"It was really unbelievable," Gilmer says of her 10-day stay. For one thing, she was amazed by the hospitality of the Afghan people. "People are very open. It's part of the culture. Having a guest in your house or your country is considered an honor."

Gilmer

Strangers and shopkeepers would invite you to eat with them or have tea with them, she explains. She recalls going into a record shop looking for a particular Afghan singer. She couldn't remember the name of the singer, but knew the name of one of the singer's songs.

The shop didn't have the record, so the clerk went to another store and bought it. The clerk gave her the record and wouldn't accept any money for it.

The group of women had a packed schedule during their stay, meeting with various organizations and met with a woman who had run for president of Afghanistan as well as some religious leaders. They also visited a school that Gilmer would return to during her second visit.

"I did not want to leave," Gilmer says when it was time to board a plane and return to the U.S. "I don't know how to pinpoint what the attraction is," she noted.

"There is no denying, it is dirty, dusty and poor. Your senses are assaulted from every side," she added.

"But in spite of all that, you just fall in love with it."

A matter of time

Soon after returning to her job at Healthy Families, Gilmer knew it was just a matter of time before she went back to Afghanistan. "I loved my job, but when I came back after my first trip, I just couldn't imagine just settling back into my routine," Gilmer says.

What Gilmer really wanted to do was find a job helping people in Afghanistan. By the summer of 2007, she was ready. She wanted to stay for two months this time. When Gilmer was unable to arrange for a two-month leave of absence from her job — they could only offer a month's leave — she quit her job.

In the summer of 2007, she returned to Kabul on her own. Before going she sent an e-mail to the school they had visited and asked if they needed volunteers. "They were happy to have me."

Gilmer with a class

Gilmer taught English in a Kabul school.

Gilmer taught English at the school, whose students were primarily orphans and children who work in the street. "They can't go to school all day because they have to work to support their families so they go in the morning or afternoon."

That summer she stayed in a guest house in downtown Kabul. "The second time was not quite as smooth sailing as the first trip," Gilmer acknowledges. "I was on my own. I didn't have another westerner to commiserate with as inevitably things would happen that grated on my nerves. It was much more difficult."

She did follow local dress codes as she didn't want to draw attention to herself for security reasons and she wanted to be respectful of local customs as well.

She would take taxis to different locations, including a shopping center in downtown Kabul. She also visited cafes where western staff of nongovernmental agencies congregated if "I felt like I needed to escape, to breathe." She also spent a lot of time studying the Afghan language, Farsi. G ilmer knew that two months was the longest she could stay without working. "When I came back the second time, I was ready to come home. I missed my family and cats."

I just knew I needed to come back and start working and pay the bills," she says. Upon her arrival back in Indianapolis, she was able to return to Healthy Families. She didn't want to leave the job in the first place and only quit to give herself more time in Afghanistan.

But after a few months of being home, the desire to return to Afghanistan was as strong as ever. "I get an overwhelming desire to go back to Afghanistan," she explains.

"If I watch a movie, listen to music or even hear Afghan Farsi spoken, it's kind of an overwhelming feeling and I really want to go back."

Visiting fiancÚ

She managed to remain in the U.S. until May of 2008 when Gilmer returned to Kabul for a week's visit to see her fiancÚ, who served as one of the interpreters she meet on her first trip.

Her fourth trip came in December of 2008 after she had lined up a job with an agency in Kabul. Shortly after she arrived though, the agency told her funding for her position had fallen through and they wouldn't be able to pay her.

She decided to stay for awhile anyway, living with her fiancÚ's family. It was winter and the family was of modest means. Their home had no heating system. They would put hot coals under a wooden frame and then put a blanket over the frame to stay warm. "It was quite a learning experience," she says.

Gilmer returned home in January and now works for Indianapolis Healthy Start, a program at the Marion County Health Department.

She continues to follow events in Afghanistan and tries not to worry too much about her fiancÚ and his family. "I want good things for them," Gilmer says. "They have come through 30 years of a worse situation than it is now and they are very strong, resilient people. I know they can take care of themselves. They are very resourceful."

Going back again isn't so much a question of if as when. This time she hopes to improve her skills by going to graduate school to study international human rights. With a master's degree and more experience, she thinks it would increase her chances tremendously of getting a job in Afghanistan.

"Helping people is what I want to do and now I just want to do it on the international level."

Perhaps it wasn't the book by itself that changed her life. But it did open a door to an exciting experience that Gilmer wants to return to.

"I really think it wasn't all the book, it wasn't all me. Afghanistan really has something special. Every journalist or traveler who has spent a lot of time there says the same thing."