Now in her 40s, Mariam Raqib can still remember what the lush Afghan countryside looked like before it was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union from 1979-1989. Mariam left her birthplace in 1983 at the age of eight. Yet she still holds memories of a green and fertile terrain containing everything from wheat fields and lemon trees to garlic planted in small corners of a garden. During these formative years, Mariam formed an unbreakable bond with the land and people of Afghanistan. To this day, she maintains a firm belief in the necessity of self-sufficient Afghan communities, where “people are able to feed themselves” through the sustainable use of land and natural resources under local control.
About 6 million Afghans fled the Soviet occupation at the time of her own family’s departure. “I didn't leave because I wanted to go on vacation somewhere. I left because my father, me, and members of my family would have been killed otherwise.” The country and its people still endure the lasting consequences of the Soviet and U.S. occupations, but Mariam’s connection to Afghanistan’s history, language, and culture made her yearn to return to her motherland. Mariam set foot on Afghan soil again some 20 years after leaving as a child refugee, returning with a graduate education and a determination to help repair the country. Upon her arrival, shock filled her body, realizing “this is what war is about. I saw the preface, the beginning, and now the aftermath… I returned to the home that I lived in as a child, and it was unrecognizable.”
Mariam recognized the power of the Afghan people to rebuild their country by reclaiming their soil. She saw that ecological revitalization offered a path forward for her community to restore the beauty she remembered as a child. In 2008, she established Afghanistan Samsortya, an organization founded for the initial purpose of planting trees, but which has since evolved to encompass even more intersectional community development work. After 17 years, the organization has built five plant nurseries across Eastern Afghanistan; created the Nursing and Midwifery Education program to address the short supply of local healthcare providers; donated chickens through the Nangarhar Chicken Project to battle malnutrition by allowing families to feed themselves and generate income through the sale of eggs; and by constructing wells to supply clean water to local residents. “It's not a profession. It's not a hobby. It's really a way of life. I can't imagine doing anything but what I'm doing, and I wish I could do it better,” she says.
Mariam believes that “the absence of trees in Afghanistan has brought about an environmental calamity.” “Even just the shade from a single tree,” she says, “can make a world of difference and help alleviate some of that cruelty and pain that Afghans have endured over the past 40 years and more.” For Mariam, trees embody life-changing capabilities, and can be magnified across a landscape. The absence of trees means the quality of life is compromised. She recalled a moment from a recent visit:
“It was June or July and the weather temperature was I think maybe 110 degrees. I arrived and walked into Fozia’s home. She's got little grandchildren around five or so and a young daughter who was separated from her husband who was in Pakistan, working so that he could provide for the family. This grandmother was taking care of the family. I had paid a surprise visit, and there wasn't any food in her home when I arrived. The person who received the tree is that kind of a person. Now when she plants that tree, she will have fruit from it. And she will have wood. From the extra branches of the eucalyptus or other trees that she planted, she'll burn in her Tandoor and, and cook her bread with that. That's the transformation that takes place. From hunger to that level of security… That's magic.”
Trees bring nutrition, kindling, relief from the heat, and social justice benefits: “I seek sanctuary in a place that has trees for my mental health. I want that place for other people as well. They are so broken and so hurt. It's not physical pain… It's an emotional pain Afghans have to live with constantly.” A local woman once remarked to Mariam “that a rose just gave her comfort. And maybe for that split second, for that moment, she forgot about her pains. I don't know how we quantify that, and I'm not going to. I'm just going to keep planting the trees.” Afghanistan Samsortya has revitalized the transition of the country “from a place that was absolutely barren to a garden where a young woman may go to seek solace and comfort from the heartache, tragedies, and lack of justice of the world. And, maybe dream I can do something with my life.”