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While I was in the district of Wazi Zadran over in Afghanistan, I met a women who had come to the local American/Afghan military base. She had escort, but came on her own initiative, which is pretty unheard of for a woman. But her situation was desperate.

She was not originally from the immediate area, but her husband had been and so she had lived in the district in the past. In the years of violence with the Soviet invasion and the later civil wars, she and her family had fled to Pakistan as refugees, as did millions of other people. Her husband died, leaving her a widow with two sons to raise. She got a job working as a midwife, but as she got into her 50s, her eyesight started to go, so she could no longer do that.

Though she had carved out a meager life for them there, she made the decision in 2011 to move back to her home country, specifically to her husband’s land since most of her own family was long gone. She left her sons in Pakistan because she wanted to get things started before bringing them over–especially since one was disabled. Her husband’s family grudgingly gave her a small bit of land with a field, but refused to help her with it. It wasn’t in a great location and direly needed some retaining walls before it all fell into the nearest riverbed.

When she showed up at the base, I came into the meeting so she wouldn’t be so uncomfortable only having men in the room. She sat quietly, with her shoulders slumped. When she spoke, it was with a deep sadness as if she really expected nothing from anyone. She had no family of her own, her husband’s family didn’t care, and to get help from the government, she would have to have “connections” to the local elite, which she didn’t have and couldn’t buy. Nor did she really expect anything from us. The only reason she’d come was because some local police had heard her story and been moved.

It was hard not to be. Talk about slipping through the cracks in a system with no safety nets. Women don’t have many options anyway, but traditions says that their family, even if its extended family, should provide for their basic necessities. When you’re an impoverished widow with no family who’s spent years living as a refugee, you pretty much have no way to survive. My rant about forcing women’s lib aside, widows are the one instance where I unconditionally agree with all these female engagement projects the international community keeps dreaming up. If anyone could use job training and a leg up, it’s these gals, and society isn’t as likely to frown on that as on programs for married or younger women, because they recognize that widows have to fend for themselves.

But nothing like that was in place in Wazi Zadran, which is sort of a backwater even for overeager humanitarians. But the local U.S. Commander was sympathetic and agreed to provide some materials to build retaining walls on the condition that the local police filled them for the woman. In a moment of rare and unadulterated partnership, they did. Her life still wasn’t going to be easy, but at least, for once, I felt like my tax dollars were going somewhere worthwhile.