My teammate Zack Bazzi and I were at the Somoniyon Afghan Refugee School just outside of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, to assist with palov preparations. The dish must cook for several hours before serving, so our local partners — members of the US Embassy team, Zabondon NGO, a local advertising agency, and Max, a big-shot Tajik MC, comedian, radio host, and influencer — arrived early on a Friday morning to begin the palov preparations in the school courtyard.
This culinary display was public diplomacy at its best. Zack and US Diplomat Shefali Agrawal enthusiastically sprinkled raisins into the giant kazan as the oshpaz looked on approvingly, barking advice sparingly as I stood a couple of steps away from the sweltering heat and eye-watering smoke.
Cooking palov together was not the main reason we were there that Friday morning. Spirit of America began supporting the Somoniyon Afghan Refugee School in November 2021. When the Afghan government fell to the Taliban, funding for the school of 500 Afghan refugee students ceased and it faced imminent closure. The US Embassy reached out to Spirit of America, informing us of the high priority of maintaining the school programming. As the only Dari-taught school in Tajikistan, this school met a unique and critical need for the Afghan refugee community.
Spirit of America quickly approved funding to meet the needs of the school, including operational expenses, rent, transportation for students, minor renovations, and internet accessibility. Six months after the initial need was identified, it was time for a visit to the school to see the impact of our support.
We learned that each teacher was a volunteer, and they themselves were Afghan refugees. The attitudes of the teachers mirrored that of the others we spoke with throughout the day — dedicated, earnest, and kind. It was moving to meet so many individuals who had experienced such great loss and hardship in their own lives dedicating themselves to the betterment of students at this school on a volunteer basis.
After the tour, we made our way to the performance hall which was filled with school staff and students. Following the principal’s welcome and brief remarks from the US Embassy, it was Zack’s turn to speak.
As Zack moved through his thank you’s, background on Spirit of America, and other formalities, the audience hung on to his every word. Finally, it was time for the main announcement: Spirit of America was committing to another full year of funding for Somoniyon Refugee School.
After a dramatic pause during which this message was translated from English to Dari, the room erupted in applause and cheers. I glanced around at smiling faces, one girl clapping her hands together in disbelief, and looks of relief passing between teachers. This announcement provided another year of hope for the future.
It was fitting that our visit started and ended with palov. The delicious rice dish left us all big-bellied, bright-eyed, and content with the meal shared together. The students ate lightheartedly around us, smiling, chatting, new backpacks on their laps, with peace of mind knowing their education was secure for another year.
I was grateful to have shared this day with these resilient and optimistic students, and was proud that the goodwill of the American people could be passed through Spirit of America to these extremely deserving students. It seemed that palov carried the spirit of the good Tajik people with it: welcoming, warm, and familiar.
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