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The Trees of Life

Mariam Raqib remembers her childhood in Afghanistan as if she were flipping through a photo album of life’s most tranquil moments: Here Raqib is lazing beneath the shade of an apple tree in Kabul. There she is sneaking into her great-grandfather’s private garden in Nangarhar to pluck and savor an orange, a lemon, a loquat.

But that was before Raqib, MA’03, PhD’11, fled in 1983 to escape the Soviet occupation, before Soviet soldiers started smuggling timber out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan, and Afghans began burning the rest to heat their homes.

TreeofLife_news2When she returned to Afghanistan in 2003, the once-verdant landscape had been reduced to rubble. War and political unrest, she explains, led to the destruction of 80 percent of the country’s forests and fruit orchards, a particularly troubling development in light of the region’s agricultural dependence.

“My dearest friends—the trees, flowers, and plants—were gone,” says Raqib, “but my love for the land still remained. If anything, I wanted to protect it even more.”

In 2008, Raqib turned her words into action, founding Afghanistan Samsortya, a Boston-based nonprofit organization aimed at revitalizing Afghanistan’s woodlands and empowering underserved communities—widows with children, the illiterate, and those without access to social services.

Since then, Raqib and a team of Afghan women have worked to reforest more than 1,000 acres of fertile land in Surkh-Rod, a district in Nangarhar where she manages three nurseries and produces high-quality saplings. Today, thousands of fig, mulberry, pomegranate, and eucalyptus trees provide shade and nourishment to Afghans who had come to depend on foreign aid for life’s basic necessities.

“Before healthcare and education and women’s rights, we have to address the right to eat,” says Raqib, noting that acute child malnutrition in Afghanistan has increased by at least 50 percent since 2012. “If a human being cannot feed himself, then he has very little in life.”

This year, Raqib is expanding the Afghan tree project into Kabul, where she spent her childhood summers savoring the aroma of her family’s vegetable garden of tomatoes, peppers, and pumpkins.

She is now collaborating with a score of Afghan farmers who have begun cultivating pear, apple, and acacia saplings on their own land. In return, the fledgling entrepreneurs earn a monthly wage with which they provide food, medicine, and school supplies for their children. When the saplings have matured, Raqib will buy and distribute them throughout the region.

Raqib traces her journey from childhood refugee to social entrepreneur in her forthcoming memoir, Trees Are the Lungs of the Earth: My Afghanistan, which recounts how she was smuggled into Pakistan at the age of 9, the political assassination of her uncle, and her assimilation into American culture. Sharing her story, she says, has strengthened her belief in herself and her homeland.

“I get comfort knowing several families will eat some warm food as a result of this project,” says Raqib. “At the end of the day, planting more trees will lead to a healthier Afghanistan.”

– By Jason Kornwitz

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