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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

February 8, 2002

Recounting a Journey of Courage

Sister Shamshad Sheikh with a young friend.

Sister Shamshad Sheikh sat listening in a tiny room of the refugee camp hospital as the woman, driven from her homeland of Afghanistan by decades of fighting, told a story of misery. This woman, the single mother to twelve children, had been raped repeatedly and had been afraid to tell anyone. In her arms she cradled her youngest, just three months old.

Listening to her story, Sheikh, the College’s Muslim adviser, asked herself, “Do I have enough courage to call another woman and hear her story, too?” She did, and by the end of the day had spoken with twenty Afghan women from the crowd that had gathered to see her at the sprawling Kacha Garhi refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Sheikh recounted her three-week journey to Pakistan before nearly one hundred students, faculty, staff, and members of the greater community who filled Eliot House’s lounge Monday. It was Sheikh’s first talk at the College since returning from her native Pakistan in mid-January.

Giving accounts of her departure from Logan airport, her arrival in Peshawar, and her visits to the makeshift hospital and the mud huts where the refugees make their homes, Sheikh described her feelings of anxiety and depression at the outset of her trip, her helplessness at coming face to face with so many in such desperate conditions, and, ultimately, her gladness at having been able to give time and money to the few she was able to meet—particularly when a United Nations worker confided to her that not enough aid was getting through to those most in need.

Sheikh also showed slides of women and children she took during her trip. The children, all of whom wanted to pose for the camera, wore Western clothing, proof that some American aid is getting to those who need it. The women were reluctant to be photographed, but were eager when there was a cash donation offered, however small.

In introducing Sheikh, Andrea Ayvazian, the College’s dean of religious life, said that many of her friends and colleagues had tried to discourage her from the trip, out of fear for her safety. “She went surrounded by our love and our prayers,” Ayvazian said, “but it was truly a courageous act.”

The story of Sheikh’s trip was reported in the January 25 issue of the College Street Journal, as well as by the Springfield Union-News, WWLP-TV Channel 22, and public radio station WFCR.

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