KABUL, Afghanistan – The two American women walk down a fly-infested alley where sewage from mud huts drains onto the dirt walkway. In a tiny backyard, they find two dozen chickens, five children and one Afghan war widow.
Patti Quigley and Susan Retik — whose husbands were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks — decided to use the financial support they received afterward to help war widows in Afghanistan, where the Al Qaeda planners of the terror strikes found harbor.
On Thursday, they met for the first time one of the recipients of their donations: Ahqela, an Afghan mother who now has a small chicken farm.
The Americans, their heads wrapped in scarves out of respect for local tradition, peppered Ahqela questions: How many chickens do you have? How many eggs do you get? What do you do with the money?
The chickens produce 10 eggs a day, she told them. The family eats some and sells the rest. She buys food and school supplies with the money.
Retik asked Ahqela what she had traveled across the world to ask: Is her life better because the aid she's getting?
Ahqela, whose small home has dirt floors and drapes for doors, answered honestly:
"It's OK, but not great," said Ahqela, who has only one name and says she is 35, but looks far older. Her husband died in Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s. "I can at least buy some things with this money."
Quigley and Retik were both pregnant when hijacked jets carrying their husbands crashed into the World Trade Center. They met after the attacks.
Retik saw a television program by U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey on Afghan women soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, and the two widows decided to try to help.
"The differences were so stark between what we were receiving, and what they had," said Retik, 38, who has an 8-year-old son and two daughters, 6 and 4. She lives in the city of Needham in the U.S. state of Massachusetts.
"We already had everything we could want," said Quigley, 42, who has two girls, 10 and 4, and lives in nearby Wellesley, Massachusetts.
The women made what they characterize as a "substantial" donation of seed money for the Afghan programs from the financial support they received after the attacks — money from strangers, their husbands' companies and insurance.
In 2004, they created Beyond the 11th, a nonprofit foundation to aid widows in areas touched by conflict. They've held two fundraisers — bike rides from Ground Zero to Boston — raising US$325,000 (euro255,585) . They hope to raise US$250,000 (euro196,600) this year.
About US$170,000 (euro133,690) of their money has gone to income-generating programs run by CARE International. They have also made donations to Women for Women International and to Arzu Rugs, an Afghan program that teaches women to weave carpets.
One CARE program has purchased 6,000 chicks for 400 Afghan women. Participants' monthly income averaged US$26 (euro20) in April-November 2005 — a healthy salary in a country where the average monthly income is US$21(euro16.50) , CARE said.
The Americans said they'd wanted to visit Afghanistan earlier, but had worried about security. On Thursday, they walked briskly through the poor neighborhood in the capital, Kabul, and Retik noted that as single parents they need to make smart safety decisions.
Quigley said they have no reservations about investing in a country that once harbored Al Qaeda.
"We wanted people to understand that these widows were widows because of the same terrorists that affected our husbands," she said. "The terrorists were in that country. It doesn't mean they were from that country."
The goal of their six-day trip was to raise awareness about the plight of women here, to make a connection with Afghan widows, and to see if their money is helping. On that point they seemed satisfied, though it's clear Ahqela needs more aid.
The women say their trip to the land the Taliban once ruled has revealed its amazing beauty — the children, the patches of green in the city center — but also the Afghans' desperate poverty.
"Until you're here and see it with your own eyes and smell the smells, I think I can go back to the United States and speak more eloquently about the needs of the Afghan people," Retik said. "Our job here is not done."