The eye of the needle: Women of Hope Project uses embroidery to empower the women of Afghanistan
by Brett Buckner
Special to the Star
Dec 05, 2009 | 1917 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Women of Hope Project creates opportunities for the women of Kabul, Afghanistan, and their children. Photo: Special to The Star
The Women of Hope Project creates opportunities for the women of Kabul, Afghanistan, and their children. Photo: Special to The Star
slideshow
'These are women who have only two possessions — the clothes on their backs and one embroidery needle,' said Paulette Neshiem of the Afghan women with whom she works. Photo: Special to The Star
'These are women who have only two possessions — the clothes on their backs and one embroidery needle,' said Paulette Neshiem of the Afghan women with whom she works. Photo: Special to The Star
slideshow
Photo: Special to The Star
Photo: Special to The Star
slideshow
It was August when Hilda Hudson's eyes were opened wide to the suffering of women and children a world away from her home in Anniston.

She had seen the images on television and read the impossibly bleak stories of poverty, despair and oppression.

One in every three Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence ... For every live birth in Afghanistan, a woman dies in pregnancy ... The average life expectancy for a woman in Afghanistan is 44 ...

But it took one woman to make it all real to Hudson: Paulette Neshiem, a volunteer for the nonprofit Women of Hope Project, which encourages the empowerment of women living in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hudson heard her speak while in Big Sky, Mt.

"The whole time she was speaking," Hudson remembers, "I couldn't stop thinking about getting everyone I knew to hear what I just heard."

And so Hudson has arranged for Neshiem to speak at three events in Anniston and Jacksonville on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"What America doesn't understand is that Afghanistan has been broken," Neshiem says. "Their economy has been destroyed, unemployment is massive and rising, food costs increase daily, rents in Kabul are off the wall because of the influx of Western aid organizations and refugees from the rest of the country. There are very few doctors, all medical care and medicines are hideously expensive.

"There has been no education in the country since the Taliban took over. Women were virtual prisoners in their homes — forbidden to work, to learn skills."

The Women of Hope project aims to change that, using the unlikely weapon of an embroidery needle.

Dignity restored

Neshiem's father grew up in poverty. Raising his two daughters, he constantly reminded them to appreciate what they had and the opportunities that had been granted to them.

"We were raised with a very deep sense of understanding," Neshiem says from her home in Montana. "That it was our responsibility to give back to those who were less fortunate than we were."

Neshiem has taught English in Germany, as well as German and French at West Fargo High School. She was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy in 1975 and retired as a commander in 1994.

But it wasn't until 2008 when her husband, Ray, met an American woman in Kabul, Afghanistan, that Neshiem discovered her life's second calling.

Ray, also a retired Navy officer, has spent several years in Afghanistan, most recently to administer a program for the central government assisting with the security transfer for the Afghans in Kabul. It was there he met Betsy Beamon at a bazaar, where she was selling embroidery made by local Afghan women.

For 24 years, Beamon worked at U.S. Airways. But then came 9/11 and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. She was eventually laid off and found herself watching in horror the news accounts of the Afghan women following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

In her mid 40s, with her children grown and out of the house, she packed up a few belongings and went first to Pakistan and eventually Kabul. It was there she met a woman selling embroidery in an attempt to earn a living.

Beamon returned home, sold her house and her car, approached her church about helping with fundraising and in 2002 returned to Kabul to found the Women's Hope Project.

After hearing Beamon's story, Ray Neshiem asked what he could do to help. Her only answer: "I need more women." Paulette Neshiem answered that plea and has been volunteering with the project ever since.

"My goal has been to let these women know that I believe in them and that I'm coming back. I'm not like what they think about most Americans — that we come in one time, create havoc walk away and never come back."

Journey through despair

Embroidery for these women is not a hobby; it's a lifeline.

"These are women who have only two possessions — the clothes on their backs and one embroidery needle. And these are women who have only two skills — survival and the embroidery skills their mothers taught them," Neshiem says.

The Women's Hope Project doesn't view itself as a charity but rather as a way of creating opportunities for not only the women of Kabul, but their children as well.

Under the Taliban, the maximum number of students in school at one time was 800,000 _ for a population of more than 32 million. Some 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. Only 30 percent of Afghan girls have access to education.

Beamon started with two women making embroidery in 2001. She now has more than 100 who form the base of the Embroidery Project, and many of those women have upwards of 60 others working for them. Those women can now afford to send their children to school and have become the main breadwinners for their extended families.

All of the profits from embroidery go to pay not only the women who made the handwork but also to the vocational center in Kabul and to pay the school teachers in the refugee camps, Neshiem says.

"A woman does not get paid for her work until we sell her item," she says. "Anytime you have a charity, when it's something given, it's often not appreciated. It becomes an entitlement. We want our women to feel empowered, to know that their money has been earned and is deserved."

In addition to extended stays in Kabul, Neshiem travels extensively sharing the story of the Women's Hope Project. Her presentations here will last approximately 30 minutes and will cover the history and geography of Afghanistan as well as the project itself.

Neshiem will also have embroidery available for sale, from Christmas ornaments (around $8) to dolls ($35) to head scarves ($25) tablecloths ($200).

The embroidery is also sold locally in Kabul, at craft festivals in the U.S. and through a handful of online retailers. For more information, visit www.womenofhopeproject.org.

Women of Hope Project



Presention by Paulette Neshiem

Tuesday: 7 p.m. at JSU International House.

Wednesday: 11 a.m. at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County.

Wednesday: 5:30 p.m. at Family Night Supper at First Presbyterian Church, Anniston.

Presentations are free and open to the public. For the Friday Night Supper, reservations are required. Call 237-5854 for more information.
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