Duplessy Foundation’s Profiles in Purpose series is a celebration of people pursuing their life purpose. Our profiles highlight indviduals from all walks of life who have chosen to pursue purpose-driven lives.

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Sarah Chayes

About Sarah Chayes: A native Bostonian, Sarah grew up in a politically active family. Her father served in the Kennedy administration, and her mother served under Carter. After some soul-searching moments, Sarah dropped out of Harvard’s graduate school and began a career as a radio reporter. While reporting in the poverty-stricken, war-torn Afghanistan, Sarah decided to stay and help its people rebuild their nation.

Sarah was a reporter and an overseas correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), and her voice, especially the way she signed herself off (Sarah Chayes, NPR news, Paris) became familiar and endearing to millions of Americans through the airwaves. “Journalism is a blank check,” Sarah said. “You could walk up to anybody and say, what is your story? Every life has a story.” After being with NPR for 10 years, however, Sarah gradually found herself wanting to do more than just reporting. “You could only do so much as a reporter, and I have always admired those people who use their two hands and contribute something directly.” For a while, Sarah felt she was just marking time, but her time would come. When the hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers, Sarah felt the time had come. She called her NPR editor and said: “If you need me, I am yours. I’d like to make a contribution.” So, NPR sent her to Quetta, Pakistan, to cover the fall of the Taliban, a radical Islamic group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Because the Taliban had assisted Bin Laden in developing his Al-Qaeda network, the United States launched a military effort to remove the Taliban from power. After the Taliban was overthrown, Afghanistan was faced with a weak government that was utterly unable to rebuild a nation torn by over 25 years of military conflicts. Miles of roads lay wasted and buildings destroyed by gunfire and bombs remained rubble for decades. During the same period, warlords with private militias seized important positions in the government and used their authority to enrich their pockets at the expense of ordinary Afghan people.

Making A Contribution with Her Own Two Hands

Seeing with her own two eyes the destruction and plight facing this war-torn country, Sarah knew it was time to do something other than merely reporting on and talking about the situation. The first thing she did was to help rebuild a village practically demolished by U.S bombing during its conflicts with Al-Qaeda. After trying to elicit the manpower of U.S army and being turned down flat, Sarah, not discouraged, decided to enlist the help of ordinary American citizens. She flew back to the United States, talked to various people, gave a public speech in Concord, Massachusetts, and raised $18,000 in a short time. Bach to Afghanistan, Sarah gathered the village elders and discussed details about priority (whose houses were going to be built first?), dimension (how big were the houses going to be?), and labor (who would be the workers?). Several weeks later, out of the rubble of this wasted village emerged the foundation of a brick house, shooting up like the hope that Sarah would foster not just for this village alone but for the nation as a whole. She decided that her destiny was going to be intimately tied up with the destiny of Afghanistan, and that she was going to stay and help rebuild the country.

Sarah had a dream for Afghanistan: That one day Afghan people would be able to enjoy a form of government into which they could have a direct input, instead of being at the whims of people with guns and power. This form of government would provide the necessary infrastructure for sustained economic development, would deliver most Afghan people from abject poverty. She knew this dream was big, and she started small. Sarah founded a soap-making cooperative using the fruits grown in southern Afghanistan, among them almonds, apricots, and pomegranates, to create natural skin-care products. Sarah created an environment where all the members of the cooperative had a say in how it was going to be run. Yet, when she started the cooperative, Sarah knew nothing about soaps or about running a business, but she was a quick learner. Within a few days, she gathered from the Internet the knowledge to turn fruits into body oils and into soaps, and she managed to get a $25,000 grant from a private foundation in Chicago to start things off. Her efforts to get grants from America’s governmental aid establishments, such as U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) and Alternative Livelihood Program (ALP), proved disappointing and frustrating, even though she had one of the few successful programs operating in the South of Afghanistan. The officials seemed to delight in making Sarah jump through bureaucratic hoops only to turn her down flat in the end, and once again Sarah turned to ordinary American as well as Afghan citizens for support. An Afghan friend of hers donated a car. Six women from Denver volunteered to be the marketing executives. A sixteen-year-old from Massachusetts started a Wellesley High School Afghanistan Club, advocating for the cause of the cooperative, holding car washes and bake sales to raise money. A Canadian citizen volunteered to do taxes for the cooperative and send boxes of toys for the children of its members in Afghanistan, selected by his own son. Little by little, the soap cooperative got off the ground, and now it provides livelihoods for 12 extended families in southern Afghanistan, with great room for expansion. The soaps are exported to and sold at shops in America, Canada, and the Caribbean. By working with fruits and turning them into soaps and body oils, Sarah was providing the farmers of southern Afghanistan with an alternative to growing opium, since “the best way to fight opium is to compete with it,” Sarah said.

Hand made soap stones

Hand made soap stones - Main product of the cooperative

Defying Danger

Because Sarah is vocal about her political views and has connections with political figures such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai and his family, she has become the target of suspicion and harassment, her outspokenness and idealism irritate some conservative and self-seeking Afghan officials. On one occasion, an officer at the U.S Embassy told Sarah: “You have to come to Kabul (the capital of Afghanistan) immediately! There is a really serious threat out against you. I think your life is in danger.” On another occasion, President Karzai’s younger brother, Ahmad Wali, sent for Sarah and said to her: “The CIA wants to see you since there is a threat against your life.” Determined not to be intimidated, she did an investigation of her own and concluded that the death threat actually came from one of the governors in a southern province, who was annoyed at her and wanted to scare her out of the country. She launched her own defense, and asked one of her friends in the intelligence community to deliver a message to the governor, saying that if anything should happen to her, the U.S military would be pretty displeased. “I never received another threat after that,” said Sarah.

Still, in a country where assassination and suicide bombing are common occurrences, Sarah has to protect herself on a daily basis. She began to dress like an Afghan man, with a vast trouser gathered at the waist with a woven belt, a flowing calf-length tunic, and a large shawl wrapped around the upper body. “The idea is to create an optical illusion,” Sarah said, so that she could disguise her identities both as a foreigner and as a woman, blend in with the environment and with the people she interacts with everyday, who are mostly Afghan men, and thereby lower her chance of becoming the target of random violence.

Besides her own safety, Sarah has to worry about the safety of the people she helps. One of Sarah’s goals when she founded the soap cooperative was to work directly with local farmers and buy fruits at their doors, so that their profits would not be swallowed up by middlemen. As Sarah worked towards this goal, one of the elders from a village Sarah intended to buy fruits from came to see her. “Forgive me for not coming myself yesterday,” Sarah said to the elder, “but I didn’t want to cause you any difficulties.” The elder replied: “I would not give you permission to come.” The reason was that although the Taliban had been driven out of power, these villagers had been harassed by the resurgent Taliban soldiers, who threatened bodily harm or death to anyone who worked directly with an American. The villagers were so intimidated that no one was willing let Sarah’s truck near his house and put his life in danger.

The Motivation Behind

Despite the tremendous difficulties, Sarah keeps going. “Afghanistan is starving for continuity,” Sarah said, “and if no one else is going to provide it, I will. The least I could do is to live by my own precept.”

There is an anecdote that particularly captures who Sarah is. One day, Sarah was driving with an interpreter along a crowded road in Pakistan, and a donkey planted himself (or herself) in the middle of the road, making a mess of the traffic. Seeing that no one was doing anything about it, Sarah jumped out of the car and began to drag the donkey out of the road, ignoring her companion’s stricken cries (“No, Sarah, get back in the car!”). Seeing that a woman, and a foreigner at that, was doing something to help clear the road, other people came and helped push the stubborn animal out of the way. This is Sarah. She is saying, this is what I believe in, and if nobody else is going to do it, I will.

Sarah Chayes is currently living in Afghanistan, running Arghand, a soap-making cooperative to fight the puppy economy. You could make a direct contribution by sending the cooperative things like duct tape and sharpie indelible pens, things abundant in America but hard to come by in Afghanistan. For a complete list of things you could send or ways you could help, visit www.arghand.org.

If you have questions or feedback about this profile, you are welcome to contact the author Lily Yeh at lilyyyeh@gmail.com

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