“I dream of going to that part of Pakistan where the refugee camps crowd against the borders of Afghanistan.” JWH
How many women would have such a dream, much less live it? Flashback to 1967 when, while crossing the Himalayas, intrepid American traveller and photographer, Jean Heringman Willacy, falls in love with Afghanistan. What makes this timely memoir so different is that Jean is already almost 50 years old.
Without any prior experience, but in order to remain in her adopted country, Jean boldly starts a fashion export company and provides employment to impoverished Afghan widows who embroider the then trendy, fur-lined, 'hippy' coats. It is a time when girls wear mini-skirts and Kabul is known as the 'Paris of Central Asia'. Jean travels freely documenting and recording the excitement of discovering Afghanistan, its people and its culture.
These adventurous, carefree years end abruptly in 1978 when Jean becomes a shocked eyewitness to the brutal communist coup and puppet state that lead to the Soviet-Afghan War. Her loyalty and outrage quickly override her concerns about her age and compel her to find ways to help those fleeing for their lives. She begins to live her dream.
Wary of international aid agencies, often sharing squalid conditions, and shunning the role of 'Western saviour,' Jean determines to work independently, both inside the refugee camps in Pakistan and in those Western countries granting asylum. Using her own resources and ingenuity, she becomes a stalwart ally of an ever-growing number of Afghan refugees -especially women and children- and an implacable foe of bureaucratic red tape.
Even after the Soviet-Aghan War ends, Jean dedicates the remaining twenty years of her life to Afghan refugees and continues to chronicle their mutual struggle to overcome the ravages of war and rebuild their lives with dignity. Small wonder she is considered a 'Keeper of Families.' In Jean's words:
“Their stories must be told to show the world that it is not merely enough to have escaped tyranny and oppression. Those who preach compassion must also show it in a practical way. Political expediency must never be allowed to override moral obligations.”
The book features transcripts of rare tape recordings from Jean's conversations with Afghan women and her spontaneous, on-the-street encounters. It is illustrated with a selection of Jean's photographs and drawings from her art project with Afghan refugee children.
As Afghanistan continues to make headlines and as one refugee crisis tragically follows another, The Keeper of Families remains a relevant and need-to-read book. Hopefully, Jean and her adoptive Afghan family can live on, inspire and, now more than ever, reaffirm our common bond of humanity.
Endorsed by the late, internationally acclaimed American historian Nancy Hatch Dupree known as the 'Grandmother of Afghanistan.'
5.0 out of 5 stars
One woman's magnetic attraction to Afganistan and the people she came to love there
Reviewed in the United States on June 8, 2019 by Ellen Bell
Jean was an American housewife, divorced and seeking adventure! She was drawn to Afghanistan's vast and beautiful landscape, and more than that to it's people whom she chronicled in diaries and photographs during the 1960's and 70's when she lived there. Jean was bright and talented, but it was her charisma that magnetized people to her as she asked unending questions about their lives to which she clearly cared about the answers and more than that, the respondents. In this way, she made multitudes of friends including several girls who called her "mother" as she helped them through the many equity barriers she found against girls especially. Over time , Jean learned the many, many rules and customs to get the permissions she needed to help her adopted "daughters" and others in Afghanistan and then in Pakistan where she followed them as so many Afghanis were forced to live as refugees. This is a beautiful, caring picture painted in words and photos of Jean's tireless humanity. Add this to The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul for a well-rounded and very human picture of Afghanistan and it's people.
Reviewed By: Susan Brown
Those who give of themselves in service to people less fortunate leave a legacy of friendship and goodwill to the individuals who have benefited from that type of heart-warming kindness. American Jean Heringman, the courageous woman of this memoir, didn’t set out to create such a legacy, but through her advocacy for her adopted, extended Afghan families, that is exactly what happened.
What begins as a business foray, buying and selling traditional handmade Afghan clothing, brings Heringman to Afghanistan. As she travels the country, she comes to love and cherish the friendships she makes. In the aftermath of a Soviet invasion, that affection transforms her into a champion of the beleaguered and oppressed refugees fleeing their homeland throughout the ensuing occupation. The accounts of Heringman’s time in Afghanistan have been curated by her daughter from a collection of diaries, live audio tapes, pictures and notes from interviews with men, women and children both pre- and post-Soviet occupation. In her initial travel notes, there are charming insights into the country’s colorful culture.
Her perceptive writing is filled with lighthearted detail. As a tourist in Kabul she notes, “There is a bicycle almost hidden from view because of the big load of green onions that is strapped to the peddler’s back. And everywhere there are little carts piled high with all different kinds of fruits. Seated on top of them are the vendors. They curl up into a teeny, weeny space; their legs tucked underneath them, and perch like so many birds hovering over their goods.”
The vibrant mélange of sights, sounds, aromas and infectious buoyancy of the locals she meets is dramatically changed by a military coup that allows the Soviets into the fabric of the country. In an instant, Heringman is thrust out of her role as friend and confidante into one of spokeswoman, crusader and tireless fighter for displaced Afghan refugees whose lives have been upended. She observes, “Exile has forced many refugees to abandon their traditional tribal ways, and consequently they suffer a loss of pride, identity, and self-respect.” Her mission to shine a light on this tragic situation dominates the remaining years of her life. She states, “Their stories must be told to show the world that it is not merely enough to have escaped tyranny and oppression. Promises must be kept. Those who preach compassion must also show it in a practical way. Political expediency must never be allowed to override moral obligations.”
Of course, this narrative of human displacement due to war is as relevant today as it was at the time of Heringman’s involvement in Afghanistan. The current refugee crisis in that country, as well as across South Asia and the Middle East is a well-documented crisis. Books like this one help us see the cost paid by those who through no fault of their own, have been forced to walk away from their native land and, in the process, inspire us to help.
In Heringman’s own words, “Books are not written about people like us. But it doesn’t matter, for we know in our very souls what good we have given to others.” I highly recommend reading this memoir. I also look forward to reading more of Sue Heringman’s writing. You will not be sorry you picked this book up and started this journey with the author.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review
“Enthralled by mountains, Jean journeyed dauntlessly through the countries spanned by the Himalayas.”
After Willacy’s death in 2004, her daughter, Sue, took on the momentous task of compiling and publishing this intimate, cohesive record of her mother’s extraordinary experiences. This historical yet timely biography, composed of drawings, journal entries, letters, personal notes, photographs, speeches, and transcripts of tape recordings, is a tribute to Willacy’s life and legacy and to the indomitable people of Afghanistan.
An American housewife displaced by divorce in the 1960s, Willacy chose an adventurous new life in Afghanistan in 1967 as a visiting businesswoman, importing licorice root and traditional fur-trimmed, embroidered coats favored by hippies in the UK and USA and supplying English language books to Afghan readers. Despite her inexperience in business, she utilized her success to organize an embroidery cottage industry for impoverished widows in Afghanistan’s remote sheep districts. But these carefree years came to a halt in 1978 with the bloody Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Jean’s role suddenly changed from businesswoman to advocate during one of the most brutal refugee diasporas in modern history. She put her photographic and artistic talents to good use while documenting the lives of women and children in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and ultimately used children’s art and their personal descriptions of refugee life in successful fundraising exhibitions.
At times, the epistolary narrative by its very nature seems narrow and episodic, but the patient reader interested in the plight of refugees will be rewarded with a vivid look at the difficulties faced by Afghan women as they navigated the decade-long limbo of refugee camps and the confusing asylum applications to faraway Western countries. This volume is a valuable study of a phenomenon becoming all too common as the contemporary migration and refugee crisis currently engulfs 68 million people worldwide.