The Sept. 11 attacks were overwhelmingly tragic events in this country's recent history; and yet the U.S. military action that followed two years later has brought misery, either directly or indirectly, to people elsewhere in the world, most notably to the already downtrodden, forgotten and desperately poor women — particularly widows — of Afghanistan.
Their plight, which has mostly gone unnoticed and untold, has worsened because of war and terrorist activity, said Susan Retik of Needham, Mass., co-founder in 2003 of Beyond the 11th, a humanitarian organization that assists Afghan widows.
Retik is the widow of David Retik, who lost his life when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 on that fateful morning in September.
Retik and another Sept. 11 widow, Patti Quigley of Wellesley, Mass. — who lost her husband Patrick on United Airlines Flight 175 when it struck the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. on that life-altering day — began Beyond the 11th in response to the inhumane conditions under which Afghan widows have been forced to live.
"After 9/11, we in the U.S. received incredible support from people around the world. When the story broke about how the terrorists had trained in Afghanistan, people also learned about life there, and saw how Afghan women and widows have lived through decades of war and terrorism, and realized just how desperate their situation was and is," said Retik.
"Since Patti and I were now widows, too, we identified with them and the fact that while we had gotten so much support following 9/11 and they had gotten so little, we decided we wanted to try to help them in some way."
International relief organizations, she said, estimate that in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, alone there are 30,000 to 50,000 widows, struggling to support themselves and their children on less than $16 a month. When the head of an Afghan household is male, monthly income is about $46 a month.
Gradually, Retik said, Beyond the 11th took shape and soon was working with existing non-governmental groups, such as CARE International, to channel money and other support to the women, who are illiterate and unskilled.
Beyond the 11th has reached its fifth anniversary; and though Quigley has left to pursue other interests (but remains supportive), the work continues.
"So far, we've helped 1,000 widows, each of whom has five or six children, so we've helped 5,000 to 6,000 people in Afghanistan," said Retik, who pointed to CARE's poultry-raising program, through which Afghan widows receive a number of chickens to rear, whose eggs they can sell, as one example of the kind of self-help that's available.
As Beyond the 11th's Web site declares, self-sufficiency is a giant step in the direction of dignity.
In addition to CARE, Women for Women International and Arzu — an organization that helps the women sell their handmade carpets — are well-established in Afghanistan to aid the women, said Retik.
The Needs of Widows
She acknowledged that Beyond the 11th works hand in hand with each organization to develop programs that address the needs of the widows, such as childcare skills and literacy training; psychological counseling to help the women overcome their loss; clothing to replace the burkas they are no longer forced to wear; and anything else needed to help an Afghan widow regain her independence.
"Our greatest challenge has been to energize people to realize the widows of Afghanistan have had such a terrible existence before and especially after 9/11. Ultimately, I want Beyond the 11th to be less and less about me, as a 9/11 widow, and more and more about the Afghan widows because we're really more alike than different," Retik stated.
Retik's mother, Shelly Zalesne, who lives in Cheltenham with her husband Saul, talked of her daughter's post-9/11 journey.
"The first year after David's death was a blur for Susan, who, after finding out about the widows of Afghanistan and seeing images of the war there, knew in her heart that she had to do something to help those women who had nothing to do with 9/11 and who were suffering much more than she was.
"In the beginning, Susan had hoped to reach out to just one Afghan family, but as the word spread about what she and Patti were doing, more and more people became involved. In helping those poor women, Susan helped herself to heal," Zalesne remarked.
Since Beyond the 11th was founded, several fundraisers have been held, she said, including four bike rides from Ground Zero of the New York attacks to Boston; the documentary "Beyond Belief" was also shown to raise money at the Ambler Theater recently.
The 2006 film, by director Beth Murphy and produced by Principle Pictures, details the formation of Beyond the 11th, and highlights experiences, especially meetings Retik and Quigley had in Afghanistan with widows.
"I'm very proud that Susan worked through her struggle, and had the optimism to come up with a way to help other people and herself," Zalesne said.
Beyond the 11th board member Deborah Zalesne, Shelly's daughter and Susan's sister, a law professor who lives in Manhattan and teaches at City University in Queens, spoke of Beyond the 11th's ongoing work.
Deborah, treasurer of the four-member board, said, "We thought that after the five-year anniversary of 9/11, people might begin to forget about it, but their interest and our fundraising, which is now tied to the documentary, have remained strong.
"And since there are generations of women who've lost husbands in previous wars — and thousands of very young Afghan women who are widows — the need to continue to help them remains great," she said. "So, besides the movie, we're looking for fresh ways to raise funds."
Another New York-to-Boston bike ride, Deborah Zalesne said, is planned for the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
For more information about Beyond the 11th, go to: www.beyondthe11th.org.