Susan Retik is passionate about the plight of Afghan widows. It’s an uncommon passion to say the least: Although widows number in the tens of thousands throughout Afghanistan and occupy one of the most precarious positions in Afghan society, they have been largely ignored both at home and abroad. Retik’s passion becomes perhaps even more surprising when one learns about its roots. On September 11, 2001, Retik’s husband, Dave, was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Retik, who was pregnant with their third child at the time, was overwhelmed by the amount of support she received from family, friends and strangers alike. She soon channeled that spirit of generosity toward widows who lived half a world away.
The status of Afghan women is now well-known throughout the world. What many people may not know is that the plight of that country’s widows is even more desperate. Forbidden to inherit their husband’s property, the women are completely dependent on their in-laws. Virtually no form of economic independence is possible. Retik and Patti Quigly, another woman who was widowed in the World Trade Center attacks, set out to change that. And in 2003, their foundation, Beyond the 11th, was born. Over the next seven years, Beyond the 11th has awarded over $600,000 in grants to promote economic and educational independence for the widows of Afghanistan. Last month, Retik was recently awarded the Citizen’s Medal Award by President Obama.
Need to Know’s Gloria Teal talked with Retik about her organization on the eve of the ninth anniversary of 9/11.
Gloria Teal: Why did you found Beyond the 11th ?
Susan Retik: My husband, Dave, was killed on September 11, 2001. We had two kids, and I was pregnant with a third. And obviously, since I was going through this huge tragedy — everybody wanted to do something for me. And I felt that in an unbelievable way, I couldn’t turn a corner without somebody offering to help, and it really enabled me get through such a difficult time.
At the same time, I began learning more about Afghanistan just because you couldn’t turn on the news without hearing about Afghanistan. And the more I heard about it, the more I realized that — I just couldn’t fathom … [experiencing] the same set of circumstances there, you know? Being widowed at a young age and having to care for kids. … I just felt like, well, maybe I could reach out to one woman and her family and try to help her the way so many people had reached out to try and help me. And that was really the whole idea … I wanted to help one family. And, really, a lot of it had to do with the fact that I wanted them to learn about us and I wanted to learn about that family. I felt like we were probably very similar at the core but that we knew so little about each other and our cultures. I never was like, oh, let’s start a non-profit. Ever. Seriously, it was never my intention. It just happened.
Teal: What are some of the issues facing widows in Afghanistan?
Retik: When a man dies, the property doesn’t go to her. Here, you know, my husband was killed. Of course, the house became mine. There, she oftentimes gets kicked out of the home. Literally, it’s up to his family, since that’s where the house goes, to decide what to do with her. Otherwise, they have to go find housing, which is so difficult. If a woman decides to get remarried, she can’t bring her kids with her — they stay with the late husband’s family. And, you know, because 90 percent of all women in Afghanistan are illiterate — and under the Taliban there for so many years they weren’t allowed to go to school, they weren’t allowed to work — they have no skills. And, so, the men really do provide that financial security for the women. So when he’s gone, they really have no means to support themselves. It’s dire. It really is.
Teal: What are the kinds of programs that Beyond the 11th has made grants to?
Retik: The first grant was for the poultry rearing program through CARE International. It was a great program where the women received a number of chickens and chicken feed, materials to build the chicken coup. The thing that I like so much about it is the women are given an asset because the chickens are valuable. And then, you know, obviously, the chickens lay eggs. And they can sell the eggs. …. So, with an egg, they could easily just go to their neighbor or a friend or a family and they can sell an egg. They don’t make a ton of money. But, it was enough to just get them over the hump.
Arzu is one of the organizations we’ve given to in the past. And their main thing is rug weaving [that's] indigenous to the Afghan people. It’s something they’ve been doing for many, many years. And so these women would be given, you know, fine yarns and all the materials to … weave beautiful rugs. When women partake in this program, they sign a contract that says that they’ll send their kids to school and they’ll take advantage of the health care that’s provided to them. So, that’s a great program. And then what we gave them $50,000 [to build] a women’s community center in Bamiyan. One of the things they built was a really large room to house a very large loom because the looms that the women could fit in their homes weren’t large enough. Some big corporations wanted really large rugs so that they could again have this, like, two-story loom in this community center that the women all work on together.
The women’s community center also has laundry facilities, which [may not] sound like such a luxury, but clean water is really hard to come by in Afghanistan. There’s a tea room where the women can come together and congregate and talk. Depression is such an enormous thing in Afghanistan amongst women because they don’t have anyone to talk to, and they’ve all [experienced] so much trauma.
There’s also programming for income generation, like different skills to provide income-generating programs and whatnot. So, you know, that’s in keeping with what we do. We also gave money for a library and a community center and a playground so that when the women are coming and using the facilities, their children have a safe place to play. There’s also a community garden that was being built where the women can grow their own vegetables and eat them and sell them, which is great.