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Molly (Howitt) de Saint Andre '96

Two Life-Changing Years in Afghanistan

Molly (Howitt) de Saint AndréIn 2006, Molly (Howitt) ‘96 de Saint André was living in Boston and teaching at the Learning Center for the Deaf. While she loved the work she was doing, de Saint André had been considering an idea an Afghan-American friend had presented: moving to Afghanistan, a country that sorely needed educators to build schools and work with people who’d been living in a war zone.

Though de Saint André didn’t have previous involvement with Afghanistan, she was immediately interested in the idea of going to a place few other Americans would consider. It was the sort of unconventional opportunity she’d always found herself drawn to.

"It had taken me two years to make the decision to go. My family was horrified. But I knew that I could contribute something, and I also felt the country had a lot to offer me. It was absolutely the right choice."

Afghanistan was just beginning the first phase of reconstruction in 2006. de Saint André found work with the then-fledgling Turquoise Mountain Foundation, an organization devoted to creating jobs, developing skills, and restoring Afghanistan’s national pride. She helped establish a school that taught traditional Afghan arts and crafts. She recruited masters of traditional Afghan arts and developed curriculum for courses in Moho Designsceramics, calligraphy, and woodworking.

"When I started, there were only about ten of us, and some of us didn’t have previous experience. But when you’re in a place on the brink of a lot of change, you feel like what you’re doing is really making a difference. I can’t stress how exciting that feels."

At the same time, de Saint André was putting experience as a yoga teacher to use, working through an organization named Parsa to train Afghan physiotherapists in yoga practice and its beneficial effects on people’s psychological and physical health.

"So many Afghan people have been badly physically and mentally affected by war. We worked with amputees, with people who’d experienced serious trauma, and found that yoga could contribute to their recovery."

de Saint André ultimately trained ten Afghans to teach yoga to children and adults, enabling the program to continue in her absence. “I felt it was crucial that I leave something behind that could grow and develop, and many of the individuals I trained are still introducing yoga to various groups in Afghanistan.” Twice a week for nearly a year, de Saint André worked directly with children at an orphanage, teaching a yoga class that emphasized hygiene and meditation. By the end of the program, she had eight year old boys meditating for four minutes at a time. For the boys, either orphaned or abandoned by families who could not support them, the classes offered an escape from the tragic conditions of their daily lives at a facility with appalling conditions.

"I taught them that in meditation you move inside yourself and in doing so you gain the freedom to transcend your immediate experience and to move to a place where you feel more freedom and control over your life. The kids were so responsive, and working with them was simply amazing."

"I taught them that in meditation you move inside yourself and in doing so you gain the freedom to transcend your immediate experience and to move to a place where you feel more freedom and control over your life. The kids were so responsive, and working with them was simply amazing."

After leaving Afghanistan she spent two years in Turkey establishing an early-intervention sign language program for deaf children. Turkey is one of only a handful of countries that haven’t adopted the use of sign language for deaf children. Her job included advocating for the efficacy of sign language to a medical and educational community that had little knowledge of how to serve deaf children. "I had doctors tell me that it is proven that sign language is bad for a child’s brain, that it will make them stupid and lazy."

Now, de Saint André is living in the Berkshires. In college she concentrated in printmaking and ceramics and has been making and showing artwork on the side ever since. She decided to concentrate on printmaking full time, and started a screen-printing business, Moho Designs, with her husband. They’ve crafted lines of women’s and children’s clothing, tableware, and stationary. Most of their stock is sent to Turquoise Mountain’s Gangina Gallery in Kabul, where the profits are dedicated to the foundation’s support for local artists and Afghan Craftsman.

Three years after leaving, de Saint André thinks of her work in Afghanistan as one of the most poignant and impacting experiences of her life. In Afghanistan, she connected with people whose lives were totally alien to her own. Over time, through working with them and learning their language and culture, she felt "a deep understanding of what people have gone through and why they are where they are."

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