Two Journeys, One Mission: Giving Forward
By Benjamin Perks & Lina Tori Jan
November is a time of gratitude. The month is marked by Thanksgiving in the United States and by GivingTuesday in the world of global activism. It is a moment to witness the spirit of giving to one another, to our communities, and to our society. ‘Giving forward’ is one of the hallmarks of the month. Giving forward is a ripple effect witnessed over generations. It does not come with any expectation or self-interest. It is driven by love and the hope for a better tomorrow. A mother may sacrifice a comfortable life to give a better future for her children, a teacher may go the extra mile to ensure her students thrive and improve the world, and a humanitarian worker may risk their safety to reach those in need.
Our [Benjamin and Lina’s] lives have been shaped by the generosity of others over different generations and in very different places. Our lives were transformed by people who simply took a chance on us.
If my memories of childhood were photos, they would not be high resolution. They would be grainy, frayed at the edges, blurred by trauma and the absence of shared family memories. I was a children’s home boy. My adolescence was punctuated by moves to more than twenty addresses strewn across London and Birmingham. I would often move in a moment’s notice, belongings in a garbage bag. One of the children’s homes was so violent and chaotic that I ran away and slept on the streets. I was thirteen years old.
At fifteen I started a new school and met an incredible teacher Jan Rapport. Jan asked questions and listened to the answers. She got me excited about literature, politics and philosophy. She was the first person in my life to hold me up to a higher standard and help me achieve it. Coming from the emotional desolation of a children’s home, knowing someone held me in their mind and heart was a game-changer. She turned me away from a likely trajectory of crime and risk. I eventually went to university, got a masters degree and settled on a career with UNICEF.
One moment in my working life stands out. Nurooz, Afghan New Year 2002.
23 years of war had given way to a peace agreement and a commitment to get the child population into school. Most Afghan children had never been to school. The few schools from before the war had largely been destroyed. Our job was to put in place an infrastructure for basic education for millions of children within a few months. Our deadline was Nurooz on the 21st March. We express-trained thousands of would-be Afghan teachers, imported tens of thousands of tent classrooms and millions of textbooks, stationary and backpacks. We repurposed living rooms and factories as classrooms and distributed supplies via truck, camel or donkey train to every city, town and village, including those not reachable by roads. We barely took a breath for weeks and just got the last supplies in place in the early hours of Nurooz. After a few hours of sleep, we awoke to the most wonderful scene. Through faint snow we could see children going in every different direction to school. For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, the majority of children were in school.
The Back to School Campaign of 2002 is the foundation of my education. Just a year prior, a group of insurgents had arrived at my school, destroying it with bullets and burning all the books. By the age of five, I had heard angry words that no child should hear: “Burn the books so the idea of getting an education never crosses their minds again.” They pillaged my school and set the books ablaze. The terror caused by these insurgents displaced many people to neighboring countries, and forced my family to live in hiding in a basement in Herat.
With the change of regimes in late 2001, life started to get better for many, including Afghan women and numerous minority groups in Afghanistan. My family moved to the capital city, Kabul, where I saw an opportunity to continue to pursue an education. The day I first learned that I would get to go to school, I was ecstatic—bouncing my way down the dusty streets as I made the two-hour walk to the nearest UNICEF tent, where I proceeded to register myself for school. In the months that followed, I would walk the two hours with my friends and occasionally walk alone.
My initial classroom was a greyish-white tarpaulin awning. On sunny and hot days, the outside classroom sweltered with heat to the point that my black hair started to turn brown. On rainy days, we would have to cancel classes because the whole classroom would be submerged in water. Eventually, the school received a UNICEF tent, which made the situation much better. It was so exciting! It meant no more days of sitting in the sun and no cancelation of classes because of rain. Soon after, we started getting chairs and desks. Life was going really well and, for the first time, I began to have a glimpse of a “normal” childhood. As time passed, this initial spark grew into a burning passion for learning and a drive to pursue education as a path to a better life.
As a result of my early years of learning, I have had opportunities beyond what I ever could have imagined, from completing my high school diploma in the United States to working with the Governor of Virginia’s office while completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Richmond to studying alongside classmates from over 50 countries at the University of Oxford.
Years later, while completing my master’s in Oxford, a friend of mine told me about Ben and his involvement in the Back to School Campaign. I was so ecstatic to meet Ben and thank him for the work he did. I was one of the students which Ben helped to attend school. Our paths may have crossed when he was in Afghanistan but the mere fact that he took the time to serve and give forward his blessings, changed my life. Through UNICEF, Ben and others like him empowered me to have the tools and foundation for my education.
When I heard about Lina, I realised that she would have been one of those children on that day. I wonder if my younger self in Afghanistan could have imagined being blessed by such a connection all those years later. I am lucky to know her and of her accomplishments as an inspirational young Afghan leader. For every child, going to school, feeling safe accessing food and water and being loved should not be dependent on generosity. They are non-negotiable human rights. Lina harnessed the narrowest of opportunities to achieve the widest of impacts.
This Giving Tuesday my life will come full circle. I will present a joint UN policy call to member states in New York to bring an end to child abuse, neglect and abandonment by strengthening parenting programmes. The evidence shows that such programmes dramatically reduce child maltreatment. We now have the know-how to make them universally available and can realistically envisage a world where children don’t suffer abuse and neglect. A world where children don’t experience what I did. On that special day I will carry a thought of Jan and Lina in my heart and think about how our destinies are interwoven across generations and continents. How the best version of ourselves rises to the top when we give forward for a better tomorrow.
When I heard of Ben’s story, I was touched by his resilience, courage, empathy, and giving heart. While our quest for education and service brought us out from difficult moments of life, our journey would not have been possible without the incredible support of many individuals who took the time to guide us. Our journey has reminded us again and again, in a world where tidal waves of news can make humanity and hope seem distant, they are anything but—hope and humanity are ever-present in every corner of every community around the globe.
So, this holiday season, please take a moment to pause and reflect on how the generosity of others has impacted your own life, and how you might—in ways big or small—give forward and positively impact the lives of those around you. Together, we can build a better future for millions of children around the world by giving forward our blessings.