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Widows reach beyond 9/11 to aid Afghans

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The two Massachusetts women walk down a fly-infested alley where sewage from mud huts drains onto the dirt walkway. In a tiny backyard, they find two dozen chickens, five children -- and one Afghan war widow.

Patti Quigley of Wellesley and Susan Retik of Needham -- whose husbands were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks -- decided to use the financial support they received afterward to help war widows in Afghanistan, where the Al Qaeda planners of the terrorist strikes found harbor.

Yesterday, they met for the first time one of the recipients of their donations -- an Afghan mother who now has a small chicken farm.

The Americans, their heads wrapped in scarves out of respect for local tradition, peppered her with questions: How many chickens do you have? How many eggs do you get? What do you do with the money?

She answered: The chickens produce 10 eggs a day. The family eats some of them and sells the rest. She buys food and school supplies with the money.

Retik then asked what she had traveled across the world to learn: Is your life better because of this program?

The woman, whose small home has dirt floors and drapes for doors, answered honestly:

''It's OK, but not great," said Ahqela, who has only one name and says she is 35, but looks far older. Her husband died in Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s. ''I can at least buy some things with this money."

Quigley and Retik were both pregnant when hijacked jets carrying their husbands crashed into the World Trade Center in 2001, and met after the attacks. Retik saw an Oprah Winfrey show on Afghan women soon after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, and the two widows decided to help Afghan women.

''The differences were so stark between what we were receiving and what they had," said Retik, 38, who has a son, 8, and two daughters, 6 and 4.

''We already had everything we could want," said Quigley, 42, who has two daughters, ages 10 and 4.

Quigley's remarks were amplified last night by her sister, Ann Marie Crafts, who expressed pride in her sister and said that the trip has a deep meaning for the two women.

''The way that I see it mostly is that she and Susan get so much support from their family and their community, and they saw that other women weren't getting the same thing," Crafts said by phone from her home in Chelmsford.

The women made what they characterize as a ''substantial" donation of seed money for the Afghan programs from the financial support they received after the attacks -- money from strangers, their husbands' companies, and from insurance.

Then in 2004, they created Beyond the 11th, a nonprofit foundation to aid widows in areas touched by conflict. They have held two fund-raisers -- bike rides from ground zero to Boston -- raising $325,000. They hope to raise $250,000 this year.

About $170,000 of their money has gone to income-generating programs run by CARE International. They have also made donations to Women for Women International and to Arzu Rugs, an Afghan program that teaches women to weave rugs.

CARE's chicken program has bought 6,000 chicks for 400 Afghan women. Participants' monthly income averaged $26 from April to November 2005, a healthy salary in a country where the average monthly income is $21, CARE said.

The Americans wanted to visit Afghanistan earlier, but were worried about security. Yesterday, they walked briskly through the poor Kabul neighborhood, and Retik noted that as single parents they need to make smart safety decisions.

Crafts said the goals of the trip make it worth the anxiety she has felt.

''I am nervous that she's there, but that's just more like a big sister talking," she said. ''I can understand personally why she wants to go, because she put so much time and energy into these projects, so for these women to really be able to go there and see them and feel what it's like to be there is great, since they have something in common."

Quigley said they have no reservations about investing in a country that harbored Al Qaeda. ''We wanted people to understand that these widows were widows because of the same terrorists that affected our husbands," she said. ''The terrorists were in that country -- it doesn't mean they were from that country."

The goal of their six-day trip was to raise awareness about the plight of women here, to make a connection with Afghan widows, and to see if their money is helping. On that point they seem satisfied, though it is clear that Ahqela needs more aid.

The women say their trip to the land the Taliban once ruled has revealed its amazing beauty -- the children, patches of green in the city center -- but also the Afghans' desperate poverty.

''Until you're here and see it with your own eyes and smell the smells, I think I can go back to the United States and speak more eloquently about the needs of the Afghan people," Retik said. ''Our job here is not done."

Globe correspondent Emma Stickgold in Boston contributed to this story.

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