When Samira Sayed-Rahman was asked to represent Afghans for Peace for a workshop at a NATO Counter-Summit in Chicago, she considered declining, unsure if she was up to the task.
But the McMaster political science and religious studies student ultimately decided to go, having no idea that she would be leading thousands of protestors – she later heard estimates that ranged from ten to fifty thousand – through the streets of the city.
“I crossed two things off my bucket list, getting onto Fox News and Al Jazeera at the same time,” she laughed.
NATO leaders, including Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, were meeting at a Summit in Chicago, in part to discuss the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The plan was for Sayed-Rahman and two other young women from Afghans for Peace, an organization with chapters in Canada, the U.S. and parts of Europe, to speak and host a workshop at the Counter-Summit happening nearby.
She arrived on the evening of Wednesday, May 16 for a press conference the following morning with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The veterans announced that, at a weekend rally, they would be giving back medals they had received for their time overseas, much like veterans of the Vietnam War did after returning home.
Later that day, the members of AFP and some of the veterans were walking past the Obama headquarters, where there was an anti-war rally taking place. Members of the rally recognized the women and the veterans from the morning’s media event and encouraged them to speak, leading to more coverage.
“From then on, we kept getting invited to all of these different events, running back and forth across the city to speak,” said Sayed-Rahman.
The workshop AFP held at the start of the weekend that followed was packed.
“It was a little strange having all these older folk looking up to me and asking me questions,” she said. “We’re all a bunch of young ladies – we’re all in our 20s – and it was an experience being there and having people look to us for answers, because most people didn’t know anything about the conflict.”
The weekend’s events were building toward Sunday’s rally. The many groups taking part in the march that day wanted to follow the lead of the veterans, who were drawing the bulk of the media attention for the protests. The veterans, though, wished to follow the three women.
“They said this was more about the Afghan people than it was about the people returning their medals.”
So the three walked at the front of the march, carrying the Afghan flag, as the veterans walked alongside them carrying the American flag. When they stopped, less than a block from the NATO Summit, the former soldiers folded up the U.S. flag to represent an end to the occupation.
“The veterans were an incredible group of people. They made sure we always felt safe and were always comfortable,” she said.
After throwing their medals, the men took a knee, a sign of apology to the Afghan people. By the time Sayed-Rahman was reading a statement to the crowd at the close of the event, the veterans were in tears.
“I don’t know how I didn’t shed a single tear on that stage. Looking back on the footage, I’m blown away by it … I don’t know how I was able to speak in front of all of those people.”
Much of Samira’s extended family still lives in Afghanistan.
“I am involved in anything anti-war, whether it’s the Palestinian movement or Libya or anything. But there’s that connection to Afghanistan through my family that I can’t escape, and it has really fuelled me.”
She has returned to Canada, and is back at McMaster for summer classes. But she’s anxious to continue pushing the issue. The young women of her organization have been invited to events in Germany, Nepal and elsewhere as a result of the attention they’ve received.
Samira acknowledges, though, that there might never be another event that comes close to matching her experience in Chicago.
“The relationships we built in two days, I don’t think I could build those relationships with some people in a lifetime.”