Beyond the 11th
The bonds between parent and child, siblings, or special friends may need little explaining, but that bonds of equal strength and resilience can be forged among strangers is one of life’s paradoxes. It is a paradox familiar to Susan Retik, and one she has based her work on.
Susan, the mother of two, was happily married and expecting a third child when her husband was killed aboard American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11, 2001. "People asked how I got through such a tragic loss," she recalls, "and the answer was always the same. I received so much help and support from strangers around the country, around the globe—whether it was a handwritten note or a hand-sewn quilt. Just knowing that someone out there was thinking of me lifted me up."
Her empathy led Susan, only months later, to imagine how Afghani women might be lifted up as well. War-torn for decades, Afghanistan is home to thousands of impoverished widows. Perhaps it was simply the shared experience of unbearable loss, but Susan found herself thinking about "how I could help those women even before we invaded Afghanistan. It was a terrible place to be a woman and an even more terrible place to be a widow."
The following February, Susan met another 9/11 widow and mother, and mentioned her hope of helping just one woman in the way so many people had helped her. "There was no aha moment," Susan says. "The idea just evolved naturally when we realized that the money we could donate was a fortune in Afghanistan and could help many more than just one woman."
The two women founded Beyond the 11th in 2003 to do just that. Today, the organization channels funds through three organizations—CARE International, Women for Women International, and Arzu, a group that teaches Afghani women rug weaving to provide them and their families with resources for health care, education, and literacy. Most of all, the funding assists women in securing an independent future. Through these agencies, Beyond the 11th has helped more than 500 widows on the road to self-sufficiency. Something as simple as providing these women with chickens affords them both food and income when they sell the eggs. With each widow having an average of nearly six children, Susan’s support has aided nearly 3,000 impoverished Afghanis.
In September, Beyond the 11th sponsored its third 275-mile bike ride from Ground Zero to Boston; last year it raised $175,000, and Susan hoped to raise $250,000 this year. As a result of a documentary on her work, Susan anticipates more speaking engagements. "I want people to see the real Afghanistan. These are women with beautiful souls who want the same things for their kids that we want."
Meeting the women of Afghanistan on a recent trip there made Susan’s mission more heartfelt than ever: "Poverty breeds terrorism," she says. "It’s about desperation. If an Afghan family had a young boy, the Taliban would offer that family a sack of rice to recruit him. We don’t want families to have to make that terrible choice. We want to give them that sack of rice."