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For a Cheltenham native, helping war widows in Afghanistan is now more important than ever

“This is the moment when we can make an enormous difference.”

Susan Retik, co-founder of Beyond the 11th, a non-profit which supports widowed Afghan women, outside her home in Needham, Mass. She says her charity will go forward despite the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
Susan Retik, co-founder of Beyond the 11th, a non-profit which supports widowed Afghan women, outside her home in Needham, Mass. She says her charity will go forward despite the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.Read moreMADDIE MALHOTRA

The suggestion shocks Susan Retik.

No, she answers, the fall of Afghanistan does not mean the end of her charity, Beyond the 11th.

Far from it. Women there who have been widowed by war need more help, not less. And that’s what she intends to do. Keep helping.

“I believe our work is more important than ever,” Retik said. “We as an organization need to be flexible, our partners need to be flexible, the U.S. government needs to be flexible.”

Retik, 53, who lives near Boston, grew up on Ashbourne Road in Cheltenham, and graduated from Cheltenham High School. Her husband, David, was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

» READ MORE: A flight to safety, and a family left behind, as an Afghan couple arrives in Philadelphia

That day she was seven months pregnant with their third child.

A month later the United States invaded Afghanistan. On television, Retik saw Afghan women who reminded her of herself, women suddenly alone and bereft.

She was troubled by the inequity between their situations.

When Retik’s husband was killed, her house filled with family, food, and company. The American public offered huge sympathy and support to her as a “9/11 widow.”

» READ MORE: A 9/11 widow reaches out to Afghan widows (from May 2008)

The Afghan women were destitute.

Retik joined with another Boston-area woman, Patti Quigley, whose husband, Willingboro native Patrick Quigley IV, was aboard United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to hit the Trade Center. Together they founded Beyond the 11th in 2003, their goal to provide life-sustaining assistance to Afghan women widowed by war or terrorism.

The idea was to counter acts of hate with acts of humanity.

“When you give money to a woman in need,” Retik said, “she knows what to do with it.”

The organization has helped thousands of widows, providing grants to NGOs on the ground to teach women the skills to earn money and support themselves and their children.

In this country, people tend to think of widows as older, gray-haired, their children grown, and their lives winding down. In Afghanistan, war has created millions of young widows, many of whom have four or five children.

The country already suffers some of the world’s lowest living standards, with shortages of housing, water, electricity, and jobs. An estimated 13 million people don’t have enough food.

Now, with the Taliban again in control, the ability of aid and humanitarian groups to work in the country has become uncertain.

A main Beyond the 11th partner, CARE International, the worldwide antipoverty group, said it doesn’t plan to close any programs in Afghanistan — but all are currently suspended.

» READ MORE: How to help Afghan refugees: Where you can volunteer, donate, and more in Philadelphia

UNICEF said it’s been able to continue delivering health services, food, and water to some of the half a million Afghans who have been displaced by war and violence.

Quigley, who left Beyond the 11th to help Afghan girls as director of Razia’s Ray of Hope, doesn’t know what the future holds. The foundation supports the Zabuli Education Center, a free, all-girls K-12 school, and the adjacent Razia Jan Institute.

“Our hope is we will be able to continue,” she recently told CBS Boston. “We’re expecting some changes, but we will work with whatever government is put in place. We’ll go by the laws and regulations of what they decide and we will do the best we can.”

The fear is Afghan women and girls will suffer the same terrible treatment they endured in the 1990s, when the Taliban banished them from jobs and schools. In recent days in several parts of Afghanistan, women have mounted protest marches for their rights.

Afghan widows can be the worst off, poor, illiterate, reduced to begging, and, without a husband, stripped of all rights. The loss of their husband means they can be evicted from their homes and even have their children taken by their in-laws.

Beyond the 11th aims to raise awareness at the same time it is funding projects that are both sustainable and culturally appropriate.

» READ MORE: At Flight 93 memorial near Shanksville, visitors reflect on 20 years

It has helped Afghan women operate a poultry-raising program and a small savings and loan so they could access capital to start their own businesses and pay school fees. The charity also helped build a women’s community center, where job skills could be taught.

In the last three years Beyond the 11th received $277,545 in contributions and other revenue and gave out grants of $152,200, according to its public tax filings.

The volunteer organization spends little on expenses, records show. Retik, the president, takes no salary.

Women in Afghanistan need help and hope, she said. “This is the moment when we can make an enormous difference.”