Shoshana Stewart is CEO of Turquoise Mountain, an NGO founded in 2006 to protect heritage and communities in Afghanistan through jobs and education. It now also works with artisans in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Myanmar.
I always loved space and Star Trek. That led me to take a degree in astrophysics. It involved a lot of maths, physics and astronomy – the life and death of stars, how we see things in the universe, relativity, Einstein’s theories. That stuff is like candy to my brain.
The people at LBS shaped me. I chose to go there for my MBA because it’s truly global. The variety of perspectives at LBS was incredible. Two students can look at the same thing and think two completely separate things. LBS is about lifelong learning.
I fell in love with Afghanistan because of how it looks and feels and its people. It saddens me that most people haven’t been there and probably won’t ever go. I adore its crystal-blue skies. Kabul is 6,000ft above sea level and sits in a bowl of dark, jagged mountains.
Murad Khani, in the heart of the Old City, used to be Kabul’s fourth poorest neighbourhood, the place where a lot of returning refugees would come. We have rebuilt every one of 150 historic buildings – mud, brick, timber-frame. And we’ve created a training institute for traditional crafts in the middle of it, as well as a health clinic and a primary school.
Food prices have tripled. We work with a huge number of artisans from all over the country whose work came to an immediate halt when the pandemic hit. The community of Murad Khani make a lot of their living in the bazaar, so when shops shut and trade stopped, their income stopped. We decided to do something we don’t normally do – raise money and hand out food.
People are coping with coronavirus in different ways – it’s a spectrum. But all around us you see wonderful acts of humanity, like Captain Tom walking laps in his garden or people doing deliveries for their elderly neighbours.
The Covid-19 crowdfunder was a very special thing. The infrastructure was already set up, so if someone donated $100, it helped directly – and one more family we know would get food for another month.
Our staff go out wearing improvised PPE and handing out food directly – huge sacks of rice, jugs of oil, flour, vegetables. It’s nothing more complicated than them buying and distributing it.
My doing something that makes a difference is down to my parents. Both of them always worked in non-profits. Now I’m mission-driven. I need to care about the end result. I like the process of making things beautiful.
I like being in someone else’s country and trying to figure out what they’re thinking and learning different languages. I expected to be in Afghanistan for nine months and was there for five years. I started off as a volunteer for the NGO and ended up running it.
Our neighbourhood specialises in a delicacy – sheep cartilage – which is meant to make you very strong. You see wheelbarrows of sheep heads going by. On Bazaar Street, you’ll smell bread baking, fried meat, hot oil. It’s stone-paved, winding streets. It didn’t have any water supply, sanitation or electricity when I got there.
For five years we lived in a mud fort. There’s no central heating in Afghanistan and in winter it’s often below freezing every day, so the pipes freeze. We often didn’t have running water as a result. You’d have to blowtorch the pipe to get it flowing again.
My husband Rory [Stewart, British author and politician] is the most influential person in my life. He’s someone who makes things happen. He walked across Afghanistan in 2001. He has completely influenced the way I look at problems. And he’s always the first person I go to with good news.