What's Model Kyleigh Kuhn Doing In Afghanistan?

as told to Whitney Spaner
Model, philanthropist and New York fashion world darling Kyleigh Kuhn has traveled to Afghanistan several times in the past few years to visit the six schools she helped build through her mother's nonprofit Roots of Peace, and to compile Yearbook Afghanistan, a photo book featuring portraits of Afghani students, released this past fall. Here the San Francisco-native tells us about the beauty she finds in the war-torn country.

The first time I went to Afghanistan was in 2005. I was 18 and had just graduated high school. I had been raising funds for schools out there, so I was able to go and see the efforts. I was a little bit nervous, but everyone was so gracious and welcoming. There were moments when you see something disturbing or shocking, like a tank driving down the road, and you're very out of your element at points, but I've never felt unsafe. I think that's because we are very cautious with the way we interact, making sure we're not coming in as outsiders and just going wherever we want to go. We're very respectful of the way Afghans do things, and we try to learn from them.

Kyleigh (at right) in and around the school she helped build, and that is named for her, in the Mir Bacha Kot district of Afghanistan.

The Yearbook was definitely a labor of love. It was a project to commemorate the work that I had been doing in Afghanistan, and it was a good way to gain solidarity among the students and to show people in the U.S. the Afghanistan that I see. For a lot of these kids it was their first photograph, their first official portrait. It was something that meant a lot to them. These children have their struggles, but they are full of life and are super enthusiastic and happy individuals.

On that trip, we had to shoot quite quickly because we were only there for 10 days. It was just me, the photographer and the driver -- we don't travel with any security. We usually stay at the Roots of Peace office, they have bedrooms for visiting expats. There are other options, like the Serena, a five-star hotel in Kabul where dignitaries and political figures usually stay, but it's very opulent and over-the-top and it feels kind of strange to be there when you're in the middle of Kabul surrounded by a lot of destruction. It's obvious that it's a place for outsiders to come and be pampered, and it has been attacked.

Kabul is definitely a bustling city, but to be on the safe side, I usually don't walk around on the streets very much. I've gone out to the markets before, but you usually don't want to stick around in one spot for too long. Everybody there that's an expat is either affiliated with another nonprofit or USAID, or something like that. There's a whole economy based on catering to expats. There's an Italian restaurant called Boccaccio where a lot of them go. At these types of places there's extra security, so it's almost like you're entering into an airport to get into a restaurant, but it just all depends on what region you're in. In Bamyan, I can walk around all day and walk through the villages and everywhere. It's one of the safest and most beautiful areas.

In terms of the head scarf, when I'm in Kabul, I wear it. If I'm going to Bamyan, it's optional. I usually wear it just to be safe and to show that extra respect, but it does get really hot in the summertime.

One thing I always make sure to pack is pens. They are rare over there, and that's what the kids seem to want the most. If they see you writing with a pen, you can see them just watching it. They also like bubbles, but those are more difficult to pack.

I have made good friends with some Afghan high school girls. They're really interested in what life is like in California and things like that. It's amazing to be able to talk to girls who are near my own age because that's the untold story of Afghanistan. People make a lot of assumptions about women in Afghanistan, but very rarely do they hear from the women about their feelings and what's going on. They're very progressive-minded girls. They talk mostly about their hopes for the future. For them, that's the most pressing thing. They're worried about not being able to marry somebody they love, or the health of their children -- some really serious concerns. I'll have these conversations with these girls and then I'll come back to New York and it's hard for me to readjust to talking about things that are less pressing.

There's definitely an element that takes you out of yourself in Afghanistan. You're able to see the world in a different perspective, and I don't think it's just because you're in a war zone -- it has an ancient feeling about it. It's like you're traveling back in time, in a way. It's an insightful place to be. I'm more inspired by the beauty that I find in Afghanistan and not so much the destruction. It feels sort of magical.

Photographs by Ruvian Wijesooriya from Yearbook Afghanistan

Subscribe to Get More