Their lives followed radically different paths, but Cambridge siblings Eve Lyman (left) and Sarah Chayes now have a common purpose. (Photograph courtesy Eve Lyman)

The Unlikely Sisterhood

After decades of estrangement, two sisters of
privilege reunite to bring aid to Afghanistan

By Jennie Green, 12/1/2002


Former NPR foreign correspondent Sarah Chayes cuts a stylish figure as she arrives at The Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn to talk to grade schoolers about life in Afghanistan. Tall and lean with long dark-brown hair, Chayes wears an expansive rectangle of beige fabric over her Western-style clothing, intricately hand-embroidered along the two ends that drape around her shoulders. The cloth is called a doperta, and Chayes uses it as a springboard into her talk.

"I wonder if any of you have seen pictures of Afghanistan on TV," she inquires, and countless little hands shoot up. "Well, that's where I was toward the end of last year. There was an awful lot going on because of the war, but the first thing I had to figure out was, What am I going to wear? There are hardly any women on the streets of Kandahar at all, and the ones that do go out wear what's called a burqua. It's like a blue tent that hangs down from your head all the way to your feet. But I couldn't wear one of those, because I couldn't see myself sticking my hand out of a burqua with a microphone and trying to interview someone. So I decided that the best way around the problem was to wear men's clothes."

Chayes then unwraps the doperta and holds it up. "Every man in Kandahar has one," she says, "and it's really great. It's sort of like a security blanket, and you can use it as a shawl, a card table, a prayer rug - even a gigantic Kleenex."

Peals of laughter follow a collective groan. After Chayes's presentation, the students fill two dozen boxes with notebooks, pens, pencils, protractors, rulers, and maps - gifts from them to their new sister school in Kandahar. Overwhelmed, Chayes flashes a smile at the petite blonde who has been snapping digital photographs from the crowded edges of the room. The woman on the sidelines is Eve Lyman, Sarah's sister, but until recently, the two women had seen each other only three times in as many decades.

There was a time, 34 years ago, when Eve and Sarah had a seemingly perfect big-sister/little-sister relationship. They were born to prominent international-law professors Abram and Antonia Chayes of Cambridge. As a young man, Abe Chayes had been president of the Harvard Law Review before becoming a legal adviser to the State Department during the Kennedy administration. After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Abe Chayes settled into a long and celebrated professorship at Harvard Law School, where, despite his love for politics, he never looked back. Instead, he encouraged his wife, Toni, to pursue her political ambitions.

After working as the dean of Jackson College at Tufts University, Toni Chayes joined the Defense Department during the Carter administration and was quickly promoted to undersecretary of the Air Force in 1979. She has served on several federal commissions, including the vice president's White House Aviation Safety and Security Commission during the Clinton administration. Today, she teaches at The Kennedy School of Government and runs the project on international institutions and conflict management at Harvard Law School.

"Everybody knew that Toni and Abe were important people in the world of Democratic politics," says Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and Sarah Chayes's closest childhood friend. "They had an aura about them. I remember that they had a study upstairs on the third floor. I realized that they knew Kennedy and stuff, and that important things were going on up there." Junger hesitates for a moment. "Downstairs was a different world. Abe and Toni were usually pretty busy working, and it seemed to me as if a whole society that was owned and operated by children had sprouted up within the house. Seriously, they made their own rules, handed down their own punishments, and invented their own rewards. It was thrilling and chaotic at the same time."

The Chayeses expected that their five children would grow up to be distinguished professionals. So they felt blindsided when their oldest daughter, Eve, began to question the values of her life at home and at school.

Throughout high school, Eve moved easily from one endeavor to the next but always felt a sense of loss after mastering her latest pursuit. Accomplishment for its own sake didn't resonate with Eve, who says she realized toward the end of high school that the external validation that satisfied her parents was of little concern to her. "Now, it sounds like a cliche," says Eve. "But during the '60s, we were all searching our souls and looking for the deeper meaning in life."

In 1969, 18-year-old Eve joined the Fort Hill Community, an unconventional assemblage of creative artists and thinkers living as a close-knit extended family in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. On The Hill, nobody expected Eve to become class valedictorian, but life was challenging in a different way. Not only were Fort Hill members expected to contribute work or earn money from an outside job, they also were encouraged to explore interpersonal relationships with almost brutal candor.

Eve Chayes's parents couldn't understand the appeal of Fort Hill, and they were rebuffed when they asked Eve to come home. Several months later, when Eve's 16-year-old sister, Gale, joined her, their irritation turned to heartache and indignation. Once, they went so far as to have Eve arrested and briefly jailed for kidnapping. Eve pleaded with her parents to back off, and when they refused, she severed her relationship with her family in Cambridge.

Young Sarah missed the big sister who had allowed her to share her bed and to tag along wherever she went. Sarah's hurt feelings morphed into a kind of ritual anger toward somebody she no longer really knew. When relations between her parents and her two older sisters became unbearably tense, Sarah spent much of her time in her bedroom, retreating into an imaginary world. "I'd pretend that I was a slave in the Deep South or an American Indian trying to defend my land," says Sarah. "I don't know why I was always subservient in these vivid fantasies, but I knew that I could escape into them when the real world became particularly harsh." (Sarah and I have been friends for 15 years, and she and Eve cooperated fully on this article for 10 weeks before abruptly refusing any further contact.)

In one of our interviews, Sarah says she tried to meet and even exceed what she thought her parents' expectations were by molding herself in their image. A straight-A student at the Madeira School in Washington, D.C., Sarah also distinguished herself as a tomboy who could outlast Junger when camping overnight in winter with no blankets. Outside of school, she practiced speaking French, played the flute, and cultivated her own interests in history and international politics. "Everybody thought that I was going to become the president of the United States or at least a distinguished senator," says Sarah. "And I believed them. At dinner parties, I wanted to discuss the nuclear arms control treaty like everybody else."

After earning a bachelor's degree in history at Harvard in 1984, Sarah joined the Peace Corps, taught English in Morocco, and, in turn, became fluent in Arabic. Two years later, she enrolled in Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies for graduate work in medieval Islamic history. She began to have doubts about life as a scholar while on a road trip with Junger, by then a journalist, through the Mississippi Delta. He was researching an article on the blues musician Robert Johnson, and the poverty Sarah witnessed in her own country would change her life. Sarah had grown up in a world where people talked eloquently about poverty and civil rights over elaborate meals in tasteful dining rooms. Now she wondered what, if anything, any of those people had ever done to improve somebody else's life.

When she returned from Mississippi, Sarah says, she couldn't bring herself to continue work on her dissertation. Academia struck her as irrelevant, and she withdrew from Harvard and coasted for several agonizing months. Sarah was having an allergic reaction to her own life.

Then she took a job as a researcher for Christian Science Monitor Broadcasting and fell in love with radio journalism. Nearly two years later, she decided to pursue a radio career in Paris. She sensed that to become her own person, she was going to have to put considerable distance between herself and home.

Outsiders generally refer to Fort Hill as a commune, a term insiders consider pejorative. Members have always identified The Hill (though diminished in size, it still exists) as a community or as a family.

It crystallized in the mid-1960s, when a small group of musicians, writers, artists, and intellectuals - led by Mel Lyman, the community's charismatic founder - took up residence in several ramshackle buildings in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury. But despite their entrepreneurial energy and Lyman's conviction that spiritual enlightenment was achieved through hard work rather than mind-altering drugs, the Fort Hill Community was often characterized as a threatening cult. In 1971, an unflattering two-part portrait of life on The Hill appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, comparing the Lyman family to the homicidal Manson family.

According to Eve, the substance of the articles was later invalidated, but not before Fort Hill's reputation was shattered. Yet the community continued to thrive. Those members who chose to stay renovated the buildings they owned and acquired other properties. By the early 1980s, the community owned its original Roxbury compound, several houses on Martha's Vineyard, a mansion in California's Hollywood Hills, a loft in Manhattan, and a small farm in Kansas.

Some members had become so expert at building and renovation that the community created a corporation, the Fort Hill Construction Co., which became surprisingly successful. By the mid-1980s, the community supported more than 100 adults and at least 50 children.

Not long after moving to The Hill, Eve began a relationship with Lyman; they were married in 1970 in a private ceremony not recognized by the state. The Lymans had three children, who today range in age from 27 to 30. (After Mel Lyman died of a lingering illness just shy of his 40th birthday, Eve had a fourth child with another Fort Hill member.)

In a 1985 article about Fort Hill, Eve described the community in these words: "Sometimes we say we are a different race. . . . We know we are full of paradoxes. We are traditional, but we still want to change the world. We are the world in a microcosm, but we are totally apart."

Abe and Toni Chayes wanted to restore communications with their two daughters at Fort Hill. In 1989, the parents invited Eve and a few of the second-generation Fort Hill children to accompany them on a trip to Nicaragua. Eve, who had avoided contact with her parents for the better part of two decades, felt compelled to go. She knew that her father had recently represented Nicaragua's socialist government in the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The Sandinistas had accused the United States of secretly mining Nicaragua's Sandino Harbor in 1984. The successful court case, coupled with her skepticism about President Reagan's initiative to assist the anticommunist guerrillas known as contras, intrigued Eve.

"It meant that my father would never be able to work for the United States government again, which for him was a considerable sacrifice," says Eve. "At the same time, he became a national hero in Nicaragua. He did it out of sheer determination to defend the rules of the international system, and he said that perhaps this was the most meaningful work he had ever done."

The trip enabled Eve to see her father as a man she could respect and love. She was also stirred by President Manuel Ortega's grass-roots approach to government, run by people she saw as young idealists not unlike herself. "It was the closest thing I had ever seen to Fort Hill," she says, "but on a national scale." Eve returned to the United States thinking that perhaps she and her father were not so different after all.

Nearly 10 years after the Nicaragua trip, Abe and Toni Chayes celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at their second home in the Berkshires with all five of their children as well as various spouses and grandchildren. For the first time since 1969, all of the Chayes siblings were under one roof. It was also the first time that Eve and Sarah had talked face to face since Sarah was in third grade, giving them a chance to rediscover their relationship. The sisters exchanged stories about what they had done, where they had been, whom they had loved. Sarah and Eve, who had long migrated in opposite directions, rekindled the intense connection that had existed between them at ages 5 and 15.

In the fall of 1999, a few months after Sarah had started to file weekly stories for National Public Radio as a correspondent from Paris, Abe paid her a visit. He stayed for a week, working side by side with his daughter on laptop computers in her living room. They shared meals, and he raved about Sarah's bright, loft-style apartment. She says she interpreted his approval to mean that she had turned out fine. But Abe himself wasn't fine. Although he had mentioned some abdominal pain, Sarah would later learn that the pancreatic cancer for which he had been treated a year earlier had returned.

The following spring, Abe was admitted to a Boston hospital but declined a second round of chemotherapy. Eve visited him frequently, and they talked for hours about everything from international politics to Eve's kids to their shared memories of the annual New Year's Day brunch, when Abe cooked omelets for the guests. It was there, in his darkened hospital room in the middle of the night, Eve says, that Abe told her he had come to respect her decision to join Fort Hill, and that he and Toni were proud of her. He died that April at the age of 77.

The grieving survivors were now more connected as a family than they had been for years. But Sarah and Eve were also restless. Eve was feeling increasingly impatient at Fort Hill, where most of her time in recent years was spent managing multimillion-dollar construction projects for wealthy West Coast movie executives. "I knew that I could build a small country with the resources that were being poured into these elaborate projects," she says. "It just didn't seem fair."

A different conflict was stirring Sarah. After her father died, she returned to the Balkans, where she had been reporting on the fighting between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. When NPR asked Sarah to return to Paris to resume her coverage of Western Europe, she complied grudgingly, but the lack of chaos got under her skin. "I'd be damned if I was going to hang out there," she says, "filing an endless series of baguette and beret stories."

Sarah left NPR in June 2001 and went to Prishtina, Kosovo, to write about life in a post-conflict society and to try to assist the relief effort. She hungered for a new role, an opportunity to act on her suspicion that humanitarian action was more meaningful than journalistic storytelling. But she was disillusioned by her inability to locate any inspiring political leaders or accessible humanitarian groups. At loose ends toward the end of the summer, she returned to Paris.

Her meditation was cut short by the terrorist attacks of September 11. Sarah called Eve, and they talked for hours, not just about the disaster but also about the inconsistencies in US foreign policy that may have inspired anti-American sentiment. Sarah yearned to help, but without a job, she felt impotent. Eve pleaded with her to come home. A few days later, Eve met Sarah at Logan Airport, and they drove to Fort Hill, where they stayed, rediscovering and counseling each other, for two restorative months.

That November, NPR asked Sarah to cover the US-led war in Afghanistan. She accepted the three-month assignment and took up residence with an Afghan family to avoid the cultural isolation common to foreign journalists. One day after the Taliban fell, she was working on a story for Morning Edition when several young daughters of the house burst into her room, shrieking: "Sarah! Guess what, Sarah! We're going to school!" It was a historic moment: After seizing power in 1996, the Taliban barred girls from formal education. Sarah dropped what she was doing and took the girls to register for school for the first time.

Call it fate or coincidence, but Sarah soon crossed paths with Azizullah Karzai, an uncle of interim prime minister Hamid Karzai. Azizullah, who served as an unofficial adviser to his nephew and other members of the new government, mistook Sarah for somebody he knew and spoke candidly about the poverty, violence, and warlord domination that challenged his country. Sarah suggested a number of ways to weave democracy into the traditional Afghan culture. Their dialogue went on for hours, and once the question of Sarah's identity was cleared up, Azizullah Karzai asked her to help rebuild his country. He suggested an unpaid role for her in Afghans for Civil Society, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization founded in 1998 by Qayum Karzai, Hamid's older brother.

Qayum Karzai had been living in exile in Baltimore and managing the family's three Helmand restaurants - one in Cambridge, the others in Baltimore and San Francisco. Long before the collapse of the Taliban, Qayum had envisioned a Kandahar-based policy institute that would facilitate dialogues between Western experts and Afghan community leaders. The institute would also sponsor humanitarian projects.

Initially, Sarah was uncertain. "When Qayum first laid this on me," she wrote in a long, descriptive e-mail from Afghanistan, "I positively cringed. Jeez, I go all the way to Afghanistan to get away from Cambridge, and here he is asking me to found 'Cambridge on the Helmand'! It took me a day or two to get my head around it and realize how important such a center would be in the Afghan context."

Qayum Karzai had impressed Sarah as being sharp, honest, and desiring what was best for his people. Of Hamid Karzai, whom Sarah has yet to meet, she wrote: "I feel like I know him. I suspect that he is a lot like my dad: brilliant, down-to-earth, funny, a dyed-in-the-wool political animal, and yet such a deeply good person that he instinctively believes good of everyone around him."

As for Eve, she wrote in a letter: "After September 11th, I realized that if I was concerned about my country, then it was up to me as an American to make some kind of active contribution and not just sit on the sidelines and hope, cheer, or second guess."

Just a couple of weeks before Sarah returned to Boston, Eve had gathered her few private belongings and made a break with the Fort Hill Community. Anguished but resolute, she turned up on the same Cambridge doorstep that she had left 33 years ago with her little black dog and all of her belongings.

Through the winter and into the spring, Sarah and Eve, now 40 and 50, respectively, slept in the twin beds in their mother's guest room and worked late into the nights on Qayum Karzai's vision for a multicultural Afghanistan. It somehow seemed fated that Eve, who had no specific plans for life after Fort Hill, would work alongside Sarah at Afghans for Civil Society. The two created a title for Eve - Boston-based US coordinator. Eve received the challenge she craved while Sarah got a reliable human touchstone west of the Atlantic after she returned to Afghanistan.

Their mother introduced Sarah and Eve to Greg Carr of the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government. Carr was so intrigued by Sarah, Eve, and Afghans for Civil Society that he volunteered not only his expertise but also a spacious office in Harvard Square along with his help in developing a Web site. Meanwhile, old friends of the Chayeses invited Sarah to speak at the First Parish Church in Concord. Afterward, they founded a satellite organization, Concord Friends of Afghans for Civil Society, which raised approximately $20,000 in a single evening to rebuild 13 bomb-damaged houses and a mosque in Acocolacha, a hamlet on the outskirts of Kandahar.

In Cambridge, Eve works 14-hour days for no money coordinating volunteers, organizing humanitarian projects, and raising funds. Sarah is living in Kandahar, where she is helping Qayum Karzai build his policy center, one brick at a time. She is also polishing her Pashto, the local language, and became the first woman to drive herself around Kandahar in 30 years.

She has put up with broken cars, corrupt bureaucrats, stolen supplies, impossible roads, incompetent doctors, and a whole society that appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. What is more, she could be a conspicuous target. Yet Sarah - an instinctive boundary-crosser who has taken to wearing a turban and referring to herself as "Qayum's man" - is preparing the people of Acocolacha for the building project, while two elementary schools in Kandahar started the new academic year with sharpened pencils and crisp notebook paper.

Afghans for Civil Society has been criticized for attempting to achieve too much by combining rogue humanitarianism with political activism and policy development. Still, Eve and Sarah have remained true to their origins by being ambitious, and neither one is ready to give up working within a structure that can respond to the needs of the people.

By bringing new life - and their lives - into Qayum Karzai's organization, the two sisters from Cambridge have chosen to honor their family's legacy, together.

Jennie Green is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 12/1/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.