September 11, 2001 was a day that changed countless lives, and for new author Andrew Penny the events of that day took him on a journey halfway across the world.
When the twin towers were hit in New York City, Penny volunteered at ground zero for the next week, working with others to locate people beneath the rubble. When the Afghan war started in October, Penny became a self-described news junkie, and turned his attention to the Afghan refugees that were fleeing their country.
In December of 2001 Penny flew to the Pakistani and Afghanistan border looking to join an NGO to provide assistance to refugees. Showing up in Pakistan, Penny never intended for the things he witnessed to be forever memorialized in a book that he would end up writing.
“My journey, my personal journey that I did, I didn’t intend it to be for anyone else,” Penny said.
Penny’s book, “The Letter No One Would Read,” published in March, documents the journey of refugees he met in his time there.
Penny showed up to Pakistan with a camera and a personal need to learn about their culture and the struggles they’re living with due to the war. However, when Penny got back and started showing people his photos, journalists and authors were captivated by his stories. Penny had multiple journalists interview him in the time after he arrived back in the states.
“One woman called me and asked if she could come and interview me, but after twenty minutes she stopped and asked if I knew why she was here,” Penny said. “Apparently her editor gave her a phone number and it was the wrong one. She was supposed to be doing a story on a cancer survivor.”
This journalist was so impressed with Penny’s story that she wrote a seven part series about it. Later, she pushed Penny to write a book as well because even after two hours of interviewing they had barely scratched the surface. Penny took out his diary that he wrote everything in, along with his photos, and started writing the book, which he continued writing for the next 18 years.
“My story gives the reader an opportunity to witness the lives of people we normally would never know in our own life,” Penny said.
One of his favorite stories included in his book was the story of three little Afghan girls selling balloons in the open air market.
“I was so overwhelmed with emotion when I saw these three little girls holding a string of colored balloons,” Penny said. “I got to learn about their lives. They’re on the street selling because their family is very poor, and they sold the balloons to contribute economically.”
The latter half of Penny’s book focuses on a Pakistani Roman Catholic Church, and what they endured being Christian in an Islamic country. Not only did Penny get to explore this Roman Catholic Church, but he also became good friends with some of the priests, who helped him with his interviewing. The priests would bring in families and translate so Penny could interview them and take photos of them.
“I learned a lot about their lives, about refugees in particular, and about what happens when the whole of society are displaced from their land because of war and what would be the consequences of that,” Penny said.
Penny was an orphan from Greece until he was adopted at the age of seven by American parents in New Jersey, who soon moved to New Windsor where he spent most of his life. He now resides in Newburgh. Before traveling to Pakistan, Penny worked in humanitarian efforts overseas dealing with education and health for minorities and children. He also spent many years as a sport horse trainer.
“The Letter No One Would Read” can be found online on Amazon, and at Barnes and Noble, and Target.