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The Book

The Keeper of Families: the remarkable Afghan diaries of Jean Heringman Willacy

The diaries reveal the astonishing double life of American Jean Heringman Willacy, alternating, at retirement age, a quiet existence in sleepy southern England, with her other life in vibrant, volatile Afghanistan.

At a time when Kabul was known as the ‘Paris of Central Asia,’ Jean’s early adventures begin with a business enterprise exporting fashionable, hand-embroidered Afghan coats, while providing employment for impoverished Afghan widows.

As Jean travels back and forth on family and business trips, one of her worlds is crumbling before her very eyes: Afghanistan is shaken by violent upheaval, a society forcibly changed, and a refugee crisis of global dimensions unleashed.

Shocked eyewitness to the brutal military coup that leads to the Soviet-Afghan War -and fearing for the lives of her many friends- Jean is transformed from businesswoman to tireless advocate for Afghan refugees.

For the next twenty years, as Jean and an ever-growing number of refugees strive to overcome the horrors of war and its aftermath, their lives become bound together with a love as strong as any family tie. As one Afghan refugee friend observed,

                “Jean made us feel that nothing was impossible and everyone was special.”

 Jean’s unconventional diaries reveal her remarkably varied legacy:

  • Tales from the hinterlands of the prized karakul fur trade
  • Eye-witness account of the communist coup
  • Live tape recordings from the streets of Kabul
  • First-hand experience of living in a Soviet puppet state
  • Sharing life in the refugee camps in Pakistan and the life of refugees in exile
  • Interviews with Afghan women and their different perspectives on Afghan life
  • Jean’s photographs and Afghan refugee children’s wartime drawings

Now compiled and transcribed, for the first time, into a multi-layered yet cohesive narrative, The Keeper of Families is a story that, tragically, remains all too relevant today as Afghanistan still makes headlines and one refugee crisis follows another.

Reckless or courageous, could this one Western woman, on her own, make a difference?


Meet Jean: ‘The Keeper of Families,’a formidable foe fighting the tyranny of bureaucracy; a staunch ally to all whom she befriended.