Peter Kramer/NBC/Getty
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
March 16, 2016 02:00 AM

Laura Bush remembers the 6th-grade report she wrote on Afghanistan – “in my best handwriting, of course” – because it was then the most exotic, faraway country she could imagine. And all these decades later, she remembers the horrible day in 2001 when Afghanistan became her life’s passion.

“I’ve been committed, really, to Afghanistan and Afghan women since September 11th,” the former First Lady tells PEOPLE. “Starting that day, I felt a special relationship with Afghan women and do still today.”

Once those 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States introduced Americans to the brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mrs. Bush used her White House platform to champion the Afghan women and girls violently persecuted, barred from schools and denied basic human rights by the Taliban. Their cause remained Mrs. Bush’s passion project after she moved home to Texas in 2009 and, this week, and, this week, culminates in the release of her new book, We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope

Mrs. Bush invited PEOPLE to tag along Tuesday evening on her private tour of a Smithsonian museum exhibit of Afghan art and it was there that she reflected on the stories of Afghan women included in her book:

“I talk all the time about one thing that Mina Sherzoi wrote about when she went back to Afghanistan after 2001 and saw the little 10-year-old boy polishing the shoes of somebody and he didn t have shoes himself. That stuck with her and made her want to spend her time rebuilding the country, which she s done ever since.”

“It’s a story that doesn’t make headlines, but it’s a story that matters,” Mrs. Bush said. “Women who once lived in fear of making noise when they walked have found their voices and it’s my hope that the world will stop and listen to them.”

Laura Bush and Dr. Tommy Wide, Director of Exhibitions for Turquoise Mountain, on March 15, 2016.
Joyce Boghosian

The museum exhibit – jewelry, artwork, pottery and rugs made by Afghans through the U.S.-government-financed organization Turquoise Mountain, which provides training and technology to Afghan artisans as a means of creating jobs and income – gave Mrs. Bush a chance to showcase some of what America is doing to help Afghans build a stable democracy.

Turquoise Mountain’s work in the Murad Khani “old city” of Kabul has, since 2006, sent hundreds of young people to school and almost $4 million in Afghan crafts to export markets, including jewelry sold by Kate Spade and Bloomingdales.

Artist Sughra Hussainy, who accompanied Mrs. Bush around the exhibit, described how her art education turned into opportunity. “It gives me hope for the the future,” Hussainy said.

Mrs. Bush delighted in a display of jewelry, remarked on her own purchases supporting Afghan artisans (she said she outfitted the White House, George W. Bush Presidential Library and her own Texas ranch with Afghan rugs) and snagged right off the exhibit wall a turquoise glazed bowl from the Turquoise Mountain-supported potters of Istalif to take home with her.

And, while refusing to get drawn into talk of the 2016 presidential debates, she voiced hope that the United States would remain committed to helping Afghans – starting with keeping U.S. troops over there.

“I want people to know, 15-some odd years later, what it was like for Afghan women after September 11th and that now it’s good, but it’s not perfect, by any means,” Mrs. Bush said.

“My book is about women and I hope that whoever our next president is is somebody that will pay attention to women’s issues and to women in Afghanistan. I know people are tired and they think we have our own problems here – and we do. But it’s really important for us to make a real commitment to stay with Afghanistan for a long time.”

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