Volunteering at Shamsa Village

Shamsa group

Living and working as PARSA staff in Afghanistan we have the privilege of working with all types of people who are united in a common goal – to care for and help the Afghan people. On Friday we had our first volunteer day at Shamsa Village, a private orphanage with children who have no families to spend time with.  Against a backdrop of internationals being targeted by the insurgency, with doctors at CURE Hospital assassinated only the day before – our volunteers came out despite the threat to be with the kids.  We are working for the 7 million Afghans who came out to vote for their future leaders, in spite of threats on their lives by the Taliban…and none of us regret it. It was a great day with the kids filled with fun and laughter.  Thank you folks!

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Sherock the “Fighting Dog”

The Story of Sherock, by Reese Hume

I found Sherock (his name means “Little Lion”) in Chagcharran, Ghor, when I was working there on a project with the orphanage about five years ago.  He is a central Asian Mastif, an ancient breed used for protecting large herds from wolves.  Dogs of this breed also end up as “fighting dogs” in Afghanistan and have tough lives. But not Sherock. I brought him back to Kabul and he has been my best buddy ever since.

Here is our story.

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Nassim the Orphan, Part 2 – Opium Village

Nassim the Orphan. Part 2: Trip to Nassim’s Opium Village

Written by Conor Osteen

First the roads. They were dirt the entire way and I was expecting this, but I had also figured that they would have been purposefully made, smoothed over even to facilitate the transfer of people from Point A to Point B. Silly me. The roads were the natural result of cars following the same path over and over; we drove in the ruts that had been imprinted by heavier trucks and from time to time our car’s tires scraped against the sides of the ruts, bouncing us from side to side. At first I imagined it was like being on a particularly cloying rollercoaster. Then I imagined it was like being inside a piñata. Then I stopped imagining things.

I sat in the back seat, sandwiched between the principal of the orphanage and Reese, Marnie’s son. Somehow, in a way I’ll never be able to fathom, Reese managed to doze through the unrelenting turbulence, waking only briefly when the bumps in the road knocked his head hard against my shoulder. The principal just looked carsick, and stared out the window. In the trunk was Nassim, who had decided to come along to see his family and village for what was almost surely the last time.

The scenery impressed me. Just like in the airplane ride over, I got the sense that the hills around us were an endless expanse. Cresting each ridge showed more of the same, and the further east we went, the steeper the slopes became, until off in the distance they blended into proper rock-faced, dry, barren looking mountains. There was an unsettling sense of deja vu as we drove on. The landscape was so unchanging that time bended. Two hours could have been five, or it could have been 30 minutes. Whenever I looked at my watch, I forgot what time it had been before.

As we got close, the road got narrower until our car could barely squeeze along the track cut out of a steep-inclined slope. In front of us on the road, men and boys drove donkeys out of our way, whipping them roughly with thin canes and staring at us like we were in an armored convoy rather than a beat up SUV. Whenever we slowed down, the cloud of dust that we kicked up in our wake surrounded the car and streamed through the open windows. We wrapped the scarves we wore around our faces, and by the time we got there we looked like we’d showered in dust.

Now the village. I stretched my legs, rarely having been happier to get out of a car, and looked around at the houses. Some of them lay in the valley below, where a thin river snaked its way west, but the majority were mud houses built into the side of the hill–seemingly held there by additional mud that provided a ledge underneath. There was a breeze. It was nice. The weather and vegetation reminded me of home.

Then the people. A man and his son approached us, and his features struck me. He had light brown hair, stubble instead of a beard, a square jaw and very white teeth. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in the United States or (I imagine) Spain or Italy. He greeted Nassim like he hadn’t been gone for a year, but had just stepped out for an afternoon. Yasin and the principal of the orphanage stopped and talked with him, and it was then that I started to feel uneasy. I’m still not sure what was said exactly, Yasin translated bits and pieces for us reluctantly, but I was shocked to find how, even in a situation where I couldn’t understand what was being said, I could still feel that something was–very deeply, very fundamentally–wrong. It was the way the man with the white teeth reacted–there was something superficial about his movements, his smile was strange and the way he looked at all of us was like he was just staring, like there was no seeing or recognition involved. We sat for a while in the shade of the trees. Yasin would say something, receive an answer, shrug, and look out at the river.

Before long we were ushered into a low room that had a carpeted floor, walls, and ceiling. It was on the way there that we saw the dried poppies, and it was the first and only time I’ve felt afraid on this trip. It wasn’t a panicked fear, or a strong one, just a gnawing feeling that sat in my gut and made me go over the worst scenarios again and again. We were isolated, I didn’t think our phone was working, thesealmost certainly knew what they were growing was illegal. And here we were, sitting in a room lousy with flies, stuffy with heat, and listening to these poppy farmers tell lying versions of Nassim’s story. Again, I got the unshakeable sense that something was very profoundly flawed in these people. The way they laughed, the way they acted normally when telling Nassim’s ordeal, the glazed over way they looked at us, and the way Yasin responded in turn showed their disconnect from reality. I was struck with the conviction that these people were acting, that they had somehow lost any kind of emotional direction and simply spoke out of custom, out of habit rather than thought, rather than empathy. The more they talked, the more I thought that inside they had rotted away.

Yasin was the first to express what we all felt, he turned to us saying, “I feel sick here.” And it was true, during the rough ride I’d felt tired but fine, here I felt nauseous and claustrophobic. I realized gradually that the claustrophobia wasn’t just the room, it was socially suffocating. These people, shorn of any kind of deeper reality, made me physically ill.

We sat there for at least an hour. There was a window facing west and I stared through it and tried to imagine myself zooming home across oceans and mountains. I tried to picture the oak tree at my house, the sunroom and screen door, the mailbox, but the tide of nausea made it too hard to concentrate. Finally word came that Nassim’s mother and father wouldn’t see us, we could take Nassim and officially put him in the orphanage.

We got out as fast as we could (which wasn’t that fast, because turning the car around on that narrow track was difficult) and drove west, chasing a bright afternoon sun. I looked out the window at the rolling hills, and smelled the air. I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved to leave somewhere.

And that’s that.

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Nassim the Orphan, Part 1

Nassim the Orphan. Part 1: The Story

This is a story that took place in the summer of 2008 during a trip we took for PARSA’s Healthy Afghan Child Program. Our destination was Chagcharron, Ghor province, and accompanying me were my son Reese, my nephew Will, and Connor who is the son of a dear family friend. Yasin and Dawn had arrived a few days prior and, as we soon found out, had recently taken in an “orphan”. This is the story of Nassim the Orphan, his difficult life, and how he came to be a symbol for our Healthy Afghan Child initiative.

From day one Nassim was extremely grateful to us. He had had a hard life and it had clearly been awhile since anyone had taken care of him. He absorbed our attention and took full advantage of the strange doting family that had suddenly shown up in his life. Yasin washed him and applied his medicine; Dawn mothered him; Reese, Will and Conor played with him and did their best to keep him entertained. Nassim was beside himself with joy and activity.  It was clear, however, that a difficult life and two years of taking care of himself had not contributed much to his social skills. He drove us crazy with his short attention span and constant thirst for attention, good or bad. He disobeyed and disrespected everyone except Yasin, and was constantly doing his best to suck up all the attention of Reese, Will and Connor, which usually meant annoying them to no end. We were starting to get quite frustrated with him and were looking forward to completing the paperwork required for him to move into the Chagcharron orphanage, but on a visit to his home village to secure the permission needed to complete that paperwork we pieced together his life’s story. The frustrated dislike we had developed for Nassim quickly turned into respect and compassion for how this little boy had survived in life. In my experience survivors of any age are not usually very cute. They are tough because of how difficult life has been for them. But we are about the notion that they deserve a chance at a decent life and believe that under the right care they will grow into great people.

What follows is Part 1 of a journal entry that Connor wrote describing Nassim’s story. Part 2 tells the story of the trip to Nassim’s opium growing village where the story was told.

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The Story of Nassim, By Conor Osteen, July 21, 2008

Nassim showed up on PARSA’s doorstep early one morning. When Dawn and Yasin asked what he needed, he said that he had been told by some of the other children of Chaghcharan that we ran an orphanage. His face was bruised and slightly purplish, both of his eyes were swollen and there were dark rings underneath.

Nassim is about 14 inches shorter than I am, but he says that he’s fifteen. We’re still unsure whether this is because he’s malnourished or because, like most Afghans, he has no idea when he was born. Either way, he didn’t look like he could be older than 12.

Nassim

Nassim was our guest for about five days as we worked to get him into the orphanage, and in that time we managed to learn some of his story, the rest of which we gathered through the unique displeasure of visiting his village a few days after that. First I will give you the story of Nassim, and then I will tell you about the trip to the opium-farming village where Nassim was born.

Nassim’s father and mother divorced about a year and a half ago. Divorce in Afghanistan is a notoriously risky business as it is likely to result in allegations of adultery, which in turn can result in revenge or honor killings. Still, this one seemed to go all right – Nassim’s mother moved back into the house of her first husband and his father quickly remarried. Nassim found himself left out of both arrangements however, and had an uneasy existence shuttled back and forth from his mother and father’s houses, essentially begging for food and shelter and exchanging labor for meals. A year ago, his father beat him badly and told him that if he ever came back, he would kill him.

After that Nassim started the 45-mile journey to Chaghcharan. Because he had no money and no food, his progress was painfully slow. As he made his way there he was exploited for labor, exchanging work for two meals a day. Sitting outside on our porch at night, he told us how he saved up scraps of food so he had something to eat as he jumped from village to village. When we drove to Nassim’s home it took us an hour and a half. It took Nassim six months to get Chaghcharan.

His troubles weren’t over there. He found himself excluded from the orphanage because he lack and ID or and adult to confirm that his parents were unwilling to take care of him. For the following six months, in the harsh winter of Chaghcharan, he worked for two meals a day at a tire repair shop and slept in a garage. The bruises under his eyes explain the abuse, and the scabies infecting his arms and legs showed his living conditions.

This isn’t a story designed to ruin your day or make you feel bad about your own life, in fact this story isn’t particularly unique in terms of the way orphans and neglected children are treated here. That’s the point. Labor exploitation has become systematized by three decades of war, hardship, poverty, and the destruction of familial and clan ties. These children, lacking the defense mechanism of parental protection, do hard manual labor to survive. The odds of receiving any kind of money are practically none; most wealth in Afghanistan is inherited, so starting on the bottom is a particular disadvantage. Being an orphan outside of an orphanage is to live a life without any hope for advancement or improvement. You will not be educated, you will not be paid, no one will help you when you get sick or hurt, you’ll only be fed enough to keep you working.

Of course the orphanage isn’t the only option, you could also do what Nassim’s older brother did. Confronted with the same hopeless situation, he and a group of friends went to Pakistan to study in a “madrassa” – the fanatical religious schools. There’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll be back on Afghan soil soon, working to shape his country into the same frustrated and angry mold that he himself was sculpted into.

There’s a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud. Nassim is in the orphanage now and he says that for the first time in his life, he has hope for something better. He’s getting an education, and he’s being fed unconditionally. Afghanistan isn’t a doomed country, just like Nassim, by taking his life in his own hands, has never been a doomed child. What our responsibility must be is to make sure that orphanages like these can continue to shelter the children stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder.

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We’re Back, and We’re Happy!

Spring!

We have arrived back in Kabul to a fully blooming spring and a country to be proud of.

When we left Kabul, the prognosis wasn’t good. There had been increasing attacks as the elections geared up and foreigners had been repeatedly targeted. After 10 years of refusing to leave through many difficult times, PARSA leadership finally made the decision to evacuate for an undisclosed amount of time. We were hoping for just a week or so, but with the pre-election threats and the general tinderbox mood of the city we had no idea how long we would be out for. But once again, Afghanistan gave us a pleasant surprise.

Sherak, looking hopeful

We were able to come back after just one week, and we found a different Afghanistan waiting for us. The mood is fresh and relaxed, and people are happy. There is a sense of triumphant pride in the air for having passed the elections so successfully. Even the weather has improved. These surprises are one of the things that make Afghanistan such a wonderful place to live. Despite the negative forecast that many had made, the results were fantastic. The voter turnout among Afghans doubled the expected numbers, and this was despite the significant threat from Taliban across the country. The Afghan police and military pulled together and performed magnificently in stopping attacks, and there was a high amount of cooperation from the public who kept their eyes open for any suspicious activity. When the eyes of the world were on Afghanistan, Afghans came through. Leaders from around the world have acknowledged the courage shown by the Afghan people, and the remarkable strength of their united voice.

Although not much has changed significantly in terms of the work we do here at PARSA, we can sense an increase in enthusiasm and a burst of energy into our work. For the Afghan people to have accomplished this momentous achievement is a major step in helping them redefine perceptions about their beautiful country, and that has given us all a tremendous lift.

We have returned with renewed energy and hope for our work to continue the trend of positive changes here. Thank you to all of you for your support during this time. It is clear we are not alone in this.

Marnie and Yassin, planning

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Rescuing Puppies in Bamiyan’s Caves

In Bamiyan PARSA works with people who live high up in the cliffs above the city, where the ancient Buddhas used to stand.  1000s of years ago, before Islam reached the region the extensive cave system was established by Buddhist monks and used as monasteries and living quarters.  Now Afghan refugees who have returned impoverished to the Bamiyan province live with their families in the famous caves.  Life is hard for these families.  They don’t have land, schools or government support, yet somehow scrape out an existence and still manage to share their food with less fortunate members of their communities.  PARSA has established an education program for youth in these communities and provides a stipend for senior Scouts from the community to teach kindergarten aged children.

PuppiesOn a recent visit to the caves Yasin and Reese rescued two little puppies from that the locals said had been abandoned by their mother.  Yasin was going to take them to his family in Kabul but Zahra, our lead trainer in our Bamiyan office, asked Nowzad’s support to keep them.  We will take them to Kabul and the Nowzad clinic will vaccinate and neuter them before they go back to Bamiyan to guard our offices with the other two resident pups – old Safi and young Popak. With help from Nowzad, little by little Afghan communities are learning to care for pets. As to these two puppies, they will stay with PARSA and we hope that as the puppies grow so will our programs in Bamiyan’s caves, as well as our ability to provide support to the communities there.

 

Evacuating Kabul

Sad Goodbyes as PARSA Makes the Decision to Evacuate

Reese and Sherak taking a moment to say byeEvents in Kabul have become so intense that for the first time in 10 years Yasin and I made the decision to evacuate our international staff to Dubai through the elections.  It is very sad for us because we are so immersed and involved in our Afghan life, and saying goodbye to our beloved country at such a difficult time was the opposite of what we wanted to do.  But Yasin pointed out that we are much too highly visible targets and there is no hiding us.  So, we are out…our families can relax a bit.  Our Afghan staff will take their own precautions for safety during this terribly difficult time and we are praying for a good outcome in elections.  Thanks to everyone for your support for all of us!

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