Recently we visited Bamyan province. There was quite a turn-out at the airport!
In response to this article by the Washington Post about visas being denied for the all female Afghan Robotics team I received this letter:
Dear Afghan Women’s Robotics Team,
You have already won! You have received worldwide attention for your nation’s plight. You are some of Afghanistan’s brightest young women, and you will go on to do great things for your nation. You have already showed the world your abilities.
My own nation, my beloved United States of America, has been an unsteady friend to the Afghan people. We have tried to help you against your enemies and especially against terrorists, but we have been clumsy and we have hurt many Afghans along the way. You understand that our leaders do not always represent our people. Many Americans strongly support Afghan independence. We pray for peace, stability, and eventual prosperity for Afghanistan.
I visited Afghanistan one summer almost forty years ago. It was truly the trip of a lifetime. I remember the Afghan people I met as friendly, generous, and welcoming to a foreigner who did not know their language and customs. Please forgive our current failure, remain faithful, and come to visit us when times change for the better. I hope my country will be as welcoming to you someday. That will be the trip of a lifetime for each of you as well.
Best wishes, and may the peace of God be with you,
Sterling, Virginia, USA
In our youth program’s we include as much “talk time” as we can to give them a chance to voice their feelings or opinions as a part of developing their critical thinking skills. Sometimes we tell stories for them to think about and to talk about. As loving as the Afghan family is, traditionally the youth listen to their elders and do not express themselves. PARSA staff who run “talk time” listen. My son, Reese and I, with Haji had a “talk time” with boys in PARSA Job Corps # 1 yesterday. I always love this time with them as I learn so much and I am often surprised and inspired.
I asked them about “rosa” (fasting during Ramazan)and how the month was going for them with this. Two of them were fasting and a younger one was not.
I told a story about two Afghan’s I traveled with during Ramazan 10 years ago in Badakshan and Bamiyan, and how every day they would argue about “rosa” and the best way to do it as well as which way was the best Muslim way. And it seemed like every day they became angrier and crankier with each other as they fasted through the trip, and I became more annoyed with them. On the last day of our trip, we climbed a mountain and I found myself frightened when I went up and terrified when I started down. I was worried about them. I thought they might push each other down the mountain they seemed so mad at each other. I looked up when I took a rest, and there they were arm in arm helping each other down the mountainside laughing and teasing each other for the first time on the entire trip. I asked the “what happened?” when we got down. “Ramazan!!!” they said merrily.
I asked the boys what my story meant to them.
Esmat said” Fasting is an honor as a Muslim. Islam is a gentle religion and it teaches us to be gentle.” Farhad said” there is no arguing about good or bad Muslim.” and Mustafa said “It is hard but it is our job as Muslims to live our life according to the teachings of love by Mohammed. It is really hard sometimes.”
I asked them “Tell me about how you have felt this last week with the bombing and other problems in the city.”
Farhad said, “We are used to it.”
“Are you not frightened, now?” I asked. Ehsmat said “I am frightened that people from other countries will think that all Afghans are like the people who are bombing us…that Islam is a violent religion, and that you will abandon us. I am really frightened of that.”
I learn so much from them. Marnie
May 2017, PARSA finally had a breakthrough in our 8 year campaign to have a national Scout program, and to reregister Afghanistan with the World Organization of Scouts Movement (WOSM). Before the war with the Russians, Afghanistan had a 20,000 strong Afghan Scouts Program, that started in the 1940’s and was registered with WOSM as a part of the international movement that includes 40 million Scouts today.
PARSA started our campaign for a national Scouts program when Tamim Hamkar and Gul Ahmad Mustafa joined us in 2009 to help us with our fledgling programs in the orphanages. They had left the Ministry of Education Scout program because they said “There was no program”. They were both in an intensive training program with WOSM to become certified to conduct Scout Master trainings. The journey that ensued over the last 8 years has be difficult with government offices blocking our efforts to establish a community based program. It is a long story of betrayal, hostility and negotiations that someday we will tell, because our perseverance is a testament to how this country is changing because of the commitment of Afghan Leaders like those on PARSA staff to a stable future for Afghanistan.
Because of our work at PARSA, youth in all provinces now will begin to have Scouts programs. And the international Scouts community will start to support these programs with funding, training and international opportunities to learn about Scouts in different countries.
We have many, many people and agencies to thank on this long and arduous path, starting with the Asia Pacific Region of WOSM who have sent trainers to Afghanistan for over 10 years now in the hopes that a national program would take hold. The US Embassy has funded us through their small grants programs for the last 7 years. Many small donors have paid for uniforms and materials for activities. We are a testament to the power of community effort to bring change in one of the most difficult situations in the world.
And after 8 long years, our real work begins!!!
I have rescued dogs and cats ever since I came into the country in 2004. When I lived at PARSA in the first year I found a partner in my love for animals in Yasin who would shortly become our Country Director. When I moved back to Afghanistan I knew that cruelty to street dogs would be one of the most difficult parts of living here and it was. I adopted my first puppy, Choo Cha in my first year here. Moving to Marastoon brought new challenges as so many strays resided on the large property having puppies. In my first year, I counted 60 puppies born. I also brought back Snoopy from Bamiyan who took to Yasin and became his first dog. Over the years, I worked with fledgling efforts to vaccinate and neuter dogs until Nowzad and Louise Hastie moved in with their incredible support for us. At one point we had over 150 dogs onsite until all of us decided that Nowzad had outgrown our location and PARSA’s sponsorship. In Kabul, the municipality carries out frequent poisoning campaigns to try to reduce the stray dog population which is a true health threat as rabies is endemic and Afghan’s frequently die from dog bites. We have had close calls with rabid dogs, and all of our household is vaccinated for rabies.
I will never forget one night when I was called by our guard because the municipality had a huge truck at the door of our compound piled high with dead and dying dogs with plans to lay out poison meat for feral dogs in the compound. We had lost a couple of our dogs in this very, painful death previously. I stood in the middle of the road in my bathrobe and yelled in Dari/English that they were not allowed in. Calls to the director enforced my refusal. I worked with Nowzad after that to get all of the feral dogs neutered, and vaccinated and the population at Marastoon declined with a small stable group of ferals who guarded the property. That is what happpens with a Trap, Neuter Release program. The feral population stablizes and declines. Poisoning dog packs continuously destablizes the dog population and as the older dogs die new dogs move in. This year, after 12 years of rescuing and caring my own pack of 12 house dogs, MayHew and Dr. Jalili, and Afghan- British Veternarian have convinced the municipality to stop poisoning dogs and to let him and Mayhew train the poisoners to trap so that the dog population in Kabul can be vaccinated for rabies.
This is such a big accomplishment for our community. During the times when dogs were being poisoned we frequently had Afghan’s call us to try to save litters of puppies, or bring dogs by to save them. One Afghan colleague shared with me that his mother cried for days when she saw litter of small white puppies die of poison outside her door. I am so grateful to Mayhew International and Nowzad for being willing to work here and which gives me peace of mind and an ability to respond humanely to animals suffering as I do with humans.
In 2008, PARSA was working in the national orphanages, struggling to teach the government social workers how to work with the children. We were finding it almost impossible to convince them to come out of their offices to talk and play with the children. We were learning that culturally, the more important your position the less you work and there was little motivation for the social workers to make much of an effort in the national orphanages.
Reese, my son,and I took a break from our Kabul work to travel to our Bamiyan offices by road. High in the Shibar pass we ran into snow and we were passing a family whose car slid into a ditch when Reese who was driving stopped and said “I am going to pull that van out of the ditch.” He went around to the back of our van, pulled out equipment and rope and got to work. Securing the van with the rope prompted much discussion and advice from the men in the stranded vehicle, as well as numerous attempts by them to tie the rope securely. Reese ended up tying the knot that worked and within 10 minutes had them up and on their way. When he got back into our van I asked him “Where did you learn all of that? I didn’t even know if we had a spare tire.” He said “Scouts. Knots and being prepared. The lessons never left me.” I said “That’s it! Scouts for the orphanages. It has uniforms, activities programs, events and the adults will get engaged.” And that is how we decided to start the Afghan Scouts program in the orphanages.
The following week, Yasin, Reese and I visited the Ministry of Education, Scouts Department to register our intent to start Scouts troops. We were eager to get a handbook, and instructions for how to run an Afghan troop. We decided to start in Alluhoddin Boys orphanage as our male staff could work there. We met Mr. Sadat, director of the Scouts and Sports department. He had disappointing news. “We have nothing here. No manual, no uniforms, no banners. We have 20,000 children in the Scouts program but we have no trained Scout Masters and no program for the children.” We politely asked for permission to start anyway in the orphanages. Mr. Sadat reviewed his financial needs for the program and we left a bit daunted by our task but determined to get started. We appealed to our small donor and pulled together very small donations (which is how we start all of our new programs), found handbooks from Scouts programs in other countries, and Reese dredged through his memories of his Scouting experience. We started with 24 boys in Tai Maskan orphanage with Reese and Mohsin running weekly meetings and activities. With a big assist from Eagle Scouts who were serving in the military in Kabul, the program took off, and soon we were able to start troops in Marastoon, and in Alluhoddin Girls orphanage.
Ambassador Eikenberry with the US Embassy became involved and after six months we were able to acknowledge our troops with him as our special guest in the US Embassy. By the end of the year, HALO had stepped up and granted us $12,000 for our Scout programs. We also had the fortune to finally track down two men, who had been working in the Ministry Scout department and who had received international training from the World Organization of the Scouts Movement (WOSM) as Scout Masters, Tamim and Mustafa. Mustafa had been an Afghan Scout Master before the war with the Russians. It was their dream to launch a national Afghan Scout program and reregister with WOSM. We hired them in our first interview with them, and today after 8 long years of work we now have 1800 youth participating in 17 provinces and a full curriculum.
Our government social workers never learned to be Scout Masters. They were just relieved to have adults come and entertain the children, but the children in the orphanages of Kabul and Ghor grew in leadership, started advocating for themselves, worked on community service events and loved being Scouts. Many youth are still working with us that started in that first year.
Our Afghan Scout story is truly a story about making change. We started small, stayed true to our commitment to the children, and grew our network of support. This month, June 2017, after a long difficult and complicated journey we finally have been asked to join the Ministry of Education to take the lead in developing the national program.
We salute our staff who started the original program, Reese, Yasin and Mohsin- our donors who took a chance on our vision for the orphan’s the many Eagle Scouts who helped us every way they could while in country, and Tamim and Mustafa for never wavering from your dream to have this program for Afghan youth.
And now onto our next challenge- the national program.
Pictures and stories from Afghanistan seem to be relentless in showing the horror, poverty, and hopelessness of the country. This constant stream of bad news may inspire the international public to help in the short term but in the longterm it contributes to exhaustion and numbness in people who could be of help. At PARSA, although we have constant exposure to daily struggle and tragedy, hopelessness is not our constant experience and being with the youth, and adults in our programs is inspiring and nurturing. When working with our beneficiaries we always walk the line between invoking a dependency on us by overreacting to their tragic stories, and thoughtfully assisting in such a way that we respect and encourage their strength and capacity to overcome their own challenges. Over the last 9 years of his work at PARSA, Reese Hume captures our experience of working in Afghanistan through his pictures in a way that words cannot express. A couple of years ago, a donor wrote and told us that his pictures of orphans were not “sad” enough. He said,”It is impossible for me to see them that way, and how I see them always comes through my photographs.” Here we share some of Reese’s pictures of his experience of PARSA’s work. We hope to publish a book with his pictures from over the last nine years this summer.
Reese Hume has made his home and work in Afghanistan for nine years. Working directly with kids in PARSA’s youth programs, Reese has provided a very unique perspective for all of us, in his photography, his contribution to our creative program development, and how we go about our work. He has been pivotal in the evolution of our youth programming. He and Yasin started our first Scout Troop in the Tai Maskan orphanage, before we hired our Afghan Scout staff. Reese is also the lead on our new program, PARSA Job Corps. From the time that he came to PARSA he has been very comfortable with our life immersed into the Afghan culture. This summer he is available to meet and talk to our PARSA Family members, about his work and experience in Afghanistan.
His perspective of the Afghan people is captured through his photography which will be featured in a book later this summer. We have been posting a retrospective of some of his best photos on our instagram site. To schedule a meeting with Reese, this summer please contact him.
November 2015. I sit with my psychosocial trainer Fatema and eight Afghan women leaders from Zardozi Women’s Business Centers to launch our women’s peer counseling group that we call “Healthy Afghan Woman’s Support Group”. In my experience, announcing a program as a psychosocial one can be the “kiss of death” for women’s support groups in Afghanistan – unless there is a heavy stipend offered for attending. Even though I had oriented them to our work a couple weeks back and assured all attending that this was not a program for crazy people, my attendees were very nervous about working with me.
Afghan women are some of the most socially oppressed women in the world, living in a culture that condones violence against them, but the experience of sitting and talking with Afghan women never fails to amuse, endear and inspire me. After twelve years of close work with Afghan women from the mountains to the fields to the Afghan parliament, I must say that the perception that they are “put upon” victims is not how I experience Afghan women as a whole and this group was no exception. They welcomed me graciously, strongly stated their opinions and fears about our training, and settled in to learn. Only two of the women were literate, although all of them were responsible as community leaders for a group of women artisans working in the business centers.
“The work of a women’s group facilitator is a very special kind of work,” I announce. “When women gather to talk, the conversation tends to be what I call “tea time talk” where we share stories about how hard life is in Afghanistan, how we have been hurt by men, about all that is wrong with our lives. There is a certain comfort in sharing these things, but women can leave these conversations feeling very sad about their lives and feeling helpless. In our work with you this week, you have an opportunity to learn how to lead women’s conversations where the women talk about how to solve their own problems and when they leave your group they feel like they have a path forward and support to do so.”
Zarghuna comments, “We like hearing sad stories from others. It makes us not feel so alone!”
“Well, Zarghuna, you can always have that kind of a conversation but in this program it is saved for “tea time”, I say. “Here we want to assist the women in your centers to solve their problems, seek support, and make changes in their lives so they are healthier. I think everyone here wants that for themselves and other Afghan women. What kinds of challenges do you and your sisters face everyday?”
Aisha: “I am a widow and my teenage son won’t allow my daughter to go to school. He won’t listen to me.”
Hawa: “My husband did not want me to come to this training. He says that women are not important, and certainly not as important as men. I had to fight with him to come here. I always am fighting with my husband.”
Khadija: “There is a woman in my group who works very hard and produces good products but her family will not let her keep the money or spend the money on her children. So she is always hungry and always trying to beg for food for her children. It isn’t fair.”
Homa: “There is a woman in my center whose daughter was raped by a neighbor but the police sided with him.”
“As a facilitator, you will have the tools of listening, problem solving, advocacy, and mobilizing your beneficiaries,” I continue, “And again, a special kind of listening, where instead of finding stories in your lives to match the stories being told so you commiserate, you will act as a mirror and reflect back what you hear so your speaker feels heard.”
With these simple but difficult-to-practice concepts, my mostly illiterate group of women set out to learn how to facilitate by working with problems they were struggling with in their own lives or problems that other women in their communities were having. By our second day, they were practicing facilitating a group and during the problem-solving period coming up with solutions I never could have thought of because I do not live their lives. Competent, smart, and savvy about their communities and their constituents, I felt like I was witnessing a high-powered convention of Afghan women elders who were capably organizing themselves to address heart-breaking problems with vigor and determination.
As we start to get them ready to start their own support groups I ask them, “Now since most of you are illiterate, how do I give you materials so you remember the steps of facilitating a support group?”
Zarghuna answers, “Phfft! We have to do this all of the time! We have memorized the steps but give us materials anyway and if we forget we will have our children read them to us.”
Finally, I ask them what they feel was is valuable from our training. “Marnie,” Hawa says, “ It is such a relief to direct complaining to tea time, and to feel powerful enough to say Shut Up! It is time for solutions.”
I have lived and worked in Afghanistan for many years but it is my direct – up close and personal work with ordinary Afghans that continues to give me hope for Afghanistan. My experience of Afghan women, such as the ones in this training, astonishes and never fails to delight me. Against the backdrop of the hand wringing and anxiety of international leaders about the future as reported by the media, I am constantly heartened by the pride and resilience of Afghan women. I long for a more compassionate society, for their rights to be upheld by the government and for their lives to be safer but working with them I know that they are strong. It is a privilege to witness them as they grow and move forward, rebuilding their families and communities.
Names of the participants have been changed
Today, when I peeked my head into the Voice of Afghan Youth Office to say good morning, the staff had big grins on their faces and were busy writing purchase orders. Our finance team were the intended victims of their prank, as they are perceived as deserving of a bit of hassle given how difficult it seems to get any money out of them. I didn’t quite get why Mina and Alyssa were so entertained until Abdullah showed up in my office an hour later with a very grim face and a handful of purchase orders. “I don’t know what to do with these,” he said, “Mina and Alyssa submitted them, they total $14,094 and Yasin signed them!” I looked them over and noted that they had listed items such as “100 tubes of red lipstick”….”Two small pot bellied pigs”….”Pink leashes for small pigs..” So in the “approved” section I wrote ‘April Fools!’ Abdullah broke out in a big grin and when I went into finance 10 minutes later the finance team were still chuckling. A couple hours later they called Alyssa and asked her and Mina to come and pick up her money. Being pretty tricky minded, they guessed that something was up, especially as the finance team still had big grins on their faces. They were handed an envelope and asked to count their money which was of course, a stack of perfectly cut pieces of paper…Finance’s April Fools! Mina counted it as a great bonding experience between the two departments…Then at the end of the day I nearly lost it when our VoAY assistant producer, Sameer, announced on Facebook that he was on the way to the airport to go to Canada permanently. I am relieved that April Fools Day is over, and that our self-appointed entertainment committee is now looking forward to planning the celebration of “Turkey’s (the country) Children’s Day” in two weeks. Stay tuned. It is always a surprise.
Of all of my accomplishments and failures in Afghanistan over the last ten years, nothing I have done has caused more daily excitement or consternation than my driving. 2015 has marked a change in being here and I am taking back over parts of my life that I had given up because of the security threats. One of those is driving myself to the bazaar or store when I need to shop, and in fact doing my shopping for myself instead of sending Nasir off with my shopping list. We have been given a big old battered, gas-guzzling SUV for our incidental trips, and I first ventured out for Women’s Day, when we needed an extra driver to get all of the women at PARSA to the women-only fashion show event that we were attending in celebration. The braver of our female staff were very excited at the novelty of driving with their “rais” (boss) and a woman at that.
As much in solidarity they were with me, the frequent gasps and their tight grip on the passenger handles as I negotiated Kabul traffic to the center of town indicated that they were not sure a woman driver could get them there safely. After all there are probably about five of us in all of Kabul and one other is Alyssa. On another occasion, our grounds-staff lined up on the road as I went off to the petrol staff and applauded me as I went by with big grins on their faces. The gate keepers see me coming and open both gates extra wide for me, as after all I am a woman driver and could miss the opening. Last night, I drove across the street to get petrol for our generator from the “Pump Station” run by a family of Pushtuns, and when the attendant saw me he yelled to his relatives in Dari/Pushtu, “Hey! Oh No! There is a woman driving here and she speaks English! Help me speak to her because she speaks English!!!! What do I do? What does she want?! Help!!!” When he calmed down, and I conveyed my requests, we filled the car and my petrol can together and then negotiated the money and wrote the bill. I asked him, “Now, really, was that so bad??? I have been driving for over 40 years, and really it is time you get used to the idea of women drivers. You did a great job!” “Yes, Auntie,” he beamed,” More women driver’s…..?!”
We are starting a new section of our PARSA blog and newsletters called “Opinions”. We will be sharing our thoughts and ideas about the current situation, and responding to relevant articles and current affairs.
Our first piece is written by Alyssa, our Communications Manager, in response to an article entitled “Stop Trying to Save the World” which discusses the problems with international development and ways to fix it. Read the original article here.
Quote: “What I want to talk sh*t on is the paradigm of the Big Idea—that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic blanket.”
This is why I am proud of our approach at PARSA – we design projects unique to a specific community to suit that community’s individual needs, and we always ensure that the community plays a key role in the project design. Marnie, Yasin and PARSA’s leadership realized early on that “Big Ideas” do not solve complex problems – even using the same idea for nearby communities might not work, let alone using it for countries that are continents apart.
If donors – especially large scale donors and governments – would stop encouraging the quick fix Big Idea approach, international development would be a hell of a lot more effective, and a lot more progress would be made towards solving the problems that Big Ideas intend to (but never do) solve.
The article goes on to lay out a major problem that nonprofits are facing with the common donor tendency to judge an entire organization by its overhead costs: “this obsession with overhead keeps charities from reaching the scale required to take on large problems….It’s one number that allows you to compare the soup kitchen with the anti-corruption think tank” but it means that for a nonprofit to have any chance at successful fundraising they have to hide or minimize their overhead costs in very counter-productive ways.
The world really needs to change the way that they judge nonprofits, and the way they look at development. Great article.
As one of our newest members of our PARSA family, Alyssa Hoseman has been with PARSA for nearly two years now. She is our Communications Manager and is in charge of sharing PARSA and everything we do with the world. Contact her at email@example.com.
Our Afghan Scouts in Badakshan are residents of the local orphanage. They have been working with the local police on the “Messengers of Peace” project and as part of our trip to Badakhshan we took part in a ceremony marking the completion of the project. Commandant Baba Jan, a very esteemed General in the Afghan National Police, joined our ceremony and acknowledged the youth and the police for there work: “God willing you will have a long, happy youth and a safe future for your families, unlike I had in my life. I am working with other Afghan leaders hoping that we will be able to provide you stability so you have this positive future.” Our boys were thrilled to be a part of the ceremony and felt proud that their role was an important one. As a part of the trip we also made plans to assist the 20 girls associated with the orphanage but not able to live there due to lack of living space or older women to supervise them. We are also planning our Voice of Afghan Youth program for Badakhshan. Great to be with the boys!!!
Four years ago I met Louise Hastie, a volunteer with “Nowzad Charity” which is a program to rescue cats and dogs in Afghanistan. Our first meeting took place over my kitchen table while a local vet tried to help me save an injured puppy I’d found outside my door. When PARSA moved from Karte-3 to our new offices in Marastoon we inherited a large stray dog and cat population that survived here off scraps from the open garbage pits used by the local residents; this led to Louise and I working together to get the many puppies I found in Marastoon neutered and adopted into new homes. I was then introduced to Pen Farthing, the founder of Nowzad, who worked with Louise and shared with her the impossible of making a systemic impact on Kabul’s stray dog population – not only to have the animals treated humanely by locals, but also to arrest the rabies epidemic that is still a major threat to the health of human communities, especially to children. PARSA’s Country Director, Yasin Farid, and I supported this vision as part of our own PARSA vision for Building Healthy Afghan Communities, and over the years we have had the privilege of supporting Pen and his amazing team of staff and supporters.
Today Pen won the CNN Hero of the Year Award, on behalf of the Nowzad organization. This accomplishment is a testament to his vision, perseverance in the face of incredible difficulties, and especially to his Nowzad staff – both international and national. PARSA is proud to have been a part of this story. PARSA and Nowzad work together in Afghanistan in a way that I wish more organizations could – with complete support for each other. More importantly, PARSA supports Nowzad’s vision for work in Afghanistan in the future. When I spoke to Louise this morning to congratulate her, her first words were “Now we can get the support we need to really focus on our “Trap, Neuter, Release” program!!!” This is what Nowzad is all about….and on behalf of PARSA, their partner, we congratulate Pen and his team on an incredibly difficult job well done. For more about the Nowzad story please click here….
Oh, by the way, my family has 14 dogs, including our huge 75kg mascot “Sherak”, and all our dogs have a job to do at PARSA. They protect the area by chasing away stray dogs which keeps our compound disease-free. We are the first example of the effective benefits of a “Trap, Neuter, Release” program. Louise and her team take amazing care of our animals. It makes our life here so much easier….a personal thanks to the Nowzad team in Afghanistan.
We are staying at Mr. Nasruddin’s house, a friend for quite some time now. He has sent his family to be guests at a relative’s in order to accommodate us here. There are 9 of us in two small rooms, intermittent electricity, no running water, one toilet, one bathing room with icy cold water – and we chose this. Mr. Nasruddin’s son cooks our meals, and everyone joins us for our evening dinner. You would think that it would be difficult, but somehow we have all learned to get our work done, with everyone including the drivers weighing in with their opinions on all matters.
I don’t think people who have not lived with Afghans understand the amount of talking and consensus making that goes on in Afghan culture. There is on our trip a slight nod toward Yasin and I having the most responsibility and therefore one should at least act like one is interested in what we have to say. But mostly everyone feels compelled to weigh in with an opinion on everything. And we listen. Today we had competing agendas with half the team working on a “closing” ceremony with the Scouts for our Messengers of Peace program, a visit with a local colleague who is working with us on formulating a residential Trade Afghan women’s center that is modeled on our center in Bamiyan, and a local “Buzkashi” event, the traditional free-for-all-polo game, using a carcass of a goat or calf…we managed all three, plus Alyssa and Reese shopped for “chapandaz” clothing and came home looking, well, exotic. Alyssa is jazzed up and muttering about how authentic warrior games are and telling us she should have been born 1,000 years ago. Reese is worn out from trying to manage the crowd that Alyssa, Dawn and I drew in an all-male buzkashi audience, and from trying to make sure we didn’t get run over by panicked horses…most of which we were oblivious to. Yasin wants a $60,000 Buzkashi horse. Mohsin, Amin and Sharif are flush with the success of having the top commander for Badakshan attend our closing ceremony and how proud the Scouts were. And our drivers are cracking “Laghmani” jokes (the province they are both from) most of which Yasin refuses to translate.
Oh, and finally, Dawn and I finalized a contract and submitted our IRS reports in the midst of it all….Sharif sighed in contentment tonite as we sat together for dinner: “See, now we are all family and we sit for dinner”….and it does feel like that in the best way.
Well, I really appreciate how seasoned our team is on our field trips. The operative word is flexibility. We woke up to a nice breakfast and talked through what we wanted to accomplish on the trip. Yasin’s plan was to take Reese and Alyssa to the Argo landslide they visited last spring to see how aid to the village had progressed. Mohsin and Amin were going to work with the Scout program in the local orphanage. Dawn and I, as always, have reports and proposals to work on, which we planned to get relief from by visiting the local bazaar. We are planning an activity day with the Scouts and I asked Mohsin what he had planned. He said “a field trip”! When I asked where he was taking the kids he said “well, first we have to ask them where they want to go…” I love how our staff work with our beneficiaries because they are so oriented to having them be part of the planning and to supporting them in what they need and want.
Within an hour of leaving in our planned directions, one of our cars broke down and all plans changed but we kept sight of what we all wanted to accomplish, the car was fixed and we all got to work.
Dawn and I had a heavenly walk in the bazaar, which we so rarely get to do together, and I have very few friends who would enjoy it. Dawn took pictures, again an activity that we don’t do much anymore as we have been here so long. Then, the afternoon working on computers and talking to each other as we worked until the team came in. Great day.
Not all of PARSA projects turn out the way we intend, sustaining themselves into the future, especially projects that involve valuable resources such as the Bamiyan Women’s Garden. In 2007, PARSA took over the stewardship of a very special park in Bamiyan near to Share Zohak dedicated to women. Over the course of three years we found donors to help support the development of the Bamiyan Women’s Garden into a restaurant, greenhouse and a place for women’s crafts. An unfortunate push by government and international donors for tourism had the park transferred out of our hands into the hands of a business. Subsequently, it has been shut down to the public. Tourism has virtually stopped in Bamiyan because of security. This park was built with love by Arezu, a Canadian who spent 18 years in this area and also started the women’s garden in Kabul. We hope that with the upcoming political changes, that this park will be put in the hands of an Afghan agency that will open it once more to the women and families of the area for enjoyment and an opportunity to grow small enterprises. Of course, as we have long memories and a long term commitment to the communities of Afghanistan, we are ready to participate.
I have had the pleasure of overseeing our little farm while Yasin is in Badakshan. And I have forgotten how much time it takes to negotiate with our operations staff on tasks that need doing. Most of them have been with us over a decade and frankly speaking…the nature of Afghans is simply not really cut out for taking a directive lying down without discussion. What I love about our staff…so today I go to the farm to talk with our staff and it goes like this:
Me: This mother cow is going to have her baby very soon, Azizullah. Why isn’t her room ready?”
A: She is not! She is not going to have her baby soon!
Me: (looking at the panting cow with terribly distended stomach) She is Azizullah. I think she is in labor, and she needs to be put in a clean room by herself tonite. AND this is something Yasin told you last week.
A: Well, Mr. Kushon (head of Marastoon) told me to work on the fence today with Ismat.
Me: And does Mr. Kushon give you your paycheck? Why does no one know that you are working on this? AND Yasin told you to do this last week!!!
A: Because Mr. Kushon asked me too!!!
Me: Ok. This cow goes to bed in her own clean room tonite, Azizullah because she is going to have a baby.
Me: Soon!!! No!!! Cow goes in clean room TONITE because baby is coming SOON!!!
A: (huffs off ) I knew that!!!
I spent more quality time with our staff today I uncovered more mysteries for us to solve:
On feeding the cows: Giving them access to water during the day, and regular amounts of food makes them sick.
On letting cows out in the pasture for exercise – they are very Big and Naughty and drag the staff around doing bad things that can’t be discussed. We wouldn’t want that!
On why there is a pigeon coop and pigeons in with the cows- They are Gul Ahmads (the driver) Special Pigeons.
I have reached out to Dr. Sophia and Dr. Moh for advice and thank them for responding. But from their responses I gather I am not alone in my management challenges. We may have to start a support group for professionals working in the animal husbandry sector here.And finally, thank you Tamim for helping me while Yasin is gone!!
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Sad Goodbyes as PARSA Makes the Decision to Evacuate
Events 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!