Full article here: Afghan cave dwellers brace against a shifting landscape
Full article here: Afghan cave dwellers brace against a shifting landscape
Psychological trauma can be defined as exposure incidents of overwhelming stress where stress comes from the death of others, the threat of death to a person, or injury to oneself or others by violence, natural disasters or accidents and this exposure exceeds the victims ability to cope or their ability to overcome emotional reactions to the event. This includes people who lost family members or friends in the event but were not present themselves.
In situations where families are fleeing conflict areas, and have experienced traumatic events often community members find themselves “counseling” each other as people try to cope with overwhelming psychological responses to the situation. Psychological first aid assists members of the family and communities as they try to cope with chaotic and disturbing challenges.
Psychological first aid adapts basic psychological principles to prepare community workers or professionals with no background in mental health services to provide simple but effective support for people suffering from symptoms of trauma, anxiety and depression, or people who are having difficulty coping with challenging circumstances.
In this training we identify cultural strengths that Afghan families, and communities have that if encouraged can provide natural healing for victims of trauma, and we help our trainees learn to identify and promote healthy networks of psychosocial support within the communities.
On September 11, 2001, my best friend called and asked me to turn on the television to view the fall of the twin towers. She said, “Our lives have changed now, forever.” In 2002, I took my first trip back to Afghanistan since living there in the 1960’s with my family. In 2004, I moved back to Kabul to begin the life-changing odyssey that has spanned the last twelve years.
While living and working here, I have been an informal ambassador for the US and other Western nations. My title is “foreigner” in Dari, and I have traveled throughout Afghanistan, visiting remote villages as well as cities, working with the Afghan people. I am feared, revered and welcomed equally. I have had stones thrown at me, been chastised, and told to leave the country. I have also been praised, rescued from riots, and protected by the people of Afghanistan.
At a time in history when my own country has turned to a fear-driven public dialogue and a highly polarized political atmosphere, I am reflecting on what I have learned while being here.
In the first year that I came to Afghanistan, I witnessed a group of young Afghan men greet a couple of young American women. One of the men grabbed one of the women and kissed her.
“Why did you just do that?” I asked. “You know it is taboo.”
“We are a democracy now” he replied. ” I get to do whatever I want!”
I realized then that my American country’s democratic political system could be misunderstood. This system, as it stands right now, is not necessarily the answer to all social, economic, and political problems worldwide. One person has one vote and this implies that one’s voice will be heard and have a say in the politics of a country. But on behalf of what?
I welcome the new and intense dialogue emerging from the US and around the world, as it seems we are re-examining what exactly democracy means and what our fundamental values are when we exercise our right to vote.
Recently, as I walked to my office, a small boy picked up a stone and threw it at me. I stopped and asked him “Why did you throw that stone at me?”
“Because you are a foreigner!”
“But I am your auntie also,” I said, “I am your foreign auntie.”
“Oh…sorry about that!” he said, and then he grabbed my hand and walked me to my office.
Our young people, more globally interconnected than ever, are listening to us carefully and growing up in a world of our making.
I say to my government, do not ask me to choose between life for an Afghan child, an American child, a Syrian child, a child of color and my own child. And that is the world that we live in now, in spite of the fact that we are capable and have enough resources worldwide to end hunger and tackle other seemingly insurmountable global problems. As with the young boy I encountered on the way to work, I believe that we can change our trajectory, but it is now time to set aside the angry rhetoric and put faces to the people who have no voice but will be affected by this new dialogue. I want to be an ambassador for my country on behalf of a democracy in which all people thrive.
Our Afghan Scouts held their first annual Camporee at our Marastoon offices in Kabul. The three-day campout was a wonderful success, and the 200 youth who participated had an incredible time. Read about the event in the Stars and Stripes newspaper by Clicking Here.
Our first Job Corps for girls, #3, is taking off, and we are very excited about it – and so are the girls! Mojabin, Sima, Mushtare, Beshta, Maqbola, Samira, Nazia, Fatimah and Farida are all incredibly enthusiastic and excited to learn. So far they have been focusing on cooking and hospitality skills through our Afghan Kitchen, however last week we asked them to make a list of the skills that they want to learn, and their answers were endless. They included auto-mechanics, photography, beauty school – makeup, hair styling and manicures/pedicures, henna, candle making, computer skills, tailoring, learning English, and they all said they want to learn how to drive cars and ride horses, although since they are quite young we decided to start with bicycles. We are so looking forward to making progress with this first pioneer group of girls, and to use their success as a model to expand the girls Job Corps to other provinces. This is a great edition new branch of our PARSA Education Programs – building youth leadership across the country.
This is a personal account of a special trip that we made to Ghor province as a work trip and as a break for the extended “Family”. I periodically write about these times I have had in Afghanistan to convey how much I love the experience of living here. I hope you enjoy!
Willy’s Summer Vacation Blog1 (Please click for full story)
“I come from a family of very intense and creative people. In family speak it means Difficult and if we are being kind Special. My sisters and I have been challenged as we worked to raise the next generation of our family, four boys albeit our oldest, my son Colin is still not quite sure whether he is actually a blood relative because he has been very easy on us as he grew up, or so he tells us.
In 2009, my sister Fran and I had a call about her son Willy who was 17 and trying to find a purpose for his life and he disliked all apparent paths forward especially school. She was trying to figure out how to support him and she was ready for a break. I suggested that she send him to me in Kabul for the summer and to our surprise Willy jumped on the opportunity. He joined his cousin, my son, Reese who came to visit me in a similar unsettled period of his life two and a half years earlier. We also had the son of a dear family friend, visiting us, Connor, who will evermore be known as Poor Connor, for having to deal with Reese and Willy for a summer. “(read PDF for full story)
Marnie wrote a lovely piece on her nephew Willy’s visit to Afghanistan, and to Ghor province, a few years ago. Read it below, or download it by clicking here: Willy’s Summer Vacation Blog
Last week I had the opportunity to sit in on a World Bank meeting and contribute to the international dialogue that will take place in Brussels about the future of Afghanistan. As I listened to the well-researched prognosis for the next couple of years presented by an economic expert, I was struck by just how wide the gap is between our efforts to address stabilizing a country from a macro level of development and from the “frontline” reality that organizations like PARSA face when dealing at the level of people experiencing the results of a tragically drawn out war. On the macro level, the problems are overwhelming and even hopeless. On the frontline of service, the problems take on a name and a face, and our innate compassion for others overrules any sense of despair or futility.
Two weeks ago I was contacted by a woman in Norway who, as a mental health professional, was working with an Afghan illegal immigrant who was being deported by to Kabul after five years in Norway. He had been born in Iran, and has never stepped foot in Afghanistan, and has no identification from any country that might assist him with integrating here. This very kind Norwegian reached out to us at PARSA to see if we could somehow assist. She went way beyond her professional obligation to reach out and into his life to try to help so that he might have a decent future, and we at PARSA reached back and took him in, stretching beyond our capacity or mandate to respond humanely. Today, Mohammed is out on a trip volunteering with the Scouts, paying us back for our compassion by working as hard as he can to contribute to PARSA, as it is his new home. I am convinced that this network of small efforts to change each life as it comes into our world will at some point overwhelm the cynicism and resignation of the “larger picture”. Thank you PARSA Family Members for being part of our work in changing lives.
Executive Director PARSA
Colin’s Journal in 2007, captures PARSA as we grow, capturing the day to day work of expanding our program work to fit the need of the Afghan people we are working with, as well as the joy with which we do our jobs.
A big thank you to our VoAY producer Mina Sharifi and her wonderful friends who supported her campaign to get the last 10 kids in the Parwan orphanage in shiny new Scout uniforms. Her friends and family met her request within minutes, and so last week a group of 100 kids got to have a little party with a damboora player and other musicians, and each one was presented their dapper new Scout or Cub Scout uniform, complete with hat, scarf, shoes, and belt. All the kids looked splendid and it was a wonderful day! Thank you for sorting out all the Scouts in Parwan, Mina jan!
If you want to contribute to dressing up Scout troops in the future, visit our Donate Page and specify your donation is for Mina’s Scout uniforms. Thank you!
Meet Sally Baldwin, our new manager at PARSA UK. Sally is working with a team of volunteers to market products from PARSA’s businesswomen as well as developing connections between our Afghan Scouts and Scout Troops in the UK. British supporters can check out the new PARSA UK Facebook page and website. We have had such support from our British friends over the years, especially Louise Hastie, recently returned to Birmingham, and we look forward to seeing what Sally’s team does this year. Sally adopted a special dog, Brin, from Afghanistan through our partner, Nowzad, and he is famous for surviving being captured by the Taliban. Thank you for joining us Sally!!!
We are in the second month of our first PARSA Job Corps team’s program. The boys spent their month learning and working in Khalil’s small engine repair shop. Thank you, Richard Day for donating a 1954 Royal Enfield motorbike for them to “fix”. Many opportunities for learning on that one! Please consider donating to their program, so we can expand it. We just had two boys join this month so we are 10 now. The boys mothers are widows and they were struggling to find something useful for the boys to do and afraid that their kids would go to the streets. For those of you in Kabul who have small broken engines around, we are setting up a workshop for them this month. Actually they are doing the work, and Tamim Hamkar is volunteering to teach them electricity to wire the Farm and other needy places. Thanks all who are making this possible. We are so excited to offer this program to our Afghan Scouts!!!
Mohsin, psychosocial trainer and Safi, Scout Master trainer, taught a workshop for Child Fund professionals who work with children in camps for returnees. The Healthy Afghan Child program helps Afghan professionals set up Children’s Committees, where children problem solve, participate in educational learning activities and children have a structured and safe place to talk. Mohsin has worked extensively in National Orphanages, and Safi training both Scouts and Scout Masters. The area they traveled to do this is not a safe area, and we are very happy that they were willing to do so.
Read the article published in the Hollywood Reporter about Prince’s support of PARSA and our Afghan Scouts. Reporter Scott Johnson contacted PARSA after reading a Facebook post by Marnie about Prince’s donations to our work for the last 6 years. Marnie had previously been sworn to secrecy about Prince’s support, but after his passing we’re finally able to thank him publicly for helping us make our Afghan Scouts program a success. What a great man, RIP Prince.
CNN featured PARSA in a 2009 CNN documentary called ‘Generation Islam’, where Christiane Amanpour visited Marnie and Yasin at PARSA’s projects in Ghor Province. Marnie said, “It was a special trip because Christiane speaks Farsi and has a deep appreciation for this part of the world.” Watch the documentary at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJ4gEcFMz9c
Marnie’s Story about the trip:
Yasin and I flew to Chagcharran in August 2009, with Christiane Amanpour and her crew to be a part of the series “Generation Islam”. PARSA was the least known organization of the three organizations featured. Christiane and her producer were down-to-earth and very well experienced in any kind of remote coverage. It was a special trip because Christiane speaks Farsi with her Iranian background and has a deep appreciation for this part of the world. Although she would film in English, she came to know our people in Ghor and was able to speak” and learn about them herself. I ended up sharing a room with her in our offices, uncomfortable pallets on the floor, and I ended up cooking for the group with very limited local resources. We had planned a three day filming trip but it snowed and no airplanes, even military would attempt a landing. “Grace under pressure” was Christinae trying to manage her international schedule and commitments from our bedroom in Chagcharran, with no way of getting out. But I think Yasin and I won the contest for calmness under pressure, being with her and her team frustrated by events we could not change, in the middle of no where. We finally ended up chartering a plane with other expats trying to get out, from an airline who overlooked the danger, and flew to Herat where Christiane hosted flew back us before we flew back to Kabul. A brief moment of being a part of the international media world before we slipped comfortably back “under the radar”.
A little-known story about Prince: He loved Betty Tisdale and her work through HALO, and Betty loved PARSA. One of her visits to me she noticed a broken down building behind our residence and she asked me what we were going to do with it…I told her we hoped to renovate it into a Scout training center. A couple of weeks later we received a check from her in the US and she made me promise to keep the donor a secret at his request…and it was Prince…so even in this far away place, we have been touched by his life and how he lived it.
Every month, our Scout team selects a Scout who has shown exceptional dedication that month to his commitments. For April 2016 they selected Ahmad Mohammady, a Scout Leader from Bamiyan Province. Read about his story and our previous Scouts of the Month on the Afghan Scouts website by Clicking Here.
Last week Scouts from our Kabul troops, headed by Amin, were getting ready to leave PARSA to head to our local lake, Qargah, to do a tree planting community service activity. For those who don’t know, our PARSA main offices are located in the ‘Marastoon’ section of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS), which is the social welfare branch of the Afghan government, so there are often impoverished visitors to Marastoon requesting welfare support. As the Scouts were getting ready to head out, a father who was visiting the offices with his three year old son who has heart disease saw them in their uniforms and asked what they were doing. The Scouts explained their plans to plant trees at the lake, and the father, very impressed, asked if him and his son could go along and help. Despite the father’s old age and his young son’s condition, they were very active in the work and together planted 5 trees. They were very proud to be involved in the community service, and we are very proud when the community appreciated the work of our Scouts so much that they join in to help. Well done, Scouts!
Every April the big tree in front of our Kabul main office blooms brilliant purple flowers, so we schedule our yearly staff picture at this time. It’s always a challenge to pick a time when everyone is around, and to actually pull everyone who is at the office away from their desks to come take the picture, but we did great this year! A few members of our Scouts and VoAY team are in Ghor Province filming episodes, but we got almost everyone! Two pictures so that Reese and Alyssa could take turns behind the camera. Thanks for supporting PARSA from our whole Kabul team, and from our provincial staff too!
Our well loved PARSA animals provide an immeasurable amount of pleasure to our guests, staff and they also provide organic milk and eggs to local customers. The farm also means six of our local beneficiaries including two women have jobs. We are making plans with the help of our partners Nowzad and Mayhew to turn grow our animal program into an urban farm animal training center, providing a variety of educational programs for animal well-being, veterinary care and humane care. Our horses provide an experience of a lifetime for our young guests as they get a chance to ride. Afghan Scouts will earn a couple of merit badges working in community animal welfare education. As we develop our program, we need basic support to all of those of our PARSA Family who are animal lovers. Please consider sponsoring one of our animals so that we can continue our humane care of them. Every time I leave the country, my last words to Yasin are “Don’t let anyone eat Rumi!!!” Help us grow our farm into a place that more Afghans can learn how to care for animals to keep them healthy! More info on our PARSA Farm Project coming soon! If you are interested in getting involved, please contact email@example.com!
PARSA’s psychosocial trainers are working with War Child Canada staff and partners to establish women’s support groups in “IDP” camps for refugees. In March, we trained women who are volunteering to be support group leaders in camps around Kabul. The program is called “Healthy Afghan Women Support Groups” and is adapted to help illiterate communities of women counsel and support each other. These support groups establish a safe place for us to identify and support victims of violence. We have some unusual components that work very well in the Afghan cultural context as we have modified them so that they can be taught by local women community leaders. We have programs for “Relaxation Postures”, “Breathing for Well Being”, and my favorite “Save it for Tea Talk” where participants learn to listen to each other, solve problems together and save their complaining about life for the tea break. Eight years in development, this simple but effective program lays the foundation in a community for learning about mental health, intervening in family violence or gender based violence and helping people with severe mental health problems. Later in April we will have the opportunity to train Child Fund staff in a version for children and youth. Establishing effective psychosocial programs in Afghanistan is an uphill job, so a big thank you to our psychosocial team for producing this important program.
This past Monday Mina, Marnie, Alyssa and the VoAY team went to film a VoAY segment for an episode on Parwan. We visited the ruins of Jebel Seraj, which was built early in the twentieth century as a summer palace for King Habibullah, and had the honour of having King Habibullah’s granddaughter, Mahbouba Seraj, give our Scouts a tour of the palace. Mahbouba talked about visiting her grandfather at the palace when she was a child, and walked us through the grounds describing what they looked like when they were still in their original glory. She even took us to the ‘elephant quarters’ where the king kept four elephants who were regal symbols of the greatness of the crown. It was such an honour to visit the beautiful grounds and get a glimpse of Afghanistan in its heyday.
Mashid and Fatema are lead Scout Masters at Marastoon, as we build up both PARSA staff trainers and volunteers. They represented PARSA Afghan Scout program at an event First Lady Rula Ghani hosted to recognize emerging women leaders. PARSA has plans this year to triple our women Scout Masters for the Afghan Scout program. We thank the First Lady for including our women leaders.
In the fall of 2015, PARSA Afghan Scouts lost a very talented and active scout to the illegal immigration trail. Mohammed had been in the scouts for almost five years, Marastoon troop and had just recently attended the Japanese international Scout Jamboree representing the Afghan Scout Movement. His mother, under pressure from family members, sent him and his cousin out of the country because she saw no future for him here. He died in Iran in a car crash. PARSA directors and staff met to make sense of this tragic loss and decided that in 2016 we would start an economic program for youth, pre job skills, and focus on a message of hope for the future for the youth in our programs.This week, Reese and Safi started the program with 8 boy scouts, who will meet twice a week and learn all sorts of skills that will build their confidence as workers as they continue school and decide their own employment future with PARSA’s support. Reese and Safi are starting them on their own garden, where they will be able sell the proceeds, and learn as a team how to reinvest in other projects. “Uncle Daoud” is the expert who will work with them on this project but after the garden is put in they will move onto carpentry, plumbing, painting, and finding products they can sell. They will also learn the basics of running a business, managing money and working as a team. If you would like to donate to this project we would appreciate the support to get it started.
PARSA had a very unexpected but delightful visit from Steve Mccurry, renowned photographer who took the now famous picture of the Afghan Girl. Steve has a very long history of working in Afghanistan and is respected by Afghans for capturing the feeling of Afghanistan in his photos. He visited a Scout community service tree planting event with us, to take pictures of Scouts for an upcoming National Geographic article on “Kabul Now”. I was pleased both to have him take pictures of the Scouts as it is a good news story for Afghanistan. I was also touched by how honored the older Afghan dignitaries were to meet him. He sees Afghanistan the way Afghans want to be seen.
Maybe I go to the bazaar about twice a month to go shopping. There isn’t too much use as our staff, especially the drivers know how to do our shopping for us. The number of shops for Westerners in Kabul could all fit into one Fred Meyer in Seattle, and I do shop every once in a while in those stores, although the selection tends to be stale, have freezer burn or been thawed out and refrozen frequently. I think the good news is that there are maybe fifty things I can think of to buy, all staples needing preparation and our food is fresh and for the most part organic and not processed. I mostly shop now to break up my day and get out for a change. Noorullah is my favorite driver shopping buddy. Afghan men do most of the shopping for the family and are very good at it and Noorullah scours the city for good deals and special treats. When we go out he sings his shopping song..usually about a vegetable…today he sang about “Kachaloos”..(potatoes) …making it up as he goes along …”Potatoes,…how I love potatoes…fresh potatoes from Bamiyan, sweet little potatoes…my baby is a potato boy….” except I really wanted a box of oranges for fresh juice…so he made up a new song “ oranges….Afghan oranges….not Pakistani oranges..because we don’t want to give them our money anymore….special sweet oranges for Juldash to make fresh juice for the Marnie, jan…”
One hour…and one box of oranges, a very old frozen turkey, a refrozen lasagne that feeds 12 and probably “fell off the truck” for some military base..and I am ready for Christmas Eve dinner this year. Except I have to set up my “Christmas Twig”- a piece of decorated curly willow tree which is now part of our tradition…lacking a decent Christmas tree which I could find for $200 if I were so inclined. We are checking in with friends to see who is left in town for holidays, and will visit the various homes that are having a holiday party…ours will just be close friends. Dawn will make pies, Lorraine -French Onion Soup- and Louise something British with turkey – all which will be delicious. I am so grateful that we just get to make it up as we go along with the focus on being with people we care about without any pressure for how the holiday should be and usually we are delighted with our time together even though we miss our family at home. Happy Holidays All!
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
We are very proud to announce that a delegation of Afghan Scouts, led by Amin Nayebi, has left for the 23rd World Scout Jamboree. This official event of the World Organization of the Scout Movement is being held in Kirara-hama, Yamaguchi City, Japan from July 28, to August 8, 2015.
We our very proud of our Afghan Scouts for attending this important Scouting event, and we are confident that they will do a wonderful job representing Scouting in Afghanistan.
Our PARSA staff are usually operating in their own departments, Scouts focusing on Scout activities, women’s economics completely separate from psychosocial, finance and HR in a world apart from VoAY or our support staff. We all say hi on lunch and during tea breaks, but it is only during our staff parties that we all get to sit down and hang out together. To brighten up the tedious first day back to work after the Eid long weekend, we arranged our summer staff party to cheer up the mood. Delicious food, recognizing the achievements of all our departments, and recognizing those staff who have been stepping up to the plate these last few months – especially those from our Scout leadership team who spent the hot weeks of Ramazan traveling across the northern provinces getting our Scout programs running steadily. And who knew we have over 50 staff who work at our Marastoon offices!
Congratulations to all our staff, and Eid Mubarak!
On the third day of Eid we headed out to Shamsa Village Orphanage with a team of volunteers for a few hours of fun with the beautiful kids. We celebrated, played games, ate ice cream, and had a generally great Eid celebration. It was a wonderful day for everyone involved – those kids touch all of our hearts, and there is nothing better than seeing them smile.
This past Tuesday we celebrated the inauguration of the new sanitation system that has been installed at Shamsa Village Orphanage. Everyone at PARSA would like to extend a huge thank you to the Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA) for taking on the project to install the new DEWATS sanitation system for the compound. Previously the septic tanks in use were not functioning correctly which created a very unsanitary, not to mention unpleasant, conditions for the children. A huge thank you also to the German Embassy who funded the project. Step by step Shamsa Village is becoming a leading model in Afghanistan for how great an orphanage can be.
We’re a strange bunch. Those of us who grew up abroad but have made the decision to live in Afghanistan long term. And we’re strange for a variety of personal and collective reasons that could fill up pages (has anyone written that book yet? Or no wait, everyone has written that book). Sometimes these “quirks” make us look absolutely insane to friends and family who are not here and we’re often reminded of that on trips home. We sit over lunch on our brief visits back and it becomes very difficult to converse about regular topics because your contribution, as hard as you try, tends to have a splash of absurdity in it.
“So the other day my driver was saying…”
“Wait, what? You have your own driver?”
And suddenly the point of the story, whatever it was, is gone.
“Yes, we also have a cleaning lady…….a chawkidar is a man that opens the door and handles stuff around the house. Sometimes there’s more than one of them. Oh um… the office cook makes lunch…”
Insert sheepish look. Your eyes dart around the room for anyone who might be able to back you up here but they’re all back in Kabul or maybe in the same situation as you are.
You realize you’ve confused everyone because they probably assumed you wear a burka and quietly sneak cans of food to people in tents. There is a fine line between how luxurious our lives could be considered and on the other hand how we could be acknowledged as “roughing it” by living here. It’s all a matter of comparison, isn’t it?
Before I share how luxurious or sacrificial my daily life is, let’s remember there is a very broad spectrum. I will be the first to say that there are people who I consider “roughing it” that haven’t seen a soda or heard English in months. Then of course there are those in air-conditioned apartments that put Manhattan living to shame and the resident of this place has only “heard” of that scary world outside their walls. Let’s leave all that alone for now and I’ll just give you a list of examples from my own perspective.
Heating. I hate winter. I’ve recently pieced together that it’s because of my Eastern Afghanistan heritage. I was meant to be sipping cold yogurt drinks under palm trees, not participating in Toronto or Kabul winters. On one hand, I have a bukharee heating system in whichever room I’m in, pretty much for the whole winter (see earlier article “bukharee”). This is a life of luxury in a country where people freeze literally to death. Compared to my upbringing however, where central heating was not optional, here I feel frozen solid for at least 5 months of every year. And that is difficult to consider luxurious sometimes.
Food. We have a wealth of food and frankly most of it is better than you have in your grocery stores. I speak to anyone, anywhere outside of Afghanistan when I say that. I can also afford to eat enough food, treat myself to exquisite Afghan cuisine in restaurants and even to foreign delicacies like Cambodian, Japanese, Italian and Indian. I can stop at the vegetable and fruit stand and walk away with a car full of melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, pomegranates… you name it. And this is most certainly a luxury. I can afford it, unlike much of Afghanistan. But… on certain days I remember things like…. extra lean ground beef! Blueberries! Fruits and vegetables around ALL YEAR ROUND. We never have everything all at once and I’m not sure if I can even list certain products I miss because I have forgotten I miss them. Most raised-abroad Kabul residents can relate to this: I have anxiety when I first get back to the grocery stores I grew up with. Why are there so many different kinds of everything? HELP! I’d better buy all the blueberries and avocados before anyone else finds out they’re available! And if you saw my panicked expression when trying to pick out a cereal, you’d probably feel sorry for me instead of thinking I have a luxurious food life in Afghanistan.
Home! I love my home in Kabul. The garden is the kind that makes you want to write (or start to understand) poetry. Roses and fruit trees as far as the eye can see and even a volleyball net. The house itself is an adorable 60s style bungalow with a nice kitchen and a gorgeous zebra mural from who knows when. So yes, luxurious to no end, especially compared to the poverty around us. But just for good measure I’ll throw in that we often have no electricity (really often lately), we can’t catch a proper wifi signal and our roof is caving in. My room is so moldy from the damp ceiling that the white wooden closet has turned green. And we live with “there’s no water because the pipes are frozen” sometimes but it doesn’t seem to make the evening news the way it would in my Toronto community.
One more for good measure. Mostly for my girls. Grooming is in no way luxurious here, I can not pretend. But I can maybe surprise you. Eyebrows can be threaded cheaply, there are some places where you can get a good hair cut and OK there’s some makeup available in the more expensive shops. Should you want to be dolled up, it may not be the style you’re used to but there are plenty of fake lashes and beehives at your whim. There are some clothes here and there that I’m OK with. There are some brand name shampoos available. But unlike all the categories I’ve listed so far, this is the one where I don’t think lucky or luxurious is really a description that would pass. Maybe grooming is possible but glamour is certainly a difficult (impossible for me) task.
So except for that last one, which arguably shouldn’t matter at all (it does), I’m ok with all of the conditions. Depending on the mood of the day I, probably like most others who grew up elsewhere, shift from feeling lucky and feeling exhausted. But I try to remember daily at least one thing that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t here. And that list is long. We have calm yet adventurous, stressful yet rewarding, infuriating yet heartwarming lives here. And at the end of the day, I have the life I want and have chosen. I believe that choice in itself should always be defined as a luxury.
The Shamsa kids visited PARSA on April 24 for their monthly cultural activity day, this time celebrating Turkish Children’s Day! It was another great day, and this time our PARSA Finance team even came out to run their own activity – needless to say were happy to escape from the finance office and see first hand what all their hard work goes to – plus they looked like they had just as much fun as the kids. Enjoy the pictures!
Yasin, Reese, his friend Maiwand and I were in Bamiyan for a few days to check on our projects and get a much-needed escape from Kabul’s hectic city life. Even for a trip of a few days Bamiyan makes for a perfectly revitalizing vacation – clean air, open space, fresh weather, great security, friendly people – what more could one ask for.
We arrived and spent Monday and Tuesday morning with Zahra and Taher, who run our Bamiyan PARSA office, and visited some of our project sites including our schools in the cave communities to make sure they were up and running for the school season. Then Tuesday afternoon we decided to drive out to Afghanistan’s most famous lake, Band-e-Amir, to do a hike into the national park and an overnight camping trip. Bamiyan is one of the few places in Afghanistan where it is safe enough for foreigners/city folk to travel freely in the countryside, and we all wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity.
We drove along the muddy dirt road beside the picturesque lake until we found a stream crossing our path that we decided would be good to hike along. We parked the car so it was hidden from the road, and walked in the beautiful, sunny weather, surrounded on one side by high cliffs and on the other by snowy mountains, up a valley until we found a good basecamp in the remains of a century-old house that looked like it was now used by shepherds and their herds.
Reese set up the main tent there for himself, Taher and Maiwand, and Yasin and I trekked on to set up our own tents further up the valley. We ended up climbing up an avalanche shoot almost to the top of the cliffs, and were only deterred when a little bird that had been sitting on a stone started a mini-avalanche that sent huge rocks shooting down some meters away from us. However the most interesting part of that climb, besides the incredible view, was that we found fossilized seashells at the tops of the cliffs. The whole region was once under water.
When we got back down Reese started a fire and we cooked ourselves a potato stew for dinner, and drank coffee out of our big bowls. Until then everything was great, we had forgotten we were in the heart of a country “at-war” and had enjoyed the peaceful nature, not another person in sight. Then night came.
Reese and I were at least nominally prepared. My gear is three-seasons, and it held up well against the freezing rain, and even did okay against the slushy snow that followed, but the others weren’t so lucky. Their tents were only summer tents, and Yasin, who faired the worst, said he spent his entire night crouched in the center of his tent while it literally rained (then snowed) around him (inside his tent!). By morning his blanket looked like it had spend the night soaking in the stream.
Everyone woke up at first light (except me who was still for the most part dry and warm, and not in any hurry to get out of my warm sleeping bag and into the snow), and despite the bad weather and their freezing nights, still in happy moods. We packed up camp and hiked back to the car, happy to be warm, and enjoying the views of the snowy mountains and low clouds that made the scenery look like a gateway to heaven. Reese did an epic job off-roading us back to the main road, despite the deep mud and crevices in the road.
All-in-all it was a great excursion as part of a great trip. It serves as a reminder that even though the overall security situation in Afghanistan is quite bad, it is still a beautiful country with pristine landscape where one can find places that are just as peaceful as any other country has to offer. What a great trip!
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…..?!”
Anyone who has lived abroad knows that although it can get lonely at times, new friendships are made, relationships established, and soon we start to develop a “family” in our chosen home. Personally, for a long time I have known that I have a wonderful community here with colleagues and friends who are amazing people and I am sure will stay in my life permanently, regardless of where our individual paths take us. Since I started to work for PARSA, I have always felt that our entire staff are a big part of my family in Afghanistan. However it wasn’t until my birthday yesterday that I realized how special they are all to me, and how much they appreciate me in return.
After a meeting in town I had made plans for a birthday lunch at a nearby restaurant. While I was eating a few colleagues called to wish me happy birthday and ask where I was. This seemed a bit strange at first because no one generally notices if I miss lunch, but it turned out they had planned a special surprise birthday meal – and were waiting for me to celebrate. Completely unexpected! I was late getting back, but when I did there was not only a special lunch, but also a big beautiful cake that Mina had brought, flowers, and even a few beautifully-wrapped presents.
Everyone – the Scouts, our finance and tailoring teams, even the operations and farm staff – came to my office for cake and a mini celebration. It was such a wonderful, unexpected day, and it made me realize that the people in that room are my true family in Afghanistan. It is such a blessing to be a part of an organization where the staff care so much about each other and really look out for one another’s well being and happiness. It was the best birthday present in the world to be reminded so strongly that I have such a beautiful, caring family at PARSA. Thank you all!
Our beautiful kids from Shamsa Village Orphanage came to visit us at PARSA for Nowruz celebrations, and it was so much fun! They arrived looking adorable and all dressed up in their Afghan best. We had plenty of fun activities, from flower planting (Nowruz is a time to celebrate farmers), to jelabi games (an Afghan sweet), to tokhum-jangi (egg-fighting), to horse riding and face painting. We even had a surprise concert and cake for everyone! What a wonderful day, the pictures speak for themselves. Happy Persian New Year to all our PARSA supporters around the world!
Since the devastating avalanches in Panjshir, our Afghan Scouts have been collecting donations for the victims and their families, and waiting for the roads to clear up enough to be able to deliver the donations directly to the affected villages. Last week a team of Afghanistan Scout Volunteers Society traveled deep into Panjshir Valley with a truckload of warm clothes, blankets, cooking supplies and medicine and handed them out to the families. Many victims said that although they had heard that there had been donations to help them via the governor’s office in the provincial capital, this was the first time since the disaster that a group had traveled directly to them with help.
Seeing the Scouts in action, spreading their message of peace and unity, is priceless – watch the video below or by clicking here: http://youtu.be/iNI1_GSi_cQ
March 8th was International Women’s Day, and our PARSA female staff decided to leave the men behind for a day of our own. We all got dressed up and headed downtown for a women-only fashion show and concert with the famous Afghan singer Shahla Zaland. It was a great event and we absolutely loved spending women-only time with each other and all the other incredible Afghan women who were there – plus we had PARSA clothes in the fashion show! Happy Women’s Day to all our PARSA supporters!
Meet our first traveling “goodee” doll, Rumi. Rumi is a pint-sized replica of one of the members of our PARSA farm, Rumi the elegant fat-tailed Afghan sheep. Reese rescued Rumi from becoming a dinner kebab during Eid last year, and brought him to PARSA where he lives the sheep-dream: plenty of food, plenty of friends, and plenty of roaming space.
We are making little stuffed replicas of our PARSA Farm animals to help promote both our PARSA Farm and our tailoring program, both part of our PARSA Women’s Economic programs. Our women will be making unique stuffed replicas of each of our farm animals, and decorating them with individualized Afghan style. Then as our staff members travel around Afghanistan and abroad we will be taking our little stuffed pets with us and sharing our journey’s from their point of view!
Reese’s little Rumi is the first to go – from Kabul where he said goodbye to Reese’s mastiff Sherock, all the way to Washington State, where he is currently on all sorts of adventures in the warm spring Seattle weather. We plan to auction off little Rumi once he is back in Kabul to raise money for the women who made him, so stayed tuned for more of his adventures!
Today we hosted our much-anticipated Chinese New Years event welcoming in the Year of the Goat with the kids from Shamsa Village Orphanage. To put it mildly, it was amazing! We still don’t know who had more fun, the kids themselves or the volunteers and PARSA staff who were helping to run things.
Chinese New Years is a very exciting and fun holiday, and we thought it would be a great first glimpse into Chinese culture for the kids (and for some of us!). We had five themed activities: Chinese lantern crafts, pin the tail on the goat, donuts on a string (because the kids love it), a dragon/goat coloring and fan making activity, and a learn-to-use chopsticks table. They were all great and the kids could not have been more happy with their beautiful lanterns and faces covered in donut sugar.
We played games such as “Toufan Says” as wrestling practice, then after the lunch the adults did our best attempt at entertaining the kids with a Chinese parade dragon dance, after which the kids had a blast running around with the giant home made dragon head. We finished the day by handing out “lai see” traditional envelopes and teaching the kids to say “Kung Hei Fat Choy!!”
This amazing event was made possible by the great response from our local donor community to our ask last week, and we were happy to see many members of our Kabul community, both national and international, out to help run activities, play with the kids, and eat a great PARSA brunch.
A huge thanks to everyone who participated. Enjoy the picture gallery below!!
Goats are mischievous creatures. Everyone knows this. But it isn’t until you get your first pair of adorable baby goats and try to keep them as family pets that you realize just how mischievous they can be. Take our recent series of “goats on the roof” experiences. The first time it happened was on an evening that I was working a little late at the office, and got one of the now-regular worried text messages from Marnie telling me that the goats were cold and hungry in their grazing pen and calling for their “goat-mother”. So I packed up and walked up to the house about 5 minutes later, only to find Marnie looking half frantic, half perplexed. I followed her worried gaze up to the top of the high roof of our Scouting building, where I saw little Fred and Wilma happily grazing away from the leaves off of the top of a tall tree.
Marnie said that she had let them out of their pen and only taken her eyes off them for two minutes, when they had dashed away and figured out how to scramble to the top of an old staircase, jump onto the building’s roof and then scamper over to the delicious tree leaves. The whole thing seemed fairly well planned out from the goats’ side.
We were both rather panicked as they were standing on the very edge of the building and it is a long way down. So I dropped my bags and ran up the stairs and onto the roof, and with a lot less grace than the goats made it over to them and picked Fred up to carry him down (Wilma always follows Fred wherever he goes). Getting them off the roof was another rather challenging maneuver, but we all managed to get back on solid ground without any injuries.
Marnie and I were very relieved to have rescued our “kids” from the rooftop, and put them away for the night. However, now that they have a taste for those delicious rooftop tree leaves, it is Fred and Wilma’s daily goal to get back on the roof the second they are out of our sight, and this has become a “daily quirk” for Norm, Wasse and I, who are the ones who have to keep climbing up on the roof to carry our goats back down.
We love our kids though, so it is worth it!
Happy Chinese New Years from everyone at PARSA – we are all very happy to be ringing in the Year of the Goat!
Click on the link below to read our very own VoAY Producer Mina Sharif’s article that was published in the Huffington Post. It shares her positive and uplifting view on her outlook living and working with PARSA and the Scouts in Kabul:
Mina’s positive outlook on Afghanistan reflects that of all of us at PARSA and we are proud of her for sharing it with the world!
This past weekend Reese, Yasin and I made a snowboarding attempt on Salang Pass, but unfortunately when we got to the top after our 3 hour drive we found that visibility was terrible and although there was a lot more snow there than in Kabul, it was not enough for boarding. So we made the best of it, and to the amusement of the roadside shopkeepers and the steady stream of cars driving by, Reese and I had a full-out snowball fight on the side of the road near the top of the pass. The pictures clearly show that I won.
Okay, maybe I didn’t win. Retreat!
Unfortunately the window was OPEN when that mud splatter happened.
Reese doesn’t go anywhere without his coffee cup.
Mr. Budi Prastowo, Minister Counselor of the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, met today with the executive leaders of the Afghan Scouts at our PARSA main offices in Marastoon, Kabul. In this meeting we discussed the Afghan Scouts both in Afghanistan, Indonesia and globally, and we planned ways for the Indonesian Scouts and the Afghan Scouts to work together in the future. A great day for global Scouting!
This holiday season found those of us who are internationals in Kabul with a heightened security threat and not much to do in the way of entertaining ourselves. We had to create our own holiday spirit.
Alyssa, who had just moved into our residence at the time, decided that above everything else her top priority was that she must get goats, and that they would be a cheerful gift to all of us to lift our spirits for the holidays. She told us that having her own goats was her life’s dream and that here we were with a “goat-less” PARSA Farm, so we needed to find some.
Mina, who likes the idea of the farm but hadn’t quite extended her comfort level far enough to actually touch any of the animals, made the goats her personal character-building challenge, so she was on board. (Check out Mina’s series of selfies of her almost touching a cow). Reese just found the whole thing entertaining and decided he was on board, too.
I protested half-heartedly by dragging out my favorite Dari quote: “If you don’t have enough troubles, buy a goat”. – “We DO have enough troubles!” I insisted, but the protest fell on deaf ears.
A trip to the Shomali plain animal bazaar was organized a few days before Xmas and off our team went on their adventure to purchase goats. Four hours later, Alyssa came home elated with two small kids in her arms, and after much deliberation we all agreed on the names “Wilma and Fred”.
Reese and Alyssa dressed them in animal finery, complete with Bamiyan jewelry and Kuchi decorations and put them in the backyard for the afternoon, with Alyssa completely enchanted by the fact that they had adopted her as their “goat mother”, following her around wherever she went and bleating loudly if she left their sight for longer than 30 seconds.
The reality that we had just added two GOATS to our household finally hit me as I looked out my bedroom window and realized that we were already overrun with 12 dogs and 3 cats, and I began asking her what her plans for housing them were. Animal politics are already very complicated at our house as not all animals get along and require certain animals such as our large mastif, Sherak, to have special runs and places to live.
“Don’t worry!” Alyssa said happily, “they will stay in my room with me!” She made a comfortable place in her bathroom for them for the night and as far as she was concerned all problems were solved. The next morning a dreadful stench wafted from her room when she came out for breakfast and she reported that she never would have guessed that two adorable baby animals could generate so much poop and cause so much destruction in a room.
On the third day of her goat program – after spending hours on two successive mornings shoveling poop out of her bathroom – she decided to move them to one of the cow enclosures on the farm to join the baby cows and Rumi, our sheep. Having tasted the “good life”, Fred and Wilma were not at all interested in the prospect of hanging out with farm animals, and constantly escaped the daily walks with their comrades to roam areas of their own choosing – often causing our staff great headaches in trying to get them back.
Then Wilma caught a goat cold and they both acquired warm sweatshirts with hoodies. The farm staff finally got fed up with having to spend their days chasing goats dressed up in children’s clothing and jewelry, and so ousted them from the farm in frustration. So back up to the house they came! Wasse and Nasir, secretly amused by the whole venture, finally took pity on Alyssa and built her a small “goat bedroom” outside her own room so that she would no longer have to use her room as a barn. She was relieved!
Fred and Wilma are now quite settled in. They keep Alyssa very busy and have become a focal point for my general anxiety. As I walk home from work each day they see me and run too the fence, bleating loudly, and I begin sending worried texts to Alyssa:
Our PARSA staff are a big family. They are the ones who work hard to keep the PARSA vision alive, often going far beyond their official duties to do so. Most of the 45 permanent employees at our Kabul main offices – from operations staff to management – have been with PARSA for years and are highly dedicated to their work with us.
Although we eat lunch together daily, usually at least half the team is missing because they are off visiting our projects or are too busy handling their respective responsibilities to make it to the staff room. We love our Staff Acknowledgement days because they bring us all together and give us a chance to catch up with each others’ departments.
Today we acknowledged six people for Employees of the Month (we can never just pick one!): from Scouts – Amin; from Women’s Economics – Shoghora; from Operations – Aziz Agha (who cooked us our delicious qabuli meal); and the entire Finance Department – Toofan, Abdullah, and Mustafa.
Everyone had a great day and shared a few laughs – just the recharge we needed!
Generally people like myself, who are always busy with work and life but also exhibit certain laziness tendencies at times, have found life hacks that fit well with our busy-but-lazy lifestyle.
There are all sorts of examples of Kabul life hacks, but my favorite lazy-but-highly-effective way of freeing up time is with MREs. “Meal, Ready-to-Eat” are the American solution to feeding troops in the field. They are “home-cooked” in the U.S. and stamped with the approval of the Department of Defense. They all have the catchy, copyrighted slogan “Warfighter Recommended, Warfighter Tested, Warfighter Approved”, and the main course generally sports instructions detailing all the reasons for why it is dangerous to not consume sufficient calories while in the field. (These things aren’t exactly five-star dining and I guess it can be hard to convince certain gourmet-loving soldiers to actually eat the vacuum-sealed meals, but I don’t think they’re that bad.)
All you need to set up a night of working without ever having to leave your desk is an MRE package and some water. First, you open the package and sort through all the surprises – you only known what the main course will be by what is written on the outside of the package; everything else is kept secret until mealtime (I suppose they do this so that soldiers in the field have at least one daily surprise to look forward to that breaks the monotony of missions).
Today I picked “MENU 8: Meatballs in Marinara Sauce”. My package contained:
Today’s menu is merely satisfactory. Sometimes they contain all sources of fancy extras such as (Real!) M&Ms, apple-cinnamon “muffin tops” (so you only have to eat the best part of the muffin), hot coco, or the favorite “HOOAH!” energy bar.
The cheesy-filled pretzels today look the best, and I start with them. My MRE routine is usually the same: pick at a few snacks, then once I’ve been at my desk for a few hours go through the process of cooking the main meal. You simply add an ounce of water to the MRE Heater Bag, and insert the main course into the bag. The water heats the food using some sort of oxidation-reduction reaction with the magnesium in the heater bag (yes, I am a scientist at heart), and within 5 minutes you can remove your main course and voila! A hot dinner without ever having to leave your desk. There is even generally enough heat left over to prepare a decent cup (or, umm, plastic bag) of Nescafe.
And there you have it! A complete dinner and lots of extras all for about 70 cents (on the underground market), no cleanup or getting-up required. Kabul life hacks are great. Now it’s back to work!
Some days during Kabul winters, I look at my bukharee and my heart breaks for the people literally freezing to death in the refugee camps, not far from my home. On my bratty days though, I resent everyone in the world who has central heating. Mostly, I look at my bukharee, the one that keeps me warm in the office all day, and I think “you are amazing”.
There are many shapes and sizes of these indoor heaters and they burn all kinds of things including gas, sawdust and coal. My personal favourite however, is burning wood. There’s something very toasty about the crackling of the wood and when it starts to radiate enough heat for the whole room, you barely remember how cold it was when you stepped in.
The bukharee is very needy and demands attention at least once every 20 minutes or so, when you have to maneuver open the lid, trying to avoid finger burns, and throw in more wood. Kept warm though, it can serve a myriad of purposes. A stove top that can boil water or heat up anything! I can attest to the fact that a can of tomato soup tastes homemade with the help of the bukharee smoke. The bukharee is also a room freshener AND you don’t have to throw your orange peels away if you place them on top. And of course… who needs a paper shredder when there’s a hungry fire in the middle of your office? I clean old useless receipts out of my purse daily.
Though it has melted the tip of my shoes twice, shut down on me every time I left for 30 minutes or more, and cost me a few fingerprints; I love my bukharee enough to call it a charming aspect to my life in Afghanistan.
We are excited to announce a new section of our PARSA Living and Working in Afghanistan Blog called Daily Quirks. This will be a fun, light-hearted collection of short posts that will give our readers a peek into what makes life special for us in Kabul. We want to share with you the little things that makes life so special here – the things that you wouldn’t see in the media.
Our first post is written by our Voice of Afghan Youth Producer, Mina Sharif, who joined PARSA in August 2014 and has brought an amazing vibrancy and sense of enthusiasm to our Kabul offices. She writes about her much-loved bukharee – check it out here!
In October, Yasin and Marnie had a community meeting with the women of our Trade Afghan cooperative in Bamiyan to discuss the merits of our program and what they need for the future. I loved the conversation that they had with us. The women that we spoke with thanked us for helping them find markets for their handicrafts and told us what they learned about business. They said “We love to work on our handcrafts away from home so we can be together. Coming to PARSA gives us a place not to feel so alone in our work. Could you please provide a kindergarten teacher so our little children can learn while we focus on the work? Also we have weaving skills. Can we weave here and can you find a market for our weaving? We will fix our own lunch if we can have a little spot to do so.” After we talked about the meeting, Yasin and I realized that we have created a self-organizing true cooperative by listening to the women of Bamiyan. And they are finding ways to support their families. We have 160 women enrolled in the program, and are soon expanding to 250. We are launching a campaign to meet their requests for 2015. Our goal is $50,000 for the year. This will also allow us to expand into remote villages, bringing women to PARSA twice a year to pick up work, meet with others and sell work which will provide over 25 families headed by women with a yearly income. Oh!! They want a cow, too. To learn how to sell dairy products. If you are interested in supporting this enterprising group of Afghan women please contact Yasin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Many of you have been following our work in Badakhshan and are interested to know what our plans are for PARSA projects in the province. Badakhshan is one of the poorest regions of Afghanistan and has some of the most alarming statistics regarding issues like healthcare, education, women’s rights, a poor economy, and extremely high rates of of orphaned children or children abandoned by their families who are unable to care for them. Yet due to its remote location Badkahshan has largely remained out of the worst of the conflicts of the past thirty years, and its people remain open-minded and open to outside assistance.
For that reason we see Badakhshan as a province where we could be as successful as we have been in Bamiyan, where the situation is similar. Hence the programs that we are planning to establish in Badakhshan will take what we have learned in Bamiyan and follow our successes there.
Our first initiative will be to establish a Trade Afghan Women’s Center. This will serve two purposes: firstly, to establish economic opportunities for women artisans. Women from Faizabad and the participating villages will be transported in and out of our women’s center where they will receive training in regionally appropriate trades and learn basic business skills. We will train them in products that we will then purchase to sell nationally and internationally through our Trade Afghan product line. Secondly the women’s center will serve as an alternative to the national orphanage that will provide housing for the twenty or so girls who are unable to live in the orphanage due to lack of female staff and space.
Another focus for Badakhshan will be to continue to expand and improve our Scout program in the province, both by working with our current troop in the National Orphanage and by establishing a new girls troop, likely with the girls who will live in our women’s center. All our Scouts will be involved in our Voice of Afghan Youth programming. We have decided to focus our VoAY for Badakhshan on highlighting the world famous wildlife and nature of the province – from 7000m mountains to snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep and other rare creatures.
Lastly, we are working to ensure that the residents of Argo who suffered losses in the landslides of earlier this year are not forgotten. When we visited recently we were frustrated by the lack of progress and that the promises of government officials and those who handled the multi-million dollar donations have not been kept. We are following up with the situation and have already registered an official complaint with the government regarding this issue, and are looking to President Ghani who is working to improve Rule of Law to take a personal concern in this issue.
Everyone at PARSA loves Badakhshan province and we are very passionate about establishing PARSA projects there. Stay tuned to learn more about our progress, and help us by donating to our Badakhshan project through our Help Us page.
Yesterday we had another incredible Friday Brunch with the kids from Shamsa Village Orphanage. This time the event was themed “Giving Thanks for Afghanistan” and we had plenty of fun activities. There were Attan instructors who taught the kids the traditional Afghan dance, the kids helped us out by cutting out snowflakes and stars to use for decorating for our PARSA Winter Fest, and Mina asked the kids to draw what they love about Afghanistan – and got plenty of wonderful pictures. She said that “almost all the pictures had a school, books, and an Afghan flag” – the kids might be from difficult backgrounds, but they love their country and love being Afghan.
In the end the kids told jokes, ran wild playing tag and chasing paper airplanes, and had an all-around great time. The Shamsa kids love their monthly getaways to PARSA – its a break from orphanage routine and a chance to just be fun-loving, average kids. And we absolutely love having them. Once again a big thank you to our donors who make days like yesterday possible. Enjoy the pictures!
Back in July PARSA was contacted by a unique Pittsburgh restaurant called Conflict Kitchen whose mandate is to serve food from countries that the U.S. is in conflict with. They serve food from the selected conflict country and set up informative, interactive activities that are designed to foster a mutual understanding between their diners and the residents of the country whose food CK is serving.
When Conflict Kitchen contacted us to see if we would be interested in helping them create an activity for kids, we loved their vision and were happy to participate. The result was a small booklet distributed to CK diners with short stories and anecdotes we recorded with kids from Shamsa Village Orphanage – check out our blog entry about it here.
Recently Conflict Kitchen came under criticism for their decision to highlight Afghanistan as a conflict country. In an opinion piece published in a local newspaper, a writer wrote that they felt CK was “promoting politics rather than dialogue” and that because the U.S. was not in direct conflict with the people of Afghanistan or the Afghan government, she felt that it “would be an insult to the thousands of Afghans and my own countrymen and women who have been lost in that conflict” to participate in CK’s Afghan program.
Conflict Kitchen wrote me and asked for our opinion on the controversy. My response is below:
In 2002 when the attack on the World Trade Center occurred, warfare changed for humanity on the global scale, and in particular for the citizens of Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is a national war against terrorists that are both Afghan and “outsiders” such as Al Qaeda.
As Ms. Murtazashvili stated, when the U.S. joined this war, we joined Afghan leaders and citizens who want a democratic system of governance. We went to war alongside the national Afghan government to fight against fundamentalists and terrorists.
Warfare against terrorism tears countries apart. As we can see in Syria and Iraq this is the unfortunate war of the future, and Afghanistan has been one of its most high-profile battlefields. Thus although the U.S. government is not in conflict with the majority of the Afghan people or with the Afghan government, it is in conflict with terrorists who operate on Afghan soil. Consequently many Americans see Afghanistan as a country that they are in conflict with.
The wars of the future – the war on terrorism at the forefront – are a global issue, and it is imperative that friendly countries begin to build mutual understanding between their citizens. Bringing the citizens of the world together in this way is how global terrorism will fail. Thus whether a U.S. conflict with the people or government of a foreign country is direct or perceived to be so by American citizens, projects that build this mutual understanding are invaluable. This is what makes the Conflict Kitchen vision so important for a future that sees the citizens of the world united in peace.
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.
There is not much to say except *amazing*! For someone who loves horses, ancient traditions, full-contact sports and modern-day warriors, standing front row at a full throttle Afghan buzkashi match is literally a dream come true. The most incredible part is the horses – their power, size, and fierce grace. They know the game just as well as the “chopandoz” who ride them. They are bred across Central Asia – historically in Afghanistan but breeding programs here mostly disappeared during the wars, so most of the beautiful beasts we saw today come from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. They are worth more than many European luxury cars – the best of them selling for $60-100,000 dollars. They are owned by the rich-of-the-rich Afghan elite – high government officials, top businessmen, warlords – who then nominate their horse’s rider (“chopandoz” in Dari) much like Nascar drivers get sponsored by whoever pays for the car they drive. The chopandoz are incredible athletes, and practically become one with the horse they ride.
As to the rules of the game, as a first-time viewer, it didn’t seem apparent to me that there are any. I used to describe buzkashi as some sort of full-contact gruesome version of polo, but now realize it is far from that, and far more confusing. There are, however, objectives that are apparent. Basically the object of the game is the “boz” which is the dead, gutted carcass of a goat or calf, which is placed at one end of the giant, sandy arena. Nearby there is a 2m meter circle dug into the sand and highlighted with chalk, and on the complete opposite side of the arena is a bright green flag. To score a point, a player has to pick up the boz and carry it all the way around the flag pole on the other side of the arena then back to the white circle and drop it inside. Seems straight forward enough.
Well its not. First of all, reaching down to pick up a very heavy dead carcass from the back of a giant horse is a feat in itself. Add to that having 30 other giant horses kicking and stomping on you and your horse, plus other warrior-men also trying to grab the carcass (and you), or just beating you out of the way with their thick leather horse whips, and that alone would be quite a show. But then you have to somehow attach the carcass to yourself (by wrapping your leg around it) and gallop around a huge arena at full speed with all the other giants in pursuit. And dropping the carcass into the chalk “goal” isn’t easy either. As to rules, as I said, anything goes. The riders are constantly hitting each other, the horses kicking whoever they feel like, and if anyone falls off and gets trampled the game doesn’t even stop – they just pull him off to the side and everyone keeps riding. As far as teams go, there are possibly loose “alliances” that exist under the surface, but to an untrained onlooker it’s just a free-for-all. Whenever someone scores they ride their horse over to the announcer who ties a pretty red ribbon on the horse’s halter and presumably givers the chopandoz some amount of prize money. And that’s it. This goes on for several hours, and at some point simply ends.
The whole thing is quite violent, with chopandoz and horses both bloody by the end – and today’s match was apparently just a second day warmup during a ten day tournament. To me, buzkashi is the closest thing to medieval warfare that still exists in the world, minus the swords and chain mail. I imagine that all the pre-gun battles in Afghanistan – those fought against the invading armies of everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan and Timur – looked something like the heart of modern day buzkashi rumble. Swords might be lacking, but the fervor is still there.
Buzkashi might not be for everyone, but it is worth seeing to remember what battles used to be like, and for experiencing Afghan tradition up close. The very best part of all of it is feeling the energy of the crowd, loud and proud, cheering on their chosen chopandoz champion, laughing and having a generally wonderful time. In the West we take big sporting events for granted – from junior-high onwards every one of us has the opportunity to attend something of the sort. But in a country still pulling itself out of thirty years of war and trying to reclaim its traditions and heritage, a buzkashi match is a rare opportunity where even the poorest of the poor can show up and have a great time (although it is unfortunately generally male-only attendance). Whether Afghans decide to keep buzkashi as is, warlike and raw, or turn it into a more “modern” sport that could one day become international is up to them (I personally love it as is!) – but the point is that it is a vehicle to bring people together in a positive way. And how exciting it is!
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.
Somewhere in the course of our Badakhshan trip our team decided that we need to add yaks to our PARSA Farm. So this morning Yasin, Habib and I started our day bright and early and headed to the livestock market to search for baby “khashgaows”. We didn’t find what we were looking for so Reese and our new driver, Noorullah, joined our team and we headed towards the mountains, with Lake Shiva as our goal, in the hope of finding yak herders on route.
The road was beautiful, following a river beneath snow-capped mountains lined by trees with autumn leaves of reds and oranges shining underneath a bright blue sky. Our search for yaks was quickly answered when we saw a group of the giant hairy beasts being herded up the road. We jumped out of the van to admire their greatness and for Yasin to negotiate with the owner. The outcome, although no promises yet, is that we will one day soon have a pair of adorable baby yaks roaming around our PARSA gardens.
We continued on from yak-bargaining and followed the road towards Shiva Lake, a crystalline high-alpine lake that we thought would make a good setting for a Voice of Afghan Youth trip. Along the road we came upon a pair of locals leading a trio of gorgeous, full-sized, hot-blooded Kyrgyz buzkashi horses. Again we all jumped out of the car to admire their beauty and for Yasin to ask for prices. When the rider told him 60,000, we initially thought he was talking in afghanis and were already pulling out our wallets – after all 60,000 afs is what Yasin had paid for the horses who are now living on our PARSA Farm and getting such a beautiful animal for the same price was clearly an unmissable deal. However we soon realized our mistake when the rider clarified that the horse’s value was actually 60,000 dollars and all three of them were owned by a rich official who was not looking forward to giving up his prestigious animals. They were on their way to Faizabad to take part in a 10 day Buzkashi that started this afternoon (check back in with our blog tomorrow to learn more about buzkashi – we’ll be taking our Voice of Afghan Youth kids to the event).
The horses’ high prices didn’t stop us from dreaming about owning one, or from getting in a quick gallop up and down the mountain road on one of the large chestnut stallions. As a fairly experienced rider I can honestly say I have never ridden something with so much powerful grace anywhere in the world. Central Asia – from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan – is still the world’s heart when it comes to beautiful horses.
We continued onwards but soon realized that after three hours of driving Lake Shiva was still at least five hours away, so there was no way we could make it there and back to Faizabad before nightfall. We reluctantly turned around, with Reese and I having to shelve our competitive plans to experience a November swim in a glacial lake. All in all, the day was a success. We learned about tomorrow’s buzkashi which will be a perfect setting for our VOAY outing, we tentatively ordered baby yaks for our PARSA Farm, and Yasin set a new dream for himself – owning a buzkashi horse.
In May of this year our PARSA team traveled to Ab Barak in Argo District of Badakhshan province in response to the landslide disaster that buried parts of three villages and killed hundreds of people. Usually PARSA does not partake in emergency relief, but in this case we received specific requests for psychosocial care, particularly for the children orphaned by the landslide. Our team – Yasin, Norm, Reese, and myself – made the fourteen-hour trip and found the situation in chaos. The problem was not too little help, it was too much.
The “Argo Landslide” media hype – with its exaggerated death toll of 3000 people and hundreds of homes destroyed – had gained so much international attention that every aid organization, plus government officials, individual do-gooders, and of course vote-seeking representatives of the dueling Ghani-Abdullah election standoff, had showed up to offer help (and benefit from the media attention). The provincial government received more aid money in a few weeks than it had in total in the last decade. People were handing out all sorts of short term aid packages – from bags of rice to winter clothes, meals paid for by then-presidential-candidate Abdullah were being cooked in large pots and handed out to dueling villagers among the flash of media cameras, tents were set up for the village children to get some normalcy and not miss out on school, there were even individuals handing out 500afs (10 USD) bank notes to mobbing crowds that then needed to be dispersed by firing warning shots with AK47s.
As far as we found, the psychosocial needs of the most vulnerable of the population were being taken care of at the time, the orphaned children had been absorbed into the homes of the survivors, and the immediate needs of the people were being met. Everyone was throwing around long-term promises of relocating and rebuilding the village, and of taking preventative measures to relocate homes in line of future landslides. We decided we would come back after the hype died down and see what promises had been kept.
Our PARSA team is now back in Badakhshan making long term plans for our programs here. We are checking in with our Scout Troop in the Faizabad government-run orphanage and making adjustments so that the Scouts here will be more effective, plus taking notes on how the orphanage needs to be improved to meet government standards. Dawn is investigating potential women’s products for our Trade Afghan program. We are all looking for stories unique to Badakhshan for Voice of Afghan Youth. And today our Argo team headed back to Ab Barak to check on the village and see if the promises had been kept.
The answer is a big no. The principal change we saw is that some loads of bricks have been delivered, supposedly to the area where the villages are meant to be relocated to, and a few house foundations have been built. Almost all the UNHCR tents are gone, the villagers say no media or trucks full of handouts have shown up in months, and signs of the millions of dollars that the Badakhshan government received for rebuilding are nowhere to be found. Not to mention that the disaster early in the year meant that the farmers were not able to produce their regular stores of crops and firewood, leaving the entire village in short supply for the coming winter.
Whereas on our last visit the villagers seemed tired of outsiders’ intrusions, this time they were extremely welcoming. They told us they had not had anyone check progress for months, and although they were aware of the government’s promises and money allocated to helping them, their district representatives all live in Kabul and have done nothing to demand their rights. They thanked us repeatedly for coming, offered us tea and lunch, and asked us to help them find ways to build the promised houses and bring in firewood before the freezing winter sets in completely.
What we have garnered from today is that there are two things PARSA can do to intervene in Argo. The first is to find the organizations and government officials who made promises to rebuild and help the villagers get through their first post-disaster winter and hold them responsible; the second is to launch a long term economic program for the region that will give the people a new skill and will have the potential to reduce the poverty of the village in the long run. In the coming days we will be contacting other organizations that operate in the region to see how we can best approach these two objectives. The situation in Argo is just as heartbreaking today as it was back in May, and PARSA is renewing our commitment to assisting the people there.
Check out our Argo Relief Blogs from our first trip to Ab Barak here: afghanistan-parsa.org/2014/05/10/argo-relief-day-1-roadtrip/
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.
We are a motley PARSA team. The newest member, Alyssa has been with us for 2 years, and Yasin with PARSA 18 years. What we have in common is that we love traveling through Afghanistan by road…and we have different ways of settling in, and coping with the long hours. Dawn and I, are old friends from elementary school, in Kabul and then again the last 10 years living at PARSA. As we are now in our 50’s, we are testing our status as “elder’s” in a country that reveres the aged-taking the best spots in the car… after Reese and Yasin were called upon by Dawn and I to call our phones so we can find them once too often, Reese, my son, made it clear that our “elder” status was losing its shine with the “younger’s” of the group. We have arrived after our 12 hour drive, welcomed by the family we stay with in Faizabad. A warm stove, dinner waiting, and looking forward to a comfortable night, Afghan style, which means 9 of us in two rooms. Cozy and looking forward to our day tomorrow.
At PARSA we have decided that the last months of the year are for mixing and matching traditions from Afghanistan and abroad for a Make-Your-Own-Holiday celebration. Today we decorated one of the trees in front of our offices with ornaments made by the women in Palwasha’s economic programs, including intricately beaded bananas, camels, strawberries and donkeys. Our newest baby calf on the PARSA farm, plus Kaka Daoud, joined us for pictures, and we had a great afternoon – we have fun at PARSA!!
On Friday, October 31t the kids from Shamsa Village Orphanage travelled to PARSA to join us for brunch and all sorts of fun Halloween activities. Pumpkin carving was a favorite (especially wearing the pumpkins as upside down helmets), plus mask making, pin-the-tail on the donkey, eating doughnuts from a string, sports and more. The Kabul community responded to our request to fund this great event and it was a huge success. Enjoy the photos and our video slideshow below!
Learn about Voice of Afghan Youth!! Check out our NEW Introduction to VOAY video slideshow and learn about what we are all about!
Check out Reese’s first Voice of Afghan Youth video and get a feel for what VOAY is all about!
A Voice of Afghan Youth scouting team has spent the past few days in Bamiyan scouting filming locations and gathering ideas for planning the VOAY TV and radio programming. Marnie, Norm, Reese, Yasin and Mina visited all the favorite spots in the Bamiyan valley including climbing the Buddhas, Band-i-Amir (lake), Red City, and into the surrounding scenic valleys. We are looking forward to following the successes of PARSA’s exciting new program.
This past Sunday, September 21, the official Opening Ceremony of the Afghan Scout Volunteers Society was held at PARSA’s main offices in Marastoon. The ceremony was attended by volunteer Scout leaders from several provinces, as well as two members of parliament who are supporters of the Scouts: Baktash Seyawash and Dr. Ramazan Bashardost.
It was a great afternoon and an important step forward on the road to expanding the Afghan Scouts into a nationwide successful program. PARSA’s Executive Director Marnie Gustavson handed over the society’s official registration with the Ministry of Justice to the Chief of the Volunteer Society, Sayeed Hussain Agha.
It was a great afternoon and the entire PARSA family is proud of this important step taken by our Afghan Scout leadership.
Visit the Afghan Scouts’ Website to learn more about Scouting in Afghanistan.
Mina Sharif has joined the PARSA team! She will be leading PARSA’s newest project: The Voice of Afghan Youth, a TV and radio program which will be created by the Afghan Scout youth and broadcasted across the country in order to showcase the talents, ideas, and ingenuity of the young people of Afghanistan. The program will also help spread PARSA’s name and that of the Afghan Scouting Movement.
Mina is an Afghan-Canadian and has spent the majority of the last few years working in Afghanistan. She formerly worked with Tolo TV as a producer for their Afghan Sesame Street program, and her experiences and creativity will go a long way in ensuring that the Voice of Afghan Youth is a success.
Welcome Mina, we look forward to enjoying the first episodes of VOAY!
Learn more about this new exciting project: afghanistan-parsa.org/voice-of-afghan-youth
The Afghan Scouts are proud to announce that our trip this past month to Istanbul for the Turkey International Scout Camp was a success. The event was hosted by the Scouting and Guiding Federation of Turkey and sanctioned by the World Organization of the Scouting Movement, and hosted Scouts from eight countries including Georgia, Libya, Palestine, Morocco and Turkmenistan.
We sent three members of our Afghan Scout leadership team to the event with the goal of linking the Afghan Scouts with their Turkish counterparts and paving the way to sending a group of Cub Scouts to the event in future years, and also to invite Turkish troops to Afghanistan. Jawad – who attended the event on behalf of the Afghan Scouts, was able to establish a good relationship with Mr. Hassan Subashi, the Turkish Chief of Federation, and reported that “he is very interested in the Afghan Scouts and learning more about Afghanistan and our Scouting system, and is ready to come to Kabul whenever we invite him.”
Our three representatives also participated in the event’s Culture Day, where they sparked interest in fellow participants by showcasing Afghanistan’s beautiful traditional clothing and delicious selection of local dried fruits. The event was overall a great success and the Afghan Scouts are looking forward to participating in more WOSM events in the future.
All of us at PARSA are proud to announce that Nowzad’s founder, Pen Farthing, has been announced as a 2014 CNN Hero. Nowzad is an animal-rescue organization based in Kabul that helps soldiers who have bonded with dogs and cats while on tour reconnect with their adopted pets in their home country – so far Nowzad has helped 700 soldiers. Nowzad also works to promote animal welfare in Afghanistan and runs a “trap, neuter, vaccine, and release” program to help control the city’s massive population of stray animals, and also help combat rabies.
PARSA has a special connection to Nowzad as they first began operations in Kabul at the PARSA compound in Marastoon. Pen, Louise Hastie – who manages the Kabul kennels, and all of Nowzad’s Afghan staff are dear friends of all of us at PARSA. They have helped many of us take care of the four-legged friends that we have adopted here in Afghanistan and help keep us sane.
To learn more about Nowzad visit their website or check out Pen’s latest book about his work, called “Wylie: The Dog That Never Gave Up”. Congratulations Pen for being named a CNN hero – a well-deserved honor indeed.
A few months ago PARSA was contacted by a restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called Conflict Kitchen. The restaurant follows a unique concept: they only serve food from countries that the US is in conflict with, and they do their best to educate their customers about an aspect of each country that they would not normally see in US media.
For Afghanistan, Conflict Kitchen decided that they wanted to share stories from the point of view of Afghan children. And not stories related to war and conflict, just stories that tell about the everyday lives of the children and how they see the world. PARSA was contacted because of the work we do with children – both through the Afghan Scouts and through our orphanage work – and Yasin and Alyssa agreed to conduct interviews with children from Shamsa Village Orphanage.
It was quite a fun experience for everyone involved – the list of questions that Conflict Kitchen suggested we ask were very unconventional and the kids giggled away as we asked them things like “if you were an animal, which animal would you be and why?” or “if you were president, what would you do for Afghanistan?”
Conflict Kitchen recently finished compiling stories from children and published a small booklet of the kids’ stories that is now available at their restaurant. We hope that their customers will appreciate the stories from the Shamsa kids – we certainly enjoyed them!
We would also like to give a special thank you to all the kids at Shamsa Village who offered to be part of the interviews: Qadrat, Qasim, Bashir, Hekmattulah, Aisha, Fatima, Feroza, and Farima. Thanks!
Enjoy these pictures of our women’s agriculture training program at the PARSA gardens in Marastoon. The women – most of whom are from our ambitious group based in Dast-i-Barchi – have been practicing their agricultural skills and have used the land at PARSA to plant tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini and more. They also tend to our orchard of fresh apricot trees. The women get to bring home or sell the majority of their crop, and the Afghan Garden Kitchen purchases some of the fresh produce for use in our popular Friday Brunch in Marastoon. It’s a great program and adds to the wonderful atmosphere at our offices.
This short email was written by Marnie to the initial donors of the PARSA Farm – The Linda Norgrove Foundation with support from Dr. Sophia Wilcox. It dates back to last fall, just before the farm went through its first winter. It is amazing how much of a success the farm has become, and how much life it has given to PARSA. Read on!!
For those of you who have not visited PARSA, we are lucky to have our offices located at Marastoon, a twenty acre spread on the outskirts of Kabul with fruit orchards and tree lined lanes and a considerable amount of land available for agricultural programs. Over the years, as we expand our programs to meet the needs of poor communities we have worked to use the land for the benefit of poor women in the local community.
This year, thanks to a donation from the Linda Norgrove Foundation and support from Dr. Sophia Wilcox, Yasin, our country director has started a small farm animal project with 10 local women. It was a happy day when we bought our first milking cow and our chicks for our poultry program. 10 women from the surrounding area, now tend four cows and the chickens taking home milk and eggs to sell to their neighbors earning badly needed cash for their destitute families. It has brought changes to our compound, and many a Friday (our day off) comes when I hear early in the morning, a lowing cow waiting to be milked. I text message Yasin “The cows are yelling! Who is milking them today?” and he responds “Me! I am on my way!”
What I did not expect from this project was the excitement that our farm animal program would generate in our staff. I have learned that Afghan’s really like farms and love enterprises. They are a culture of merchants, which is why so many economic programs now are focusing on supporting the development of micro-enterprises. Now, in the afternoon, it is typical to see many staff go home with their bottle of fresh milk or eggs that they have purchased from the women. Yasin even found five chickens in a poor neighbor’s house that were not being fed, because they did not have the money. He bought them and brought them to our chicken coop, and put his son, Osman in charge of caring for them- our first “rescue chickens”. They are now benefitting from a soy feed mixture of feed, that we learned about through our soy flour distribution project and they are laying eggs to Osman’s delight. Yasin is preparing to teach children in our programs how to care for small poultry coops.
The nights are getting cold and I fully expect to see the cows sporting colorful winter blankets, typical of Afghan farmer’s who value their animals. Plans for next year include expanding into beekeeping in a four-acre field. Next week, Dr. Sophie is helping us buy two sheep and then we will have a full training program for our local women. You might ask how this program works in an urban city like Kabul of five million residents? You would be amazed at how many back yard farm animals there are in the city as well as herds of goats and sheep roaming the streets eating from garbage heaps. Healthy animals like a cow can augment a family income up to $60 a month, which is a lot money for many families who try to scrape by on $40 a month through wages. Congratulations to Yasin and our program staff who have developed a very relevant program, using our donation investment well. As the program grows it will sustain itself through the income generated from our small farm products as well as support the community women as they earn money from their work on the farm. Big thank you to our donors!
All of us at PARSA, especially Yasin and myself, are very, very excited to announce the arrival of our two long-awaited beautiful young stallions. They came all the way from Tahar in the north of Afghanistan, and there were many difficulties with their trip and arrival to PARSA. Yasin and I had specified that we would like large, healthy horses at an age ready to be ridden, but both of them seemed quite sick when they arrived, and one of them is only 1 year old – 2-3 years too young to ride. We were frustrated at first and worried about the health of them both, not to mention that the younger chestnut was extremely skittish and scared of people. We felt very bad for both of them and have quickly come to love them and are very committed to ensuring that they have a good life here at PARSA.
We have not yet given them names, so if you have any suggestions email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will pick our favorites from our PARSA family’s suggestions. Looking forward to hearing from you!!
This is a trip report written by PARSA’s founder, Mary MacMakin, who now runs another organization, Afzenda. She went to Bamiyan province to do a survey on the production of cashmere and barak fabric. Even though she is 86 years old she is still going stronger than many of us!
See the original report here: Mary McMakin Cashmere and Barak Survery Report
Greetings from Bamiyan! I slept the better part of two days after returning from the survey and am now ready to tell you all the news. Taher has got the electricity going again in the house where I am staying – it’s city power in the morning and power from a private company in the evening so it’s good until 10 pm and by then the computer’s storage should be full and good for another three hours or so. Any of the items you want more details on, please let me know.
Frutan Sahib and I started from his home in Dehane Qalacha, Gandab Valley, Panjab district, on Sunday, 1 June.
We took the most direct route to Waras (do you have your map handy?) and passed through a wide valley with all the trees, bushes and fields dressed in the fresh new greens of Spring. By chance we passed a qila next to which half a dozen women were on a flat smooth place in the process of making a felt rug so we stopped for pictures. It was a women’s enterprise and they were happy to have an audience and be photoed. The women were sitting around chatting while one laid down the tufts of charcoal-black wool on a rectangular form for a medium-sized rug. The woman placing the wool showed how each handful of wool was passed through the stationary comb several times before being placed in even rows on the form on the ground. Their home could have been made for tourists, very beautiful farm country, and nearby a pair of unusual stone spires rising from reddish rocks named The Two Brothers.
The consensus of opinion in Panjab and Bamiyan was that Waras was the center and main producer of barak fabric. While searching in a shop in the Bamiyan bazaar for buttons for some clothing I was making I did a double-take for the shop-keeper had on a handsome vest made unmistakably from barak with a subtle design from different natural fibers! He had paid $100 for it. I visited the two main handicraft stores in the Bamiyan bazaar and was shown lengths of barak fabric and an overcoat made from barak with a red line making a distinctive pattern with the several natural colored fibers used in the weave. It cost $300.
In Waras we first visited the district governor at his office on the hill above the town. He was agreeable to our project and introduced us to the head of the Women’s Directorate who happened to be sitting in his office also. Because of her capacity to be in touch with Waras women we had our first interview session that very afternoon in the apartment where we were staying. The owner of the apt, Dr Nejati, was very helpful. When Frutan Sahib explained that we were after barak and cashmere he knew of a shop in Waras selling the combs used to gather the cashmere from molting goats. We bought ten of them, one kind small and the other looking more like a small version of a garden rake. The main dry goods store in Waras had a display of about ten lengths of barak made locally. They ranged from five to eight meters in length and cost $30 to $40 a meter. There was no bargaining! They were mainly brown in color, with several shades used to make attractive subtle stripes and the only commercial dye was red which was incorporated into some of the fabrics.
The next morning our driver took us to Haft Kudi (Seven Homes), a small village set into a steep hillside where weaving was taking place. My assumptions were shattered! I had assumed all barak was made as I had seen in Panjab ten years earlier by male weavers using an upright loom. Here in Haft Kudi the weavers were all women and the one ground loom was used in turn by all the weavers. The flat space for the loom had to be carved out of the steep hillside – flat spaces were at a premium so everyone shared the one loom. Close to a dozen women were involved in the set-up of the loom and in hand-spinning of the several kilograms of warp and weft yarn needed to produce five to eight meters barak fabric; several women worked together to stretch the warp threads between the two stationary posts. The husbands, brothers and fathers were the “molidars” – the technicians who rolled, agitated and kneaded the fabric with boiling water poured over it to shrink it down to its dense, wind-proof thickness after it was removed from the loom. It seemed to be a fine example of community effort aimed at income generation for everybody. The women reported that they received an average of 1500 Afs ($26) a meter for their product. There was no bargaining when I offered to buy a length.
The next day was a long drive from Waras southwest to Qonoq Pass separating Bamiyan and Daikundi provinces. The road was about the worst I have ever been on with large stones embedded in the dirt in addition to the usual ruts and holes so I was jolted and tossed non-stop; our minibus was stuck twice in the rushing stream and had to be towed out by helpful travelers – the second deep enough so that water came into the car and our bags of clothing got wet. We laid the soaked items out on the grass and they dried fast in the hot sunshine.
The positive side is that about twenty or more road crews were working on this section of the road, all the way to Sharistan’s district headquarters. After the dramatic views from Qonoq Pass, now in Daikundi, we bumped our way down to Jaus in Sharistan district where we had lunch at a hotel perched on the top of the steep ridge with the rest of the shops and motor repair workshops balanced in a double row. On to Chaprasac and then through a landscape of strange stone statues weathered by wind and rain into weird organic-looking shapes. I asked a young man we picked up what the local people said about this natural art display and he said no notice was taken of them at all! Frutan had called ahead to set a time for a visit with the district head of Sharistan. After tea with this hospitable man I checked a couple of shops in the bazaar for lambs wool and cashmere as a friend in Bamiyan needed some for a knitting training course. There was none, altho one shopkeeper said he could bring some the next day if I were going to be there. I told him no, for we were heading off for goat country in southwest Sharistan district.
Thanks to Frutan’s huge extended family and knowledge of the area – his mother was born and raised here – we stayed the night at private homes. He called ahead to announce our arrival and to make arrangements for the interview- meetings. The narrow road from Sharistan bazaar, cut out of the mountainsides high above the stream’s gorge was the best yet, smooth, no stones or ruts. The first stop was Ghosur where many women and men had gathered to see what kind of help we had to offer. This was our third group of women to interview and it went well due to earlier practice. Afterwards Frutan Sahib distributed a Hoopoe child’s book of folk tales by Idries Shah to each woman, to be read by her child. We spent the night at the home of one of Frutan Sahib’s many cousins and the next day drove down to the bottom part of this broad valley ringed by mountains and part of the great Helmand watershed. We were told that there were 5000 goats in the upper part and 8000 owned in the lower part and our news of cashmere was the first they had heard about its value in the marketplace. We handed out most of our combs and said we would be back to collect the cashmere, called “ileech” in this area, in two or three months.
With a day’s detour to the west to open a small private library in another hillside village – we made our way back to Bamiyan with two nights in Gandab. In Bamiyan I got to the bank in time to get the rest of our cash and then to my room where Zahra, with her husband Taher, runs the Parsa Gift Shop and local women bring her their embroideries to sell. Knowing of our survey for barak and cashmere she took me to the Dohati Valley, north of the main road where many poor women eke out a livelihood with a cow or a couple of goats.
interview of 32 women in Lower Warase only one woman said she gathered cashmere and used it with wool for weaving. After the meeting we left the mosque and met outside a young woman who had a large plastic bagful of cashmere: she had not been present at the interviewing.
In the Dohati valley in Bamiyan Center we interviewed 15 women living on the edge of poverty. One woman had a supply of combs from the earlier campaign and had harvested about two kilos of very hairy cashmere. The cleaning of the hairs from the cashmere is time-consuming and not worth the effort unless the women know that they have a market for it. One woman they knew had sold 100 grams of cashmere for $20 to a NGO related to the Directorate of Agriculture in Bamiyan. (The “directorates” in the provincial governments carry out the policies of the ministries in the central government in Kabul).
Herati businessman Abdul Basir Hotak has been working towards increased cashmere harvesting to feed his wool and skin factory in Herat. He has been promoting this product with the help of USAID who sponsored his entry in the annual FiberExpo in New York City in July, 2011, which I attended. The Chinese and Mongols lead the world in cashmere production, with Afghanistan trailing behind: Hotak is determined to beat Mongolia and maybe he will now that he has all the technical help he needs, including a second factory in Badakshan to handle cashmere production by Badakshi maldars (herders). Cashmere yarn has been at $80 a kilogram on the internet market. The disconnect between $20 for 100 grams and $80 for a kilo is confusing – how does that work out in reality?
This is the end of the preliminary report and I know you will have questions. My apartment-mate, Rona, a dressmaker at Zarif Designs, got me a snippet of barak from a vest they made recently. One of the lighter-colored stripes looks like it has a twill design but I don’t know how the weaver could do that, do you? Our silk weaver/producer, Md Saleh, dropped by this afternoon and I showed him the pictures of the barak weavers and he was very interested as he is working on a loom for fibers other than silk. We were both visualizing a line of three or four upright looms in place of the one ground loom, allowing more women to weave at the same time instead of having to wait her turn at the one ground loom. I would hope that would bring the cost per meter down to a more affordable price.
Other survey results: Namads: 61 out of the 109 women surveyed know how to make namads. Crut: 78 out of the 109 women know how to make crut.
The desire for more learning was virtually unanimous. Only three of the 109 women did not tick off all three of the course options: theory courses, practical courses – especially sewing – and literacy courses. The enthusiasm for courses was very high.
I will find a way to get the barak sample to you, Phil. Please send me your postal address and the sample will be sent in the USA to you direct.
Sincerely presented, Mary MacMakin
The second round of Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential elections yesterday were a success. 7 million people showed up to vote – that is approximately 60 percent of the eligible voters in Afghanistan, similar number to what we saw in the first round. Despite the success of the day, it did not go off without glitches. There were skirmishes around the country, and sadly a close relative of our Scout Director, Tamim Hamkar, was killed by Taliban related violence in Lowgar Province. We offer deepest condolences to him and his family.
Living in Afghanistan during this difficult and unpredictable time we are all affected by the violence and the risks of everyday life. However we at PARSA are proud to be part of such an important time in Afghanistan. The truth is that our national staff and Afghans in general are optimistic that this election represents a turning point for them and the politics of their country, and we are sharing in their optimism. Soon the country’s next president will be announced, and the next stage of Afghan history will begin.
Every morning Sakina or one of the other women in our PARSA Farm program heads over to our cow pens early in the morning to milk the three milking cows we currently have. The process takes about an hour and results in a bucket of the freshest, most healthy organic milk in the city. We bottle it in 1.5L bottles and sell it for 100 afs (approximately 2 USD) per bottle – cheaper than the UHT filled milk sold in Kabul’s grocery stores. Our 3 cows are currently producing enough milk for about 8-12 bottles daily – and PARSA staff love the creamy, fresh milk so much that we usually buy it all out before it even reaches the bazaar!
Our PARSA Farm is a “Learn and Earn” program that allows women to learn a new valuable skill while earning a small income that comes from the returns of the farm. Our PARSA Farm currently employs 10 women who will take the agriculture skills they are acquiring back to their homes and subsequently start their own small farms in the coming years.
Based on the success of our small farm and the overwhelming demand for fresh milk and milk products, “watani” (Afghan organic) eggs, and fresh vegetables, we are planning to expand our farm into a business that will help sustain PARSA in the future, allowing us to fund some of our own programs and be less reliant on external funding sources. Large scale funding sources in Afghanistan are becoming less reliable as international attention wanes, and our farm is one example of how we are responding to this challenge and working to plan a sustainable future for PARSA and our programs.
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.
Our new “chucha gaw” (baby cow) has finally been born. Isn’t he adorable!? These pictures are from the morning after he was born, he is already walking strong. Everyone is very happy to welcome him, and Yasin decided to give him the name Elvis – and he is already stealing our hearts, just like his namesake. Welcome to the family, Elvis!
For anyone who has checked out our PARSA Online Catalog, you’ll already know that we make plenty of beautiful and colorful clothing and other items. Nevertheless, we are trying to diversify our products and come up with new styles, both local and foreign, to expand our customer base. Our wonderful tailors are on-board with our ideas and yesterday we had our first Fashion Creation Meeting to brainstorm and dream up new designs. Dawn headed the meeting, entertaining all of us by donning a variety of outrageous outfits to demonstrate how fashion changes for different occasions and for different people – I think all the tailors caught on!
If anyone has fashion suggestions for us, Contact Us or send pictures to email@example.com. The more great designs we come up with, the more our customer base will grow, and the more women-tailors we will be able to support in our Women’s Economic Programs. So help us get some ideas going!
Gul Ahmad has been a driver at PARSA for 10 years. The joy of his life are his pigeons which he keeps at PARSA in the cow barn. Keeping pigeons in Afghanistan is an ancient tradition. Pigeon keepers usually keep pigeon coops on their roofs, and every night at dusk they let their pigeons out for exercise. The game of pigeons is that the pigeons are taught to swoop into another flock and capture pigeons and bring them back to the home coop.
Check out Reese’s video with a Mexican twist!!
This is a picture of my mother, sister Fran and Akbar in a “gaudi” in Ghazni on a day trip in 1967. Akbar was a student to be a pilot and our Dari teacher. In the way of most of our relationships with our Afghan friends, his role in our life spread into all aspects of our lives and he was a favorite for joining our family jaunts. Akbar was a big tease and loved to laugh. The picture I wish I had was a day we traveled to Istalif and Akbar saw a baby camel and his mother. He told my Dad to stop the car because he wanted to show us something….as our teacher about Afghanistan. He leaped down the bank and swaggered over to the baby camel, picked up a rock and threw it at the baby. My mom and the three of us were outraged and yelled in chorus for him to stop it. My Dad thought it was funny. Mother camel slowly walked toward the baby, giving no indication of being upset. Akbar threw another rock, and in a split second the mother camel lunged after him. He sprinted toward the car, scrambling on the sandy bank and mom camel rounded on him and gave him a good nip in the seat of his pants…just before he jumped into the car and slammed the door. Dad REALLY thought that was funny and so did Akbar. I wish I had THAT picture. After he recovered from his mirth, Akbar turned to my sisters and I and said, “See, now you have learned-that is why you never throw stones at baby camels!” “Akbar,” I said,” there was never any danger of us throwing stones at baby camels.” “Good!” he exclaimed, “you are my best students!”
We’ve just sat down with Marnie, PARSA’s executive director, for our post-Badakhshan debrief. Needless to say we were each deeply saddened by the degree of human suffering that we encountered in Argo, and we were eager to begin discussing what our plan of action would be. We have come to realize that the situation we are dealing with in Argo is a very multifaceted, complex issue, and we are aware that we need to be very careful in how we proceed. Badakhshan is an extremely impoverished part of the world and the people of the province have long been in dire need of aid. Now, with the help of the international media, the world has taken notice and is showering the provincial government with more support than they have seen in 30 years. However, this does NOT mean the problems are solved. Far from it.
The funding that is being received needs to be used very carefully and be distributed in the most effective way possible – both locally in Argo and provincially in other needy districts. It is far too often the case that when large amounts of donations flood to an emergency relief cause the victims are provided for on a short term basis, but the assistance inevitably runs out in the long run (i.e. before any lasting changes can be made). The people of Argo will be given food, temporary shelter, maybe new land and a house – however this is not enough to get a family back on their feet. This is why PARSA has decided to gear our commitment to Argo and Badakhshan to the long run.
PARSA’s motto is Building Healthy Afghan Communities. All of our programs are centered on this concept under our Healthy Afghan Community Program. When we enter a new community we identify what would be required to help that community become healthy, successful, and self-sufficient, and we work with its members to define and work towards their goals. We treat each community as unique and work with them on a case-by-case basis so that no two programs are alike; each one is designed to target the specific needs of a specific community.
In Argo we have determined that due to the turmoil that the community finds itself in, we need to take our approach one step farther and tailor our programs on a family-by-family basis, or even on an individual basis. In a disaster situation the economic and psychological states of those affected are far too varied to apply a one-program-fits-all approach.
Thus, with adequate funding, PARSA plans to establish a regional office in Faizabad and launch our Healthy Afghan Community Program in Badakhshan, with Argo being the first community we focus on. We will invite families or individuals to apply to work with us on a long-term basis of 2-5 years. Our donors will be invited to sponsor an individual or a family as they start on a path to a healthier future. Our goals are to ensure that adequate psychosocial support is provided, children are able to attend schools, and there are reliable economic opportunities. This is in addition to filling the basic needs of food and shelter that the government and larger organizations have promised.
The clearest deduction that we made while in Badakhshan was that meaningful support for the victims of the Argo landslide, as well as all the other vulnerable citizens of Badakhshan, will not be a short-term commitment. If we want to help build healthy Afghan communities and individuals, we need to be committed for the long-term.
Today PARSA’s Afghan Scouts welcomed future Scout Masters from across Afghanistan to our Scouting grounds in Marastoon for our 2014 Scout Master Training Opening Ceremony. We are honored to host WOSM representatives Thian Hiong Boon of Malaysia and Chinnaswamy Reddy from India for this weeklong event that will see over 40 volunteers from 8 provinces graduate to the rank of Scout Master. They will then return to their home districts and establish their own Scout Troops, giving countless young Afghans the opportunity to become Afghan Scouts and leaders in their communities.
We will be posting daily updates both on our website and on our Afghan Scouts Facebook Page sharing with you the highlights of this exciting week.
On our last day in Badakhshan we decided to take a trip to surrounding villages to survey the state of affairs in districts besides Argo’s. The previous day we had already seen that the situation for orphaned children in Faizabad city was appalling, and that PARSA will definitely have to intervene once again in the National Orphanage there, if not elsewhere. We also have not forgotten what we saw on the road into Faizabad – a national highway – which had been blocked in many places by landslides and avalanches that were also terribly devastating. They had not caused the same level of localized destruction as what had happened at Argo, but for the people living in those villages each slide would have been equally traumatic. And clearly nothing had been done about it. The villagers had dug small tracks through the rubble so that cars could just barely get through, but the government wasn’t doing much, if anything, in these unpublicized cases.
On the trip to the village of Khosh we passed breathtakingly beautiful scenery – tiny green villages etched out on the side of riverbeds with massively steep, rocky mountains as a backdrop. But the beauty is misleading: life here is hard. Extremely hard. Wikipedia describes the situation quite clearly:
Despite massive mineral reserves, Badakhshan is one of the most destitute areas in the world. Opium poppy growing is the only real source of income in the province and Badakhshan has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, due to the complete lack of health infrastructure, inaccessible locations, and bitter winters of the province.
There is little to no access to education, healthcare, or economic opportunity. One in two children here die before the age of five – the highest child mortality rate in the world. Speaking with locals revealed how desperate they are for some form of assistance – older residents who clearly had serious health problems begged for any form of painkiller, and everyone said they would welcome even the most basic economic program with open arms. In the more remote corners of Badakhshan Province – such as the hard-to-reach Wakhan Corridor where it can take days by donkey to reach the nearest basic medical facility or school – the situation is even more desperate.
Today’s trip made it clear to us that although the situation for the villagers of Ab Baarik is dire, their lives before the landslide, along with the lives of most other residents of Badakhshan Province, were already in a desperate enough state to garner international support. Our PARSA team is now heading back to Kabul to debrief on what we have learned, and to determine the next steps on how we can best assist not only the people of Argo, but in the entire province of Badakhshan.
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!!
We came to Badakhshan with the mandate of helping the children orphaned and displaced by the Argo landslide. After several days of visiting the site and meeting with representatives from other organizations who are on the ground working directly with the relief effort, we headed to the Badakhshan National Orphanage to assess the situation there. PARSA has been involved with Afghanistan’s government-run orphanages for 10 years now, and for the past 5 years have had a presence in Badakhshan’s. We have worked with the government to ensure that official funds from Kabul are reaching the children, and made significant progress in ensuring transparency in the funding chain and improvement in living conditions. We have also set up a Scout Troop there, which we are happy to see is still going strong.
The kids in the orphanage, all boys, were very happy to see us visitors. They loved pictures and seeing themselves on camera, asked us a lot of questions, practiced English, laughed a lot, and showed us around their grounds. They even put on a short skit for us about bullying in school and the Afghan Scouts saving the day. At first glance the orphanage seemed in better condition than many other orphanages in the country – the ground were green with tall trees and mountain views. However scratching the surface it became quite clear that things were not as good as they seemed.
The orphanage is packed, and despite the vast need cannot afford to take in any more children. The bedrooms are small and quite dirty, with the younger children sleeping 17 in a small room on a damp carpet with dirty walls, and the older children sharing bunk-beds which allow up to 28 boys to sleep in a room. They are using the same mattresses and blankets that PARSA provided three years ago, despite government money having been allocated to replacing them yearly. Some of the kids had finger nails that had not been trimmed in months, and the guardians of the orphanage said that although money was supposedly allocated for “mothers” to come to work with and care for the boys, rarely was it that they showed up.
It is clear that a lot still needs to be done for these provincial orphanages. There is still major disconnect between the government in Kabul and what goes on out here. The guardians of the orphanage cannot be blamed – they themselves were orphans too, and do not know any better or how to demand what they are entitled to. We were happy to see our Afghan Scouts program doing well, and the boys were full of life, however there is a lot that needs to be done to improve conditions. Government support needs to reach the people it was designated for.
Unfortunately for our current mission the orphanage is too full and not able to take in any more kids, so PARSA will work to ensure that those from Argo find other arrangements. If needed we have arranged to have them transported to Kabul and placed in Shamsa Village Orphanage, however as far as our initial assessment has gone it looks like with the right support Argo’s orphans will be able to live permanently in the Argo region with relatives or members of their village. Taking kids out of the beauty of Badakhshan to relocate them to a big city orphanage would not be the ideal situation and it is proven that it is in the kids best interest to support neighbors or relatives to care for orphaned children than to bring them elsewhere.
Our Argo work and planning is ongoing, however the most significant issue we learned of today is the upsetting state of the Badakhshan National Orphanage and the fact that it is so full they cannot find a place for children that are in dire need of help. The orphans of Argo are not the only ones in Badakhshan who need our help. PARSA will need to intervene, once again.
Today after a morning coordination meeting with the vice-governor, various government agencies and other “major players” (in which little more was accomplished than circular bickering over how many people were killed) Norm and Reese joined representatives of Concern International on another trip to Ab Baarik. This time their goal was to visit the section of the camp that Concern is responsible for, as well as to build more connections with the villagers and interview those affected. Below is a brief quote from Reese’s experience, as well as several harrowing stories of the survivors and their families.
“Today Norm and I returned to Ab Baarik for a more in depth survey of the situation. We saw a lot that concerned us. First we saw a man from Pakistan handing out money to what quickly turned into a desperate mob. The police had to fire a few warning shots into the air to calm the situation and disperse the crowd. It has been a week and a half since the slide, and the smell has gotten pretty bad. We saw many people praying for their lost ones. Those affected directly, plus many people from surrounding villages are flocking to get any aid or assistance they can get their hands on. It has been bad for all these people for some time, and it is difficult to tell who is worst off. I met a 5-year old boy and his older sister who had severe trauma from watching their father and family members die in front of them. Your heart aches for these children, and you will do anything to make them smile.”
Khawa Gul: She is an older lady with 5 children to take care of ranging from a little baby boy up to a 15-year old girl. She lost her husband, her house, and all her family in the landslide, and Concern has not been able to identify any other family related to her. After observing her during the course of his visit, Norm identified her as being the most obviously disturbed woman he saw. Upon hearing bodies had been found at the site she took off running down the hill. She was frantic and others said she often cried and was unable to sleep.
Agha Mohammad: He was one of the first ones to tell us his story. He had tears in his eyes as he told of the 15 family members he had lost, and pointed out the section of mud where his brother’s house had once been. He was lucky enough that his own house and family had been located in an unaffected part of the village, however his brother and his wife and entire family were killed, along with cousins and members of his wife’s family.
Ahmad: We did not speak directly with this teenage boy as he was in a state of deep mourning when we saw him and then he disappeared afterwards, but villagers explained a little of his story. When we saw him he was crouched over a deep hole he had dug into the mud where his house had once been. He had made it to about 6m deep and had reached the roof beams of his former house. His mother and all his brothers and sisters had been inside.
Jamila: The most “profoundly disturbed youth” that Norm encountered. She had lost her mother, father and most of her family. Her behavior was very inappropriate – smiling and giggling without cause. Her thinking was disorganized, and she had become voluntarily mute. Norm was told that at night she cried out “where is my mother!” and “my mother is under the ground!”. These are the types of cases Dr. Norm is most concerned about and is trying to ensure they receive adequate support.
These stories are obviously just the tip of the iceberg, and many other horrible ones have been discussed in the news. The situation is tough, and serious long term planning is going to be necessary. Our PARSA team is doing everything we can to come up with the best possible plan of action to assist those affected in rebuilding their lives.
Today we woke up bright and early knowing our day would be an intense one. After breakfast and a visit to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MOLSA), where Dr. Norm and Yasin picked up two officials who would accompany us to the site, we took off from Faizabad for the one hour drive to Argo District. The drive was beautiful – green rolling foothills with the occasional farmer or herder on the road. We arrived to the district capital and passing the town bazaar saw our first signs of the landslide in the form of trucks carrying relief supplies. We exited the town, drove through a river, and continued the last seven kilometers to the village of Ab Baarik, where the landslide hit.
When the village came into sight so did the apparent ongoing chaos – 4WDs parked everywhere, tents with all sorts of relief organizations’ and political parties’ logos emblazoned on them, and a swarm of men hanging out around the entrance waiting for the next distribution time. The women and children could be spotted sitting in or outside the tents. We parked and Yasin went to speak with officials and connect to the people we had previously contacted. Our goal in coming was to asses the situation and try to find out reliable information as to the state of the children, particularly those who had lost their families in the landslide.
In the course of our visit we were able to talk to quite a few people who gave us an idea of the situation – both those who had lost family and their homes, and those who had come to help. Our initial impression is that at this point most children are being adequately cared for – many organizations have brought supplies, and certain communities from around Afghanistan have collected supplies and delivered them with signs saying things like “Donated by the People of Ghazni” – a heartwarming gesture indeed. Specific to our mandate to work with the orphanage and ensure the kids are being cared for, we met with Tabish who also works with child psychosocial concerns. They have set up “child friendly spaces” for all children in the area and it appeared that although there are many children who have lost their families, at this point distant relatives or at least neighbors have taken them in. This is of course not a long term solution but it takes the children out of immediate danger.
We were also able to see the intensity of the destruction. Although the numbers of those dead likely not reach 3000 as previously reported, the destruction is still horrific. Looking at the landslide’s path one cannot get an adequate impression of the massive amount of mud that came down from the hill, but walking to the other side of the slide, seeing just how deep that valley had been, and realizing the depth that has been completely filled with mud, is a shock indeed. Villagers estimate that around 70 houses were completely buried and it is obvious that many more were damaged, plus there are even more that have had to be abandoned due to the risk of further slides. Another very problematic factor is that houses are still being destroyed since the mudslide dammed off two small streams that were running down the two forks of the valley that met in Ab Baarik. This mud dam is causing two small lakes to form that are slowly flooding the remaining houses – and the mud is far, far too deep to dig out a path for the deepening water. As it rises more houses will be destroyed and there is also a risk that the excess water will loosen more mud for another slide. It is a situation that will get worse before it gets better. Relocating the entire village may be the only safe option.
Although we still have more meetings to attend and other officials to speak with, not to mention awaiting the situation report from MOLSA and the government decision on where the families will be given land to relocate to, it was immediately clear that what we need to be thinking about are long term solutions. Right now adequate food and supplies are being brought in to keep those affected alive, however the long term doesn’t appear to be in anyone’s agenda at the moment. Tomorrow our PARSA team has been invited to attend a relief coordination meeting, and then we will travel back to Ab Baraak with the team from Concern Worldwide, one of the main organizations working on all aspects of the relief effort. They have asked us to assist with the part of their efforts that focusses on children. More updates tomorrow.
This morning our Badakhshan-bound PARSA team headed out of Kabul at 530 a.m. to take on the 12 hour drive to Faizabad. Yasin, Norm, Reese, Habib and myself were in good spirits and the ride passed without a glitch – even Salang Tunnel didn’t give us any traffic problems. We passed beautiful mountains, farm lands, Kuchi herders and all sort of villages and open land – Afghanistan really is a beautiful country. We stopped where we could to give a helping hand – Habib, Reese and Yassin jumped out of the van to help pull a stuck car out from a ditch, and another time we stopped to give a woman and her brother a ride to a hospital. Kept the trip interesting, and as Yasin said, “It was our Scouting deeds for the day!”
Despite the good mood and beauty of the trip, we didn’t forget our purpose. On the way here we have already seen evidence of the excessive rainfall that fell this spring in the region – there were many places along our route where the road had been washed away in the past few months by landslides or flooding. Luckily for us villagers had repaired the road to passable state, so we were able to arrive in Faizabad safely. Tomorrow we will be up bright and early to meet with officials at the Badakhshan National Orphanage and begin our assessment of the situation. We aren’t sure what to expect, but we know it wont be pleasant.
Please take a look at the following gallery of pictures taken today during our trip. Although we traveled here for a difficult task, and tomorrow is going to be the first of several difficult days, it is important to remember how beautiful of a country Afghanistan really is.
PARSA’s Afghan Scouts paid a visit to the kids in Shamsa Village Orphanage this past Friday to play games, teach some basic medical protocol, and have fun learning to tie Scouting knots. Shamsa will be sending a staff member to PARSA’s Basic Scout Master Training this month so that they can start their own Cub Scout Troop in June with all of the Shamsa children, and with the support of PARSA Scouts staff.
Shamsa Village is also special to us as they will be opening their doors for some of the Badakhshan children that were orphaned/displaced in the Argo landslide. PARSA will fully support Shamsa in this endeavor.
Enjoy the below slideshow of pictures taken by Reese Hume during his visit with the Scouts at Shamsa:
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!
A quick video showing off the vibrance and energy of our Girl Scouts living in Alluhadin Orphanage in Kabul. Here they are laughing and enjoying themselves immensely while playing games during their weekly Scouting meeting.
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.
We had a great turnout for our first Friday Brunch of the new year! Lorraine cooked up a storm, and the Scouts put on a great “Elections Skit” for us. Looking forward to seeing you all back next week!
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.