Nassim the Orphan, Part 1

Nassim the Orphan. Part 1: The Story

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We’re Back, and We’re Happy!


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

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

Sherak, looking hopeful

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

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

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

Marnie and Yassin, planning

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Rescuing Puppies in Bamiyan’s Caves

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

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


Evacuating Kabul

Sad Goodbyes as PARSA Makes the Decision to Evacuate

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

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Afghan Scouts TV Day

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PARSA’s Afghan Scouts had the opportunity last week to head out on a fun-filled field trip. They were invited by Khorshid TV to join in the audience of their Nowruz (Persian New Year) special programing. All our Scouts had a great time, and lots of new memories were made. Another great day for Scouting in Afghanistan! Check out Reese’s video slideshow!

Two of our own Announce their Engagement!

Aryan Najeeb

It’s a happy day at PARSA – two of our own have announced their engagement!! Congratulations to Najeeb and Aryan for giving us a wonderful start to our first day back at the office after Nowruz. Both Najeeb and Aryan, along with Aryan’s father Gul Ahmad Mustafa, are a big part of the PARSA family. We are very happy for them and wish them all the best in the future.

The Women of Dost-e-Barchi

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Getting to Dost-e-Barchi was a challenge. It is located in a far off part of Kabul that I had never visited before and after we left the main paved road it took the better part of an hour navigating through muddy lanes to reach our destination. The four days of torrential rains that we had received in Kabul certainly didn’t help the mud situation very much.

Upon arrival, however, our moods were immediately uplifted by the group of welcoming women whom we had come to visit. They were in the middle of a literacy class yet were happy to take a break to welcome their visitors with tea and chocolates.

We spoke to them for a while about what their goals are and how they would like assistance from PARSA. These women are a unique group because they have formed their own cooperative with minimal involvement from outsiders – PARSA’s role is simply to ask them what they require for their programs and to try and support them with their goals. This could include anything from paying a teacher’s salary for literary classes like the one we had come to visit, providing transportation so the women can travel to Marastoon to take part in PARSA farming courses, or supplying sewing machines so they can reach their goal of making clothing and embroidery and opening their own small business.

We hung around for some time chatting and taking pictures – the women had lots of questions and laughed at my budding Dari. They passed on more requests and suggestions to Saliyah, my colleague with whom I had come. Then it was time to say goodbye – I look forward to visiting them again and seeing their successes. It’s great to see Afghan women taking such initiative!


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Enlightening Visit to a Kabul Girls’ Orphanage

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Even after living in Afghanistan for nearly 2 years there are still eye-openers around every corner. Yesterday I paid my first visit to the Alluaddin Girl’s Orphanage, one of two government funded orphanages in Kabul. The purpose of my visit was to photograph the weekly Girl Scout meeting, but what I came away with was a clearer understanding of the life of a young girl growing up in Afghanistan.

Although I have worked at PARSA for a year and have spent plenty of time around Afghan girls and women, yesterday was a rare opportunity to see a group of girls completely comfortable, in their element, just having fun. I was initially struck by their beauty, openness, cleverness and energy, but then it hit me how normal it all felt. I might as well have been with a group of Girl Scouts back home in Toronto, or anywhere else.

Reading this from anywhere but Afghanistan you would probably say “Of course, children all over the world are the same!”, but here it doesn’t feel like that sometimes, especially with girls. Cultural restrictions don’t allow girls to laugh and play in public, and when they hit puberty many are encouraged to don the burqa and are hidden completely. So seeing a group of young teenage girls laugh and sing and enjoy themselves so immensely was a very rare and rewarding experience.

Leaving the orphanage I felt like I had reconnected with my work at PARSA, and it made me want to redouble my efforts in helping women and girls like the ones at Alluaddin. Because in the back of my head I know that although today they are laughing and carrying on happily, those girls and others like them need as much help as they can to prepare for their futures. The fact is that for a young orphaned woman here in Afghanistan, options for life are bleak at best.  It all reminded me of how important our work here at PARSA is.

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Abdullah – The Youngest Taliban


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Abdullah was brought to the Marastoon Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) by the police in 2009.  He had been caught by Afghan National Police in Kabul with a complete vest of explosives attempting to blow up a target – his handlers had escaped. Abdullah was originally from a village on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His mother had died, which had compelled his father to enroll Abdullah and three of his siblings into a local extremest “madrassa” in the tribal region, where he had been groomed to become a suicide bomber. He was 11 years old.


PARSA staff offered to take Abdullah from the ARCS staff during the day time so he would have something productive to do while he waited for the authorities to make a decision regarding his future.  We made him a “volunteer” and gave him little jobs, an old computer and he spent the day “working” at PARSA.  And we fell in love with him.  He was sweet, helpful and busy.

Abdullah loved hanging out with our international staff and we spoiled him as much as we could.  He only spoke Pashtu so communication was a challenge, but we did our best.  One day he came to Yasin and said “I have a problem! Teach me English because some of these Afghans only speak English and I want to talk to them.” Even though he was indoctrinated at his madrassa with the message that foreigners are “Kaffir” and bad, he had never met a foreigner so for him we were just strange Afghans.

On a day when he was bored by his tasks, I gave him my camera and told him to go out to play and to take pictures of what he saw and loved.  His pictures say more about his life and thoughts than he could ever explain to us.

See Abdullah’s Photo Slideshow:

He was doing well, however every once in awhile an unforeseen trigger would send him back to his previous mentality. One day this occurred when Abdullah brought me some fresh apricots from the orchard. He leaned over my shoulder trying to understand what I was doing on my computer and then noticed my earrings. He became very agitated – “Only an infidel wears earrings Marnie!  Take them out!” he told me.

He was very lonely, even with the attention all of us gave him.  He asked me for a puppy (he already had a little bird for a pet) and I told him couldn’t give him one – so he found his own little black dog and I gave him a collar and lead.

One day, I saw him slowly walking up the hill with his little puppy on the lead.  It was the last I saw of him.  He disappeared.  We think he managed to get to a phone to call his “handlers” and they came and took him away. He touched our hearts and a hole was left when he went.  For me, seeing the chance at life that this beautiful young boy had stolen from him – by adults using him and turning him in to a killing machine in an incomprehensible war – was one of the saddest experiences I have faced in Afghanistan.


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The Faces of PARSA Children


PARSA has had kindergarten’s for 18 years. PARSA Afghan Senior Scouts have been teaching our kindergartens for the last three years in Bamiyan and Ghor. This month the Department of Education acknowledged our programs as excellent and some of our student’s are at grade levels above those at local schools. We are so excited and proud to have our senior scouts working in the communities this way. Reese Hume has compiled picture of children in or schools since he started working in 2007 to share with you.


Our Evening Exercise…Rescuing a baby donkey with broken leg…

1743592_718356631528741_1185449687_nIt is always a difficult call to decide when to get involved…Norm was walking to the bazaar and saw this baby laying in the road.  Much discussion in Dari, with many stories about what happened to it from bystander’s -“it is sick”…”it is lazy.”  “It is sad because it lost it’s mother”….and we decided, Reese, Norm and I to bring it in.  A call to Pen at Nowzad Shelter and he immediately offered to send his driver and bring his vet in to care for it…(what a relief to have that support).  We bundled the baby into the back of the van, and sent it off to Nowzad.  Dr. Hadi called me later and reported that it had a broken leg and was extremely dehydrated from lying in the road for days.  Now, Norm calls that  the “drop in the bucket brigade” of solving problems but it makes a difference living here not to walk by and feign indifference to suffering animal and human.  Thank you Nowzad and Norm and Reese.

A Day Off…Learning to Snowboard in Bamiyan.

snowboarding Najib

Most of PARSA’s very competent young directors and staff have never known Afghanistan not to be at war in their entire lives.Reese Hume takes his colleagues snowboarding whenever he gets a chance. Learning to snowboard s not always fun, but the whole effort creates a sense of possibility that life in Afghanistan could be normal. That this beautiful and harsh country could support a life where fun is had in the snow. It is also a break from a pretty grueling work schedule. Thanks for making the effort for your team Reese! (See Najib, our education manager, -left-in the snow.  This is usually how Afghans feel about playing in  it!)


snowboarding 1snowboarding Reesesnowboarding 2 snowboarding 3


Friday Scout clothing distribution in Bamiyan…

For our young Scouts, the opportunity to give to others, is a remarkable experience. Our donors who give us items to distribute make it possible for us to teach our Scouts how extraordinary community service is and how good it feels. In acountry where there is so much of a struggle just to eat and find clothing, giving to others takes the embarrassment of poverty away and replaces with a sense of identity, and self confidence. Thanks to our donors who make this possible for our scout youth who all come from very poor families.

scout distribution 6 scout distribution 5 scout distribution 4 scout distribution 2 scout distribtuion 1

Mootee on the Wall- Living in Afghanistan.

DSC03787When I decided to move to Afghanistan, about 9 years ago, I knew that one of the hardest things for me in this environment would be to experience the hard life and abuse of animals.  I knew that from living here as a child.  My passion  is to work with children and women, but I have had a long career of working with fragile people and I knew that I had the emotional stamina and the skills to confront children and women’s suffering in Afghanistan and do something about it.  Something about a suffering animal in a society that cannot care for them, particularly dogs and cats is hard for me as an animal lover.

As a result, over the years here I learned how to rescue and care for animals, using whatever resources I could find and doing so has enhanced my living experience here as well as actually supported the emergence of a significant movement toward addressing the stray dog population.  About four years ago, I met Louise Hastie and Pen Farthing (see picture of man with big dog) with Nowzad Charities and had the privilege of supporting their efforts to start a “trap, neuter release” program to address the out of control dog population in Kabul.  Louise actually lived with me and my family for years as the Nowzad shelter started up.  P1040877By the way, this is my hobby and what I do in my time off…and no PARSA resources have ever gone into this (you can tell I have been asked) although plenty of my own have.  It is just how I have come to peace with living in this harsh and beautiful country. It is how I have learned to work here also, and most of our programs are a result of coming face to face with some difficult situation and working to change it.

So, I calculate that I have personally rescued about 150 puppies and dogs, and as a result about 14 still live with me as my dogs in our household compound.  It is a soothing and fun experience to be part of a pack, head of the pack actually.  Mootee (diamond) is my beautiful brindle dog, who has been with us for five years.  She opens all doors and until we changed our doorknobs she would gleefully lead the rest of the pack out of the compound to terrorize our neighbors.  Once we stopped here on that she took to our walls, and spends her days overseeing the three feral dogs that live outside the walls but get fed and talked to daily.  The Ferals have the job of monitoring the stray dog population near our house and keeping the new intruders out. Vaccinated and spayed by Nowzad, they are the example of how a monitored dog population can stop being a public health risk.

And this year, I am so excited because Nowzad has been asked to administer a vaccination program for 200,000 dogs in Kabul, our first step toward making a change in the terrible risk people have of contracting rabies here.  How do Afghan’s feel about my dogs?  Many, many of them are interested in how they can have healthy and friendlyt pets to protect their compounds like I do. I love my dogs. When I lived here as a child, and our family had a dachshund and siamese cat. My animals normalize my life here, and yes, my husband (gentleman in the red chair) is a very patient man. Marnie

pen and sherak 1SAM_0488P1040862SAM_0507

The Scouts on the Mountain Top…

Scout hike 7I was flying home from the US last week when I checked in and received the word about our Friday Scout climb.  The troops, boys and girls from the Marastoon area met with our Scout directors and volunteer Scout Masters for a long hike to learn climbing skills.  When I saw the pictures of our kids, many who we have worked with for years, working with the Scout Masters who have remained dedicated and loyal to Scouts through the years of war- I said to myself “this is the real story”…about what is emerging in Afghanistan.  Our youth love putting on a uniform and participating in a quite formal Afghan style program, in each event that we organize.  They love the intensity that our Scout masters have when they teach merit badge skills and manage the meetings.   And our PARSA team have put in a long hard four years, battling government officials who did not want to recognize a civil society organization as having the right to train Scout troops, and  of course, our constant struggle for funding.  So I saw the pictures of the Scouts on the mountain top behind PARSA and Marastoon, with their Afghan and Scout flags, I was inspired by what our staff has accomplished and moved by what is possible here in Afghanistan. MarnieScout hike 6Scout hike 2Scout hike 5Scout hike 3Scout hike 4Scout hike group

Notes from Bamiyan..Reese

Reese and Bamiyan kidsFrom Reese in Bamiyan with PARSA team: (These are the little things that are important to us living here-Reese is back up working out of our offices in Bamiyan )

“When I bought the slippers, the shopkeeper gave me two right feet. But they have lasted three years because no one else will wear them.”reese slippers

Introduction to “Life in Afghanistan”

If you haven’t been here (and even if you have), living in Afghanistan in 2014 does sound daunting. Even resident Kabulians don’t know what exactly to expect this year. Speculations on the ground vary enormously. The pessimists, both Afghan and expat, say that the Americans leaving will mean that the city (and subsequently the country) will descend into inevitable civil war. The optimists point out how dramatically Afghanistan has evolved in the last decade and believe that the large group of educated, forward-thinking Afghans will lead the country to stability. No one knows.

Playing at work

For us long term residents, either way life in Kabul will continue day by day. At PARSA we are dedicated to our work and to the people we work with. The women, children and families who benefit from our programs are depending on us – all the more if the situation here deteriorates. And so we have decided to start this blog so that you, our readers and supporters, can see Afghanistan and those people through our eyes and share our experiences, triumphs and defeats.

This blog will be written primarily by PARSA’s expat staff, but may have contributions from anyone. Our goal is to share and document our experiences here, and those with whom we work and know. Most importantly, our success in this endeavor depends largely on you, the reader. We need your feedback, ideas and questions. The more we hear from you the more our blog can evolve into something very meaningful, something that will touch lives around the world and connect you to us. Use the contact form below, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our RSS feed.

Our first blog will be up soon, from our Executive Director whom many of you know, Marnie Gustavson. Looking forward to staying in touch.


Alyssa Hoseman

PARSA Communications Manager