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 Healthy Afghan Community Programs
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.
Below is a slideshow compiled by Reese showing the key moments of our Argo Trip:
Full 360* view of the Argo Landslide
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.
Video showing a 360 view of the buried village of Ab Baarik.
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.
The Story of Sherock, by Reese Hume
I found Sherock (his name means “Little Lion”) in Chagcharran, Ghor, when I was working there on a project with the orphanage about five years ago. He is a central Asian Mastif, an ancient breed used for protecting large herds from wolves. Dogs of this breed also end up as “fighting dogs” in Afghanistan and have tough lives. But not Sherock. I brought him back to Kabul and he has been my best buddy ever since.
Here is our story.
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!
Nassim the Orphan. Part 2: Trip to Nassim’s Opium Village
Written by Conor Osteen
First the roads. They were dirt the entire way and I was expecting this, but I had also figured that they would have been purposefully made, smoothed over even to facilitate the transfer of people from Point A to Point B. Silly me. The roads were the natural result of cars following the same path over and over; we drove in the ruts that had been imprinted by heavier trucks and from time to time our car’s tires scraped against the sides of the ruts, bouncing us from side to side. At first I imagined it was like being on a particularly cloying rollercoaster. Then I imagined it was like being inside a piñata. Then I stopped imagining things.
I sat in the back seat, sandwiched between the principal of the orphanage and Reese, Marnie’s son. Somehow, in a way I’ll never be able to fathom, Reese managed to doze through the unrelenting turbulence, waking only briefly when the bumps in the road knocked his head hard against my shoulder. The principal just looked carsick, and stared out the window. In the trunk was Nassim, who had decided to come along to see his family and village for what was almost surely the last time.
The scenery impressed me. Just like in the airplane ride over, I got the sense that the hills around us were an endless expanse. Cresting each ridge showed more of the same, and the further east we went, the steeper the slopes became, until off in the distance they blended into proper rock-faced, dry, barren looking mountains. There was an unsettling sense of deja vu as we drove on. The landscape was so unchanging that time bended. Two hours could have been five, or it could have been 30 minutes. Whenever I looked at my watch, I forgot what time it had been before.
As we got close, the road got narrower until our car could barely squeeze along the track cut out of a steep-inclined slope. In front of us on the road, men and boys drove donkeys out of our way, whipping them roughly with thin canes and staring at us like we were in an armored convoy rather than a beat up SUV. Whenever we slowed down, the cloud of dust that we kicked up in our wake surrounded the car and streamed through the open windows. We wrapped the scarves we wore around our faces, and by the time we got there we looked like we’d showered in dust.
Now the village. I stretched my legs, rarely having been happier to get out of a car, and looked around at the houses. Some of them lay in the valley below, where a thin river snaked its way west, but the majority were mud houses built into the side of the hill–seemingly held there by additional mud that provided a ledge underneath. There was a breeze. It was nice. The weather and vegetation reminded me of home.
Then the people. A man and his son approached us, and his features struck me. He had light brown hair, stubble instead of a beard, a square jaw and very white teeth. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in the United States or (I imagine) Spain or Italy. He greeted Nassim like he hadn’t been gone for a year, but had just stepped out for an afternoon. Yasin and the principal of the orphanage stopped and talked with him, and it was then that I started to feel uneasy. I’m still not sure what was said exactly, Yasin translated bits and pieces for us reluctantly, but I was shocked to find how, even in a situation where I couldn’t understand what was being said, I could still feel that something was–very deeply, very fundamentally–wrong. It was the way the man with the white teeth reacted–there was something superficial about his movements, his smile was strange and the way he looked at all of us was like he was just staring, like there was no seeing or recognition involved. We sat for a while in the shade of the trees. Yasin would say something, receive an answer, shrug, and look out at the river.
Before long we were ushered into a low room that had a carpeted floor, walls, and ceiling. It was on the way there that we saw the dried poppies, and it was the first and only time I’ve felt afraid on this trip. It wasn’t a panicked fear, or a strong one, just a gnawing feeling that sat in my gut and made me go over the worst scenarios again and again. We were isolated, I didn’t think our phone was working, thesealmost certainly knew what they were growing was illegal. And here we were, sitting in a room lousy with flies, stuffy with heat, and listening to these poppy farmers tell lying versions of Nassim’s story. Again, I got the unshakeable sense that something was very profoundly flawed in these people. The way they laughed, the way they acted normally when telling Nassim’s ordeal, the glazed over way they looked at us, and the way Yasin responded in turn showed their disconnect from reality. I was struck with the conviction that these people were acting, that they had somehow lost any kind of emotional direction and simply spoke out of custom, out of habit rather than thought, rather than empathy. The more they talked, the more I thought that inside they had rotted away.
Yasin was the first to express what we all felt, he turned to us saying, “I feel sick here.” And it was true, during the rough ride I’d felt tired but fine, here I felt nauseous and claustrophobic. I realized gradually that the claustrophobia wasn’t just the room, it was socially suffocating. These people, shorn of any kind of deeper reality, made me physically ill.
We sat there for at least an hour. There was a window facing west and I stared through it and tried to imagine myself zooming home across oceans and mountains. I tried to picture the oak tree at my house, the sunroom and screen door, the mailbox, but the tide of nausea made it too hard to concentrate. Finally word came that Nassim’s mother and father wouldn’t see us, we could take Nassim and officially put him in the orphanage.
We got out as fast as we could (which wasn’t that fast, because turning the car around on that narrow track was difficult) and drove west, chasing a bright afternoon sun. I looked out the window at the rolling hills, and smelled the air. I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved to leave somewhere.
And that’s that.
Nassim the Orphan. Part 1: The Story
This is a story that took place in the summer of 2008 during a trip we took for PARSA’s Healthy Afghan Child Program. Our destination was Chagcharron, Ghor province, and accompanying me were my son Reese, my nephew Will, and Connor who is the son of a dear family friend. Yasin and Dawn had arrived a few days prior and, as we soon found out, had recently taken in an “orphan”. This is the story of Nassim the Orphan, his difficult life, and how he came to be a symbol for our Healthy Afghan Child initiative.
From day one Nassim was extremely grateful to us. He had had a hard life and it had clearly been awhile since anyone had taken care of him. He absorbed our attention and took full advantage of the strange doting family that had suddenly shown up in his life. Yasin washed him and applied his medicine; Dawn mothered him; Reese, Will and Conor played with him and did their best to keep him entertained. Nassim was beside himself with joy and activity. It was clear, however, that a difficult life and two years of taking care of himself had not contributed much to his social skills. He drove us crazy with his short attention span and constant thirst for attention, good or bad. He disobeyed and disrespected everyone except Yasin, and was constantly doing his best to suck up all the attention of Reese, Will and Connor, which usually meant annoying them to no end. We were starting to get quite frustrated with him and were looking forward to completing the paperwork required for him to move into the Chagcharron orphanage, but on a visit to his home village to secure the permission needed to complete that paperwork we pieced together his life’s story. The frustrated dislike we had developed for Nassim quickly turned into respect and compassion for how this little boy had survived in life. In my experience survivors of any age are not usually very cute. They are tough because of how difficult life has been for them. But we are about the notion that they deserve a chance at a decent life and believe that under the right care they will grow into great people.
What follows is Part 1 of a journal entry that Connor wrote describing Nassim’s story. Part 2 tells the story of the trip to Nassim’s opium growing village where the story was told.
The Story of Nassim, By Conor Osteen, July 21, 2008
Nassim showed up on PARSA’s doorstep early one morning. When Dawn and Yasin asked what he needed, he said that he had been told by some of the other children of Chaghcharan that we ran an orphanage. His face was bruised and slightly purplish, both of his eyes were swollen and there were dark rings underneath.
Nassim is about 14 inches shorter than I am, but he says that he’s fifteen. We’re still unsure whether this is because he’s malnourished or because, like most Afghans, he has no idea when he was born. Either way, he didn’t look like he could be older than 12.
Nassim was our guest for about five days as we worked to get him into the orphanage, and in that time we managed to learn some of his story, the rest of which we gathered through the unique displeasure of visiting his village a few days after that. First I will give you the story of Nassim, and then I will tell you about the trip to the opium-farming village where Nassim was born.
Nassim’s father and mother divorced about a year and a half ago. Divorce in Afghanistan is a notoriously risky business as it is likely to result in allegations of adultery, which in turn can result in revenge or honor killings. Still, this one seemed to go all right – Nassim’s mother moved back into the house of her first husband and his father quickly remarried. Nassim found himself left out of both arrangements however, and had an uneasy existence shuttled back and forth from his mother and father’s houses, essentially begging for food and shelter and exchanging labor for meals. A year ago, his father beat him badly and told him that if he ever came back, he would kill him.
After that Nassim started the 45-mile journey to Chaghcharan. Because he had no money and no food, his progress was painfully slow. As he made his way there he was exploited for labor, exchanging work for two meals a day. Sitting outside on our porch at night, he told us how he saved up scraps of food so he had something to eat as he jumped from village to village. When we drove to Nassim’s home it took us an hour and a half. It took Nassim six months to get Chaghcharan.
His troubles weren’t over there. He found himself excluded from the orphanage because he lack and ID or and adult to confirm that his parents were unwilling to take care of him. For the following six months, in the harsh winter of Chaghcharan, he worked for two meals a day at a tire repair shop and slept in a garage. The bruises under his eyes explain the abuse, and the scabies infecting his arms and legs showed his living conditions.
This isn’t a story designed to ruin your day or make you feel bad about your own life, in fact this story isn’t particularly unique in terms of the way orphans and neglected children are treated here. That’s the point. Labor exploitation has become systematized by three decades of war, hardship, poverty, and the destruction of familial and clan ties. These children, lacking the defense mechanism of parental protection, do hard manual labor to survive. The odds of receiving any kind of money are practically none; most wealth in Afghanistan is inherited, so starting on the bottom is a particular disadvantage. Being an orphan outside of an orphanage is to live a life without any hope for advancement or improvement. You will not be educated, you will not be paid, no one will help you when you get sick or hurt, you’ll only be fed enough to keep you working.
Of course the orphanage isn’t the only option, you could also do what Nassim’s older brother did. Confronted with the same hopeless situation, he and a group of friends went to Pakistan to study in a “madrassa” – the fanatical religious schools. There’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll be back on Afghan soil soon, working to shape his country into the same frustrated and angry mold that he himself was sculpted into.
There’s a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud. Nassim is in the orphanage now and he says that for the first time in his life, he has hope for something better. He’s getting an education, and he’s being fed unconditionally. Afghanistan isn’t a doomed country, just like Nassim, by taking his life in his own hands, has never been a doomed child. What our responsibility must be is to make sure that orphanages like these can continue to shelter the children stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder.
We have arrived back in Kabul to a fully blooming spring and a country to be proud of.
When we left Kabul, the prognosis wasn’t good. There had been increasing attacks as the elections geared up and foreigners had been repeatedly targeted. After 10 years of refusing to leave through many difficult times, PARSA leadership finally made the decision to evacuate for an undisclosed amount of time. We were hoping for just a week or so, but with the pre-election threats and the general tinderbox mood of the city we had no idea how long we would be out for. But once again, Afghanistan gave us a pleasant surprise.
We were able to come back after just one week, and we found a different Afghanistan waiting for us. The mood is fresh and relaxed, and people are happy. There is a sense of triumphant pride in the air for having passed the elections so successfully. Even the weather has improved. These surprises are one of the things that make Afghanistan such a wonderful place to live. Despite the negative forecast that many had made, the results were fantastic. The voter turnout among Afghans doubled the expected numbers, and this was despite the significant threat from Taliban across the country. The Afghan police and military pulled together and performed magnificently in stopping attacks, and there was a high amount of cooperation from the public who kept their eyes open for any suspicious activity. When the eyes of the world were on Afghanistan, Afghans came through. Leaders from around the world have acknowledged the courage shown by the Afghan people, and the remarkable strength of their united voice.
Although not much has changed significantly in terms of the work we do here at PARSA, we can sense an increase in enthusiasm and a burst of energy into our work. For the Afghan people to have accomplished this momentous achievement is a major step in helping them redefine perceptions about their beautiful country, and that has given us all a tremendous lift.
We have returned with renewed energy and hope for our work to continue the trend of positive changes here. Thank you to all of you for your support during this time. It is clear we are not alone in this.
In Bamiyan PARSA works with people who live high up in the cliffs above the city, where the ancient Buddhas used to stand. 1000s of years ago, before Islam reached the region the extensive cave system was established by Buddhist monks and used as monasteries and living quarters. Now Afghan refugees who have returned impoverished to the Bamiyan province live with their families in the famous caves. Life is hard for these families. They don’t have land, schools or government support, yet somehow scrape out an existence and still manage to share their food with less fortunate members of their communities. PARSA has established an education program for youth in these communities and provides a stipend for senior Scouts from the community to teach kindergarten aged children.
Sad Goodbyes as PARSA Makes the Decision to Evacuate
Events in Kabul have become so intense that for the first time in 10 years Yasin and I made the decision to evacuate our international staff to Dubai through the elections. It is very sad for us because we are so immersed and involved in our Afghan life, and saying goodbye to our beloved country at such a difficult time was the opposite of what we wanted to do. But Yasin pointed out that we are much too highly visible targets and there is no hiding us. So, we are out…our families can relax a bit. Our Afghan staff will take their own precautions for safety during this terribly difficult time and we are praying for a good outcome in elections. Thanks to everyone for your support for all of us!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
Afghan Scout Snow Fun….(click to see pictures)
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.
It 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.
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!)
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.
When 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. By 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
I 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. Marnie
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.
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.
PARSA Communications Manager