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.