Tag Archives: APV

Silas Marner in Afghanistan

Henrietta in Kabul refugee camp
Henrietta in Kabul refugee camp

by Henrietta Cullinan

From London to Kabul to Raveloe, we cling to our ‘way of life’ even though it makes us sick, obsessive and lonely. Governments cling to policies that cause harm to ordinary people. In this article, begun while staying in Kabul, Henrietta Cullinan asks what George Elliott’s Silas Marner has to tell us about our own ‘pile of gold’.

I recently travelled to Kabul, where I teamed up with the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. I took with me, to read under the covers when I couldn’t sleep, Silas Marner by George Elliott. Marner, estranged from his home town, sets up as a weaver in the small village of Raveloe. Through weaving he accumulates a pile of gold coins which he counts obsessively every night, until one day it is stolen. The plot turns when he adopts a small girl, the daughter of a drug addict, who wanders into his house. He mistakes her gold curls for his gold coins, miraculously returned to him. As he determines to look after the child he has to ask others in the community for help and so his life is transformed.

As a group of women in one Kabul refugee camp recounted their experiences of war, their injuries, the indignities they have suffered since being forced to leave their homes, Kathy Kelly asked at one point, ‘Did you know that the US has just committed 617 billion US dollars to military spending?’ The women implied by their gestures, ‘What do we care?’ One woman said, ‘I wouldn’t know the difference between one side of a dollar and the other, whether a dollar is black or white.’ It was at this moment the image of Silas Marner counting out his pile of gold coins, popped into my head. As well as a literal analogy with the ‘pile of gold coins’ devoted to military spending, there are lessons for us on western governments’ migration policies, that cause suffering amongst refugees.

Afghan restaurant in Calais refugee camp
Afghan restaurant in Calais refugee camp

In Europe, chances for Afghan refugees to claim asylum have grown slim, since the EU now considers Afghanistan to be a safe country, even though there were 5,600 casualties of armed conflict in the first half of 2016 alone. The EU plans to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers. At the time of writing Germany and Sweden have already started the deportations. This is at a time when Pakistan and Iran are also pressurising Afghan refugees to return.

Kabul refugee camp
Kabul refugee camp

The refugees face homelessness and destitution when they return to Kabul, where there is not the infrastructure to support them. ‘A man-made humanitarian catastrophe could be the end result of these governmental policies’ writes Ahmed Rashid, a journalist in Lahore. 

Abdul Ghafoor in his office
Abdul Ghafoor in his office

At the Borderfree Centre in Kabul, Kathy Kelly and I spoke to Abdul Gafoor, of Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation. He says everyday twelve deportees arrive from Norway, as a result of its cruel deportation policy. Young boys call him, not knowing where to go. Very often, as soon as they have the opportunity, they will leave again, for Pakistan or Iran. They are given $1200 from the Norwegian government, so they use this money to move on as it is too difficult for them to reintegrate. There is nothing they can do in Kabul; there is no work.

Taken from a Kabul taxi
Taken from a Kabul taxi

Kathy Kelly, Nematullah Ahangosh, who is an Afghan Peace Volunteer, and I visited the ‘Police Camp’ an unofficial camp for IDPs and refugees. We took a long taxi ride, through heavy morning traffic, into an area of new development, where private hospitals with tinted curtain walling and new apartment buildings, some already clad, others just slabs and columns, lined the broad, unsurfaced road. Opposite a petrol station, where gaily painted lorries were filling up, we were let out onto the edge of an open sewer, the size of a small river, its grey white waters swirling with scraps of rubbish. Salim, from the Jesuit Refugee Service, soon fetched us and led us down a narrow path between mud shacks, to a place where we took off our shoes, stepped inside a small room, with red carpet, whitewashed walls, a stove in the middle, a plastic sheet for a window. Soon the elected camp leader, Raz Mohammed, came to tell us about the camp.

Of the 700 families resident in the camp, one third have come because of recent conflicts, such as in Kunduz in the north east of the country and one third are refugees who have been forced to return from Pakistan and Iran. Sometimes educated people, this latter group already sold all their property when they left Afghanistan, so now they are homeless and destitute. Refugees can only earn three dollars a day. Men work as porters in the market. Other jobs include washing cars, and selling boloni, pastries stuffed with potato and spinach. Others, despite the danger, send their children out to work in the street, cleaning shoes and windscreens or selling windscreen wipers, tissues and sweets.

Afghan shop keeper
Afghan shop keeper

Those who work in the market can bring home potatoes or turnips but not enough for regular meals. The rest of the time they have only bread and tea. Some don’t even have tea. For fuel they burn plastic bottles, shoes and old clothes. Every winter twenty-five people die of cold. Water has to be bought at 10 Afs (10p) for 20 litres. On the way in we saw a single pump. Raz tells us that a woman who runs a beauty parlour noticed the women walking to buy water so she donated the pump but the water is not ‘sweet’.

After speaking to Raz Mohammed we went to visit a group of women who were finishing a class. They sat round the edges of the cold classroom. A teenage daughter ran in to drop off a baby to be fed. The women told us that all ethnicities are represented at the camp. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Baluchis living together. They said they felt safe in the camp, but conditions are dangerous to health, especially in cold weather, and there is no access to health care, despite the private hospitals next door.

‘If only we had had an education we wouldn’t be in this situation,’ they said. One woman, feeding her toddler under her black scarf, says she used to have a job in Kunduz. She made boloni and her husband sold them.

Another woman told us how she had fled from Kunduz, almost leaving her child behind. Another, from Laghman province, showed us the injuries to her upper arm she had sustained when she escaped. She said that she had no food for lunch. After the class she would cover her face and go and beg at the bakery.

The leader said he gathered people together and went to the government for help. The government only provides food. He thinks they should provide education, buildings. He said the UN had been to visit the camp, even the US ambassador. But nothing has changed. Eighteen months ago, during Ramadam, the authorities attempted to clear the camp, with armed police, but the refugee inhabitants responded with stones.

Afghan refugee camp
Afghan refugee camp

Without sufficient food, fuel, education or health care, the women concluded, ‘No one cares about us. The government doesn’t care.’

Another group of women I spoke to were seamstresses at the Borderfree Centre. They embroider scarves which are sold in the US and the UK to raise funds for the centre. All having between five and seven children each, their main concern is to feed their families. Despite their husband’s disapproval, they have to go out to work outside the home. Even so the wages are not enough to pay the rent, to buy clothes for their children, food and books for school.

‘The government doesn’t care about us,’ they said, echoing the words of the the women in the refugee camp. They said, ‘If you want to help, you must give money to us poor people’. The seamstresses said they saw all the huge construction projects, and concluded the government was spending money on these projects and not on alleviating the problems of the poor.

Government ministers just use aid to buy each other ‘a cow or a hen’. I asked if they had any means of making their voices heard, which was translated literally I realised. They said their husbands wouldn’t like it if their voices were heard outside the home. Not able to read or write, their only option would be to join a protest. They didn’t dare go on a demonstration, they said, because the government might come after them, or there might be a bomb.

Back in London this week, I did my regular shift in the local winter night shelter. Many of the homeless I encounter at the shelter suffer from poor physical and mental health, and even have mobility problems, which should be reason enough for the authorities to house them without delay. Many were caught between losing their job and waiting for benefits to come through; a gap of six weeks is enough time to lose your flat. Surprisingly some guests are actually working. Holding down a job while sleeping in a shelter must be almost impossible but one man I spoke to was doing just that. His car was parked outside, he wore the uniform of a building servicing company and over breakfast he was giving his mobile phones a last minute boost, checking the location of the first job of the day.

The residents of the refugee camp in Kabul and the guests at the London night shelter are all at the mercy of government policies. Worse than that, our government is unwilling to correct the very policies that made people homeless. As John Berger wrote,
‘The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.’

Collectively, whether in the UK or Afghanistan, we must turn to the poorest, most helpless members of our society and learn, just as Silas Marner did, from experiencing community again.

Silas Marner, once he accepts his loss and turns to another, a helpless child, builds relationships with the other members of his village community. It is when he turns to another helpless being, and becomes helpless himself, that healing begins. Our governments, and therefore we, are addicted to unsustainable policies that keep many displaced and homeless. When we accept our own weakness, our own loss and turn to look after the poorest there is hope.

George Elliott also asks us to reflect on the nature of work. Silas Marner sits at his loom day in day out, even on Sundays, weaving linen for the well to do of the neighbourhood and collecting gold coins to no end other than to be counted and hidden. US taxpayers are paying nearly $700 million a week for the military in Afghanistan, money which the US government spends without attempting to avoid corruption.

Reading this you might ask what do all these things have to do with each other. Visiting Kabul, not somewhere people normally visit for a holiday, gives a heady ride into geo politics, but mainly the opportunity to see the effect of government policymakers on the lives of the poor. You might think it odd I would use Silas Marner as a way to reflect on lessons from Afghanistan. George Elliott chose novel writing as a medium to comment on social conditions in her time and the novel has a lot to tell us now. 

Social change from the grassroots

Kabul Street Kids at the Borderfree Peace Centre enjoying their weekly lessons
Kabul Street Kids at the Borderfree Peace Centre enjoying their weekly lessons

Voices for Creative Non Violence UK are very excited to announce that we’ve received funding to undertake projects in activist skill sharing with 5 refugee groups in the UK, plus 20 Fly Kites Not Drones workshops with young people.

Both projects will link closely with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, either connecting with them directly, or using them as inspiration or an example of activism in a difficult environment.

Working with refugees in the UK, we hope to empower and develop confidence and campaigning skills with some of the most vulnerable currently living in UK society. The project aims to enable refugees to share their stories, while also harnessing activist skills to counter animosity and explain the difficulties involved in gaining leave to remain.

Donate to the Afghan Peace Volunteers ‘Non-Violence Football Team’ – to hire a pitch for weekly practices costs £16.25
The football team comprises of mixed ethnic players who are combining the message of peace and co-operation amongst the different ethnic groups.
The Co-operative Bank
Account: 65583025
Sort: 08 92 99
Reference: Football Team
Captain Amir & Midfield player Hoor looking at the Clapton Ultras website, while brainstorming campaigning ideas for the APV non-violence football team
Captain Amir & Midfield player Hoor looking at the Clapton Ultras website, while brainstorming campaigning ideas for the APV non-violence football team

Being a Woman in Afghanistan

Darulaman Refugee Camp 2014, photo by Mary Dobbing
Darulaman Refugee Camp 2014, photo by Mary Dobbing

by Henrietta Cullinan

On International Women’s Day, we should question whether conditions for women in Afghanistan have improved after thirteen years of the presence of US/ NATO troops in the country. When I travelled to Kabul recently I was able to glimpse first hand how entrenched cultural practices make women’s lives doubly hard, lives that are already made hard by the lack of security.

We hear that even people in power support restrictions on women’s ability to move and act freely in public, that they support to the custom that means that women should only travel when accompanied by a male relative.

This can be interpreted as not being able to take a plane, cross a border, but for some households this means not going out at all.  There are many consequences to not going out, that are dangerous and even life threatening, not just humiliating and unjust. Not going out is not just an issue of inequality but also a barrier to young women’s  livelihoods. I spoke to young Afghan women at the Borderfree Centre talk about the barriers put in their way and to Latifa Ahmadi, founder of Organisation  for the Promotion of Women’s Capabilities.

Latifa Amadi says “The way women in Afghanistan are treated badly puts pressure on us all.’ Her demand is that we campaign for Afghan women’s rights from all over the world”.

Women from the APV co-ordinate the duvet distribution
Women from the APV co-ordinate the duvet distribution

For a short time I was a woman in Kabul. I listened to female members  of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and at the APV’s Borderfree centre talk about the restrictions to their movements. The young women I met took on responsibilities in the  humanitarian and educational projects run from the Borderfree Centre. One young woman organized duvet handouts at Darulaman refugee camp. I saw her confidently arrive in the truck, call out names from a clip board as women from a refugee camp came rushing up to collect their duvets. I witnessed another couple of teenage girls organising the local seamstresses who embroider the Borderfree scarves, and checking their work for accuracy. Two young women teach the street children literacy and maths. Another takes charge of the community budget, organising currency exchange and banking the donations.

Travel restrictions had other effects on the young women beside making life awkward. While I was in Kabul, I had my own experience of not being able to go out. In my case the reason was because I was a foreigner. The hazards of not going out were realised one day, when by chance all the young people left us four guests alone. I felt like a child again. I wasn’t even sure how to call a cab.

I hardly knew where I was. It was only when, to avoid the traffic, the taxi driver took a circular route home I worked out the relationship between the river, the mountains, the main roads and our house. I slowly built a mental map of main roads, the market stalls, a  flyover and offices.

We asked the young women at the Borderfree Centre about restrictions on their movements, on not going out. They said under the Taliban it had been much worse; no girl over the age of nine could leave the house. There are still some families that don’t allow their daughters to go out. An example they gave was of a family who spoilt their daughter, loved her very much bought her all sorts of beautiful clothes and expensive treats, but wouldn’t allow her to go out or use a phone. This made her very unhappy. She told them, ‘I don’t care about the clothes or the food.’

Many women live their entire lives in the home
Many women live their entire lives in the home

The girls experienced varying degrees of restrictions. Some were allowed out but had to be back before their father came home. One said she was often hassled in the street, being asked where she was going, what was she doing, does her father know. A relative might see her and tell her father. Another reports not being able to go out if there are men in the house, if their father’s at home. If a woman is not used to going out into society, one girl said, when she does she will not know how to behave and then might put herself in danger. She might behave inappropriately, and be called a prostitute.

If girls cannot go out their education suffers. The girls said confidently 50% of girls in Kabul could have an education if they want to. These particular girls were attending classes, university or school in the city. Whizzing around in our delegation taxi, we often saw crowds of teenage girls outside schools, collecting their exam results, carrying their files and books, rushing to lectures.

Some girls seem to be getting an education. How good an education was a different matter; our friends complained of out of date text books from Iran, a teacher who kept them waiting in the cold, who talked about himself instead of teaching the class. The girls in our community were university students studying for their first year exams. We were told to help as much as possible with the housework and the cooking. They must study hard; they had to do twice as well as the boys to be taken seriously.

Henrietta talking to young women at the Borderfree Centre
Henrietta talking to young women at the Borderfree Centre

At the Borderfree Centre, the girls explained that fathers don’t want their daughters to ‘show the whites of their eyes’, an Afghan expression. That is intelligent women become bad women by rolling their eyes, being disrespectful towards their fathers and male relatives. So fathers don’t allow their girls to go to school.

Some fathers believe universities are bad for girls, because there are mixed classes and male lecturers.  The fathers don’t allow the girls to come to the Borderfree Centre, for the same reason: girls and boys are mixed together. Some girls come to the centre in secret they said. Others have discussed it with their their father and he’s given permission so they don’t care what the other relatives think. More enlightened fathers are happy to discuss things while others insist the female members of the families are home when he gets home.

Latifa Ahmadi, Director of OPAWC
Latifa Ahmadi, Director of OPAWC

Not being able  to go out makes education hard for older women too. Latifa Ahmadi runs an education project at the OPAWC, offering literacy and numeracy classes. The students progress to learning ‘handicrafts’ such as tailoring, chicken farming and jam making so they can earn a living. We met some of the women upstairs in the freezing classroom, everyone in their coats. They held up their text books. I asked them what made literacy hard, expecting the usual answer, spelling. No spelling wasn’t hard. The thing that was hard, was not being able to leave the house. One said she had to lock her children into the apartment. One woman has to come in a burkha.

OPAWC has even had to move its literacy centre because the local ‘warlord’ has created a problem for them. The ‘warlord’ spread propaganda, saying the literacy classes were teaching Christianity. He told the Mullah to tell the women not to come. When she found

Craftwork by women at the OPAWC centre
Craftwork by women at the OPAWC centre

out, Latifa showed the Mullah the text book. The syllabus is provided by the government, and covers women’s rights, health, domestic violence, and handicraft.

All the young women at the Borderfree Centre and Latifa Ahmadi at OPAWC emphasised how important it is for Afghan women to know their rights. If women never go out they will not be able to attend classes. If women are not educated they will not know their rights. Girls and women need to know their rights to a life free from violence, to equal pay, to be able to work, to access healthcare. They talked about putting out a radio programme to help women not allowed out of the house. Women need to be able to demonstrate for their rights, to healthcare, to work, to freedom from domestic violence, even if they join a protest ‘hiding’ in a burkha.

Artwork by Afghan woman, as part of an OPAWC project
Artwork by Farida Mohammady, as part of an OPAWC project

Street kids, plastic sweet wrappers and refugee camps

by Maya Evans

Street kids in class, photo by Maya Evans
Street kids in class, photo by Maya Evans

We’ve just got back from seeing the street kids who came for their weekly lessons at the Borderfree Non-Violence Peace Centre.

Nassim doing a pre class handstand, photo by Maya Evans
Nassim doing a pre class handstand, photo by Maya Evans

The street kids were all on fine form today, I managed to do a head count and there’s currently 23 on the programme, part of the APV’s economic justice and education equality thrust.

I got to interview Habib (which means love), the boy I wrote about last year. Since then he’s been to Farah province after his uncle told him “lets go”. As usual 12 year old Habib wears a worried face, as if he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, probably not far from that as he’s still the main bread winner of the family, a stress for any grown man let alone a pre adolescent.

Habib, photo by Maya Evans
Habib, photo by Maya Evans

Habib has recently changed occupation, his weighing scales were not bringing in enough money so he’s moved onto shining shoes which earns him around 100 Afghanis per day, which is about £1.15

His weighing scales have been handed down to his 9 year old brother Samim who also works the streets. I asked him about his time in Farah province, one of the more volatile provinces in Afghanistan; known for it’s production of opium, prevalence of addicts and presence of Talibs. Habib shrugs and says “What’s there to like about Farah, there’s just fighting.” He expands a little and says there’s nothing much in Farah, no city, no health facilities, just countryside, and more importantly to Habib, nowhere to study. I ask him what he likes about Kabul, immediately he says

APV Zarghuna teaching street kids, photo by Maya Evans
APV Zarghuna teaching street kids, photo by Maya Evans

“study”, a testimony to the success of the APV’s project as his once a week lesson at the Border Free Centre is the only schooling he receives. I ask after his mother Maryam and his 5 brothers and sisters, again he shrugs and says “fine”, they still live in the same place, a piece of tarp stretched from the side of a building which creates one living space for the 8 members of the family.

Habib talks about his average day, work will normally start around 9 in the morning and end at 8pm. At the moment it’s getting dark at 5 and even teenage members of the APV tend not to be out later than 7 as the streets are so unsafe. He says his day is tiring as there aren’t many places to work so he must walk around a lot which is quite tiring. His biggest worry is security and the danger of being caught up in an attack. He describes how one day there was a bomb in Pul-e-Sulh, a shopping area not far from the peace centre, his mother was gripped with fear so walked the streets for hours, looking for him so as to take him home.

The memory of meeting his mother Maryam last year came back to me, she quietly wept under her burka as she described how her husband died in a sectarian suicide attack on a Shia mosque 4 years ago. I ask him if he still wants to become a doctor, he immediately answers “yes”.

Gul Jumu'ah, photo by Maya Evans
Gul Jumu’ah, photo by Maya Evans

Next I interviewed Gul Jumu’ah (meaning flower Friday), she doesn’t know her age but looks around 10. She partly caught my eye because of her already apparent stunning beauty, and then her shy smile which possesses a quiet inner joy. There are only 5 girls on the project, I’m guessing there are generally less girls working the streets as usually girls and women are expected to stay indoors and run the house. GulJumu’ah is Pashtoon and lives in Chara Kumba refugee camp. She looks timidly at me as I beam the biggest smile I can muster. Today she was dressed in a raggedy pink spangly dress which hangs off her thin frame. She sits crossed legged on the floor looking nervous, I suspect it’s the first time anyone has ever asked to speak with her, least of all a foreigner.

Gul Jumu’ah is painfully shy, she looks down and plays with her dress, her hands are weathered and filthy, she only occasionally looks up to flash a shy smile. I find out that her work involves trawling the streets for plastic to burn for fuel, this morning she collected 2 sacks of plastic. She’s been living in the refugee camp for the last 3 years, before then she lived in Sangin, Helmand province, the area of Afghanistan where British troops were based and the fighting has been most fierce. She says that her family left Helmand 3 years ago after her father was killed. She has 5 brothers but 2 of them have died in the war and 1 of her 5 sisters has also passed away. Her older brother was a cobbler but his equipment was stolen so now he can’t work. Her only memory of Sangin is war, I try to press her for more detail but again she just says “war”. The last year at the border free centre is her first experience of education, she says learning is important to her and when she’s older she’d like to become a teacher and help people. I want to know more about Gul Jamma but can sense a deep sadness which I feel is not my place to disturb. I ask her about toys, her only doll, she has black hair and wears a scarf but doesn’t help with housework.

Since being in Kabul we’ve heard whispered horror stories, one being the trafficking of young Afghans to the Middle East, mainly for slavery and even body parts, the rumours say that street children are particularly vulnerable.

This morning Obama announced that the war with Afghanistan has come to a “responsible end”.

At the end of today’s lesson we brought out a box of Quality Street chocolates which the kids excitedly gobbled down. Some of the wrappers were carelessly discarded on the floor by many of the children. I noticed Gul Jumu’ah discretely bend down and collect the wrappers, no doubt to be added to her fuel stash.

Habib, Noor Rahman & Raul, photo by Maya Evans
Habib, Noor Rahman & Raul, photo by Maya Evans

Noor Rahman, a chubby 12 year old in a filthy yellow hoddie plays with his mobile phone, he’s the kind of kid who could probably fix up anything, you name it, he can get it. He complains to Hakim that the phone company charges him 1 Afghani every time he connects to the internet, Hakim laughs and advises him to disconnect his internet service.

Raul bumps his sack of rice down the stairs, photo by Maya Evans
Raul bumps his sack of rice down the stairs, photo by Maya Evans

The teenage members of the APV then called each of the kids out of the room to collect their monthly subsidy of food, a sack of rice and a large bottle of oil. Raul, who looks around 8 drags his sack out of the centre, he expertly bumps it down the stairs and then hikes it over a shoulder while grabbing his bottle of oil and swiftly making off.

Gul Jumu'ah at the bottom of the stairs
Gul Jumu’ah at the bottom of the stairs

Gul Jumu’ah looks up at me from the bottom of the stairs and flashes me a smile, my heart melts, she then skips out of the centre to meet her brother who has come to help her with the rice and oil.

Although physically we’ve done very little today I feel quite tired. At the moment  a “dramatic sunset”  is forming outside our living room window. From where I’m sat (in the corner of the room), I can only see the razor wire on our neighbour’s wall and a few yellowing clouds. Khamed Jan has just lit a fire, the room is slightly smokey. The familiar call to prayer has just started up, the quality and emotion of the Imam’s voice is almost enough to make me want to convert, I guess that’s the idea.

The sun is forming a dramatic sunset which I’m almost tempted to photograph, Zahidi is talking about her memories from the Russian war, of waiting for hours in the freezing snow to get 2 loaves of bread to feed 6 members of her family. Her life has included many years as a refugee in Pakistan and then Iran. At 30 she is already considered too old to marry and her slight limp (maybe from Polio) also counts against her marrying chances. She says living in the community has massively changed her life, that it’s taught her how to speak with and trust people. Zarghuna says that meeting internationals  and other members of the group makes her love many people like they’re family.

This is my fourth year in Kabul, without a doubt I love these people as family.

The Duvet project at the APV compound

Winter Warmth and Seasonal Greetings from Afghanistan

The Duvet project at the APV compound
The Duvet project at the APV compound

“After 10 years of a large international presence, comprising about 2,000 aid groups, at least $3.5 billion of humanitarian aid and $58 billion of development assistance, how could children be dying of something as predictable — and manageable — as the cold?” 
 New York Times, Feb 2012

by Maya Evans with Ali

For the second year running the Afghan Peace Volunteers’ duvet project is well underway. VCNV UK has been able to contribute £3,000 this year with the support of anti-war groups and many individuals, to date $30,000 has been raised internationally. In the middle of Kabul’s brutally cold winter, the venture provides an income for some of the poorest women in Kabul who are paid to make the duvets, and it brings warmth to disadvantaged families who live in some of the worst conditions in the world.

Completed duvets brought back by seamstress
Completed duvets brought back by seamstress

Over the next three months, around 3,000 duvets will be made by sixty women and distributed to families in Kabul who most need the extra warmth they provide.

The duvet project is run entirely by the young men and women APVs who work entirely voluntarily. In the last few months they have put a lot work into the project, researching which households will benefit most from the duvets, as well as recruiting local seamstresses who are in need of the work to help support their families.

The process starts with referrals from local NGOs of poorer households who are at serious risk in winter from the cold. These can include refugees, the disabled, the visually impaired, the families of drug addicts and street kids. When the APVs visit the homes they have an eligibility criteria to look for which include, for example, the number of people in a family, the number of bread winners, any individuals with special needs and whether the house is rented or owned.

Last week the seamstresses started to arrive at the APV compound to collect the materials to make the duvets. Twenty Pashtu, twenty Tajik and twenty Hazara women will make around 3,000 duvets for providing families with extra warmth for the next three months where temperatures can plummet to around minus 16 degrees celsius in the night. Each woman receives 150 Afghanis for each duvet she makes (equivalent to $2.67), usually taking enough material to make ten duvets at a time.

DuvetsThe yard of the compound has suddenly become a hive of activity with large bails of synthetic wool dotted about what is usually a makeshift football pitch for the APV. The bails are cut open and portions precisely weighed out for the duvets by Zekrullah, a long term APV member who is “approximately 17 years old” but I suspect a few years younger. Each portion of weighed out wool is bundled into a pre-made duvet coverlet, ready to be taken away and stuffed and quilted into a ready to use duvet by the women.

A duvet consists of a cheap coverlet purchased from the Mandaee Bizarre in Kabul town centre. They are probably from China and usually portray cartoon or comic characters such as Batman and Sponge Bob. These materials are the cheapest way of making the duvets. The APV looked into using local materials and making the duvets from scratch but the cost came up more expensive this way, which is another indication of how the long conflict has disrupted local manufacture and now the market is flooded with cheaper mass produced Chinese and Pakistani goods.

Seamstresses sign with a thumb print
Seamstresses sign with a thumb print

The seamstresses usually arrive with some of their children to help, some take the materials away in wheelbarrows and others hire taxis or get friends or relatives to drive away bundles of synthetic wool and coverlets. After a week they return with the completed duvets pilling them high in the yard. The APV account for the made duvets in a ledger, pay the seamstresses for their work and get them to sign it, or for those who are illiterate, a thumb print also suffices.

Shakira, long associated with the APVs and one of the seamstresses, described the importance of the project: “lack of money is one of the main causes of violence towards women in the home, if women can make an income that helps to relieve the problem”.

The main APV co-ordinators of the project are Ali, aged 17 and Holida, who is around 23 years old. Ali describes his role and the importance of the project: “I handle the accounts and part of the overall co-ordination of the project. When I was involved last year I was very affected and moved by the plight of needy families. I remember on one assessment we visited a family on a hillside in Kabul, they were living in extreme dire poverty. I feel very happy to be involved in the project.”

Holida helps with the distribution of materials and ensuring the records of payment are kept in order. She said: “I wanted to do something for the people. Afghans are so desperately in need due to the current poor economy.”

Tomorrow the duvet distribution to poor families will begin.

Read more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/04/world/asia/cold-weather-kills-children-in-afghan-refugee-camps.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/08/afghanistan-cold_n_1262289.html

i have a dream

APVs light candles commemoration of Hashim and Zukoom

Another Day in Kabul

Commemoration of Hashim and Zukoom
commemoration of Hashim and Zukoom

by Beth Tichborne

For the first time in my life I heard a bomb today. It was a long way away, and it turned out to be a ‘controlled explosion’ by the Afghan National Army, so nothing to worry about, although a lot of people must have been scared, and a lot of windows must have been shattered. I was working on the ‘2 Million Voices’ campaign with Hakim, mentor of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, in one of the upstairs rooms in the APV compound. There was a sudden rumble and a gust of wind swept up the side of the house and shook the windows. It was nothing scary from as far away as we were, just an eerie, window-rattling blast of wind out of a calm blue-skied day. I wondered if it was a bomb, but it seemed like a silly thing to say somehow. So we got back to work. Ten minutes later someone came upstairs and said it might have been a suicide bomb near us, so we went on facebook and looked up the news, and discovered it was the just the army, apparently blowing things up on purpose. I can’t see how that’s a good idea in a city full of worried people and heightened political turmoil, but at least no one was killed in Kabul today.

It’s the third explosion since we’ve been here: the first was a suicide attack on a NATO convoy at the airport, that failed to kill anyone but the teenage bomber, the second was some strange kind of accident near the embassies, and then this one. I still can’t imagine what it’s like to be close to a bomb, I’m one of the many people in the world lucky enough not to know. I’ve only seen the video of the aftermath of a bomb near the APV’s previous compound. Just watching the video tears at my heart, to see my friends, pale and laughing shakily in a room full of broken glass. The failed suicide bomb, the accident and the controlled explosion are a reminder that explosions are common here, a constant possibility, barely news when no one has been killed.

Friends of Hashim and Zukoom.
Friends of Hashim and Zukoom.

And barely news even when people are killed. Today the APV held a commemoration for two of the ‘civilians’ killed in the attack outside the Polytechnic. Hashim and Zukoom were at the scene because they work in the streets after school, polishing boots. Three of their classmates are supported by the APV, with some necessities each month, and help with stationery and study materials. This support means that their families can afford to let them go to school, as it frees them up from having to work on the streets full time.

These little classmates came to the compound today and told us about their friends who had died. We held candles, and a dictaphone was passed around for everyone present to record their thoughts and feelings about the 2 million lives lost in Afghanistan. The first man to talk was Basir, a friend from our last trip, one of the people I’d been most looking forward to seeing again in Kabul. He’s a writer and a poet, blogs about women’s rights, a non-violence activist, and always has something interesting (and often provocative) to say. He spoke about his family members that had been lost to war. I didn’t even know before today that he had such a personal reason for his activism.

Other friends’ stories I had heard before, the childhood memory of seeing a brother shot, growing up orphaned… each loss unbearable and momentous, as every death is. There have been more than 2 million of these unbearable, terrible, undeserved deaths. The 2 million voices campaign isn’t about lobbying a politician to fix it, people have lost hope in that approach. It’s about connecting human beings around the world to share their pain at the world as it is, at the losses of innocent life in Afghanistan, and to share their friendship and hope for the future. Bombs shouldn’t be normal, children’s deaths shouldn’t be statistics, entire nations of people shouldn’t be written off as less deserving of life and safety. Through connecting, person to person, we can start to dismantle the systems telling us not to care, not to notice, not to remember. The APV are asking people around the world to sign the petition, and then to contact the group, through Skype or social media to say ‘we remember them too’.

Nassim, street kid who is being sponsored by the APV which means he can attend school rather than work the streets
Nassim, street kid who is being sponsored by the APV which means he can attend school rather than work on the streets
Snowy morning in Kabul

Pandora’s Hope meets Afghan Action

 by Mary Dobbing

Snowy morning inKabul
Snowy morning inKabul

One morning we headed out to listen in on a joint meeting between the seamstresses at Afghan Action and Pandora’s Hope, the APV based seamstresses. The morning was bright and cold with freshly fallen snow covering the roads and buildings.  A deep blue sky spread above the snow covered mountains and the morning mist was dissolving in strong sunshine. From the car we could see men shovelling snow – with attention to the getting it off the roofs. Small avalanches of fluffy new snow fell onto the sidewalks from the flat roofs.

Afghan Action’s seamstresses are forming themselves into a cooperative and are starting to get contracts to make uniforms. The meeting was to explore whether they and Pandora’s Hope could collaborate in any way.

Two stoves were burning away with big brass tea kettles warming on top when we arrived with the Pandora’s Hope seamstresses. Afghan Action’s workshop has about thirty sewing machines and big windows looking out over a sunny courtyard with a garden and trees. There were two large cutting tables at the front and a pressing table with a sleeve press. It was a bright room with giant low energy light bulbs providing a good working light. The wood laminate floor was warm and clean, and steel girders held up the wooden roof.

VCNV with Afghan Action Carpets
VCNV with Afghan Action Carpets

Afghan Action is funded from donations from Britain, and some earnings from carpet weaving. Their seamstresses are salaried while they train for one year. Pandora’s Hope women train for a few weeks and do not receive any money. Their work space is used both as a classroom and sleeping room at other times of the day, so all the sewing machines have to be put away. There was a sense that Afghan Action’s women were better trained and they certainly had better equipment and conditions.  All the women had a sewing machine permanently installed with separate tables in a dedicated work space. Afghan Action’s seamstresses have had help forming a business making garments which it is hoped will become self-sustaining. Pandora’s Hope would like to do this for their seamstresses.

The meeting was being held between the seamstresses from both ‘firms’. After Salaam’s all round, the men from each firm introduced the issues which were not translated. There were about thirty young women aged 16-17 years and four or five older women in the meeting. There were some questions and answers between the two groups including some long statements by the women. And occasionally everyone giggled covering their mouths with an end of a scarf, and then looked more serious again.

Maya EvansPinned to the walls were samples of work and paper patterns. There were samples of women’s tops with gathered pleats and embroidered chest panels in several colours. There was a white lab coat and some black blouses. These samples were arranged to attract customers for contracts for uniforms.

There are specific challenges for Afghan women going into business. The Carpet Weavingwomen are unwilling to work from shop front premises in the bazaar. Being open to the public in a shop, and selling and displaying goods are social no-no’s for Afghan women. The culture dictates that women are confined to the domestic and family spheres.Making Afghan Carpets Families prefer women to work at home and all of the above are hard to do in a conservative society. Therefore their problem is how to market their products, take orders and deliver orders to customers.

Outside men were still shovelling vast amounts of snow off the flat roofs. It’s landing with resonant thumps on the walkways outside punctuating the discussion. We left the women to talk while we met with Samim (Manager of Afghan Action) in his office.

Talking with Afghan Action Manager
Talking with Afghan Action Manager

He explained that Afghan Actions’ seamstresses have had one year of training. The primary challenge is how to employ the women and promote independent and sustainable businesses after their training finishes. The first cohort of trainees has just finished and ten or fifteen of the women want to create a business together. They will need to be licensed to get investment from the Afghan Support Investment Agency (ASIA). They hope to get small contracts for uniforms for schools, hospitals, restaurants and hotels etc. As they graduate from their training Afghan Action wants to help the team to start a business. The greatest fear is that after training for a year the women will disperse back to their homes, with no work and no longer getting the training salary. Their training and the business opportunities may evaporate as though nothing had ever happened.

The global economic downturn has affected Afghanistan and the surrounding countries too, and now the orders have stopped. The options remaining for the newly trained seamstresses are:

  • Local marketing – design the garments themselves and get orders from friends and relatives.
  • Contract market – schools, hospitals, restaurants etc
  • Make up their own designs and bring them to the market and sell to the public – traditional Afghan clothes.

While the women had their discussion we heard about another of Afghan Aid’s projects. Afghan Aid also supports carpet weaving and training. The trainees get schooling in Information Computer Technology (ICT), business skills, accounting, literacy, and a bit of English. There is a health care nurse on site to help with minor ailments.

The carpet weaving project is in its seventh year. The sewing project is in its first year. Afghan Action has registered with the Ministries of Business, Economy, Women, and Education. The trainees get a certificate at the end of their training.

The economics of both carpet weaving and sewing garments is stacked against the new Afghan Action trainees. Apprentice made goods are relatively expensive compared to factory production or imports from China and Pakistan. The income from sales of trainees’ pieces is needed to fund more trainees sustainably. Selling the pieces locally means paying a margin to a middle person which also ramps up the item costs.

Afghan CarpetsThe carpet weaving graduates are finding employment in the Kabul carpet factories which is a significant achievement. But the trainees’ apprentice carpets which are sold to raise funds for further trainee places, are valued at $200 per square metre which is more than the carpets from the factories cost. Then there are problems with the expense of difficult and dangerous overland transport. Exporting the carpets costs $15 per kilo in transport alone, which adds yet more to the costs of marketing the carpets outside the country.

For British outlets selling Afghan Aid’s carpets look at www.afghanaction.org

We were called back in to the meeting in the sewing workshop to hear the upshot of the women’s discussion. There had been a searching conversation. Some of the differences emerging between the two groups were:

Working hours. There was a difference in availability between Afghan Action and Pandora’s Hope women about working hours. Afghan Action will come to work whether or not there is work to do. Pandora’s Hope would find that hard to do. Working 08:00-16:00 would not be acceptable to the families of the Pandora’s Hope women.

Separation from men. Pandora’s Hope need a work room where they can be separate from men. Afghan Action’s workshop arrangements cannot guarantee this.

Wages. In a single day they need to earn 500 Afghanis (or $10) per worker in order to help their families.

International Support. They request an international supporter to provide a foreign market for goods. They think they can get a better market for their goods abroad. The middle men in local Afghan markets take a cut and this reduces earnings.

At the end of this day’s discussions, Samim told to us that the seamstresses had agreed to share marketing. But Pandora’s Hope women need to decide whether to work at home or in workshops. They are clear that at the moment their families would not let them go out to work all day. They are needed at home for childcare and domestic duties. The Afghan Aid seamstresses are able to go to the workshop in the day.  The outcome of discussions on this day was that Pandora’s Hope and Afghan Action would stay separate for the time being aside from marketing.

Later, back at the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s community house we debriefed about the visit. It was explained to us that it is now the norm in Kabul for trainees get paid to do training.  International non-governmental organisations have introduced payment for training and created an expectation that payment will be made. Now people no longer value skills acquisition without the inducement of payment. As well as this, Afghan Aid has the added problem with dependency and how to get the trainees to move on to gainful employment when the training (and the training allowance) comes to an end. Unemployment is estimated to be 36% but there are no reliable statistics and no social security. This is just the male population,  there are no figures for women’s unemployment.

The women want to help with the family budget but they are hardly ever allowed to work. One woman from Pandora’s Hope said that coming to the sewing training was the first time she had ever been able to leave the home. The women said that there was a suspicion in their families that they will be seen by men, and that they were earning money, which can cause tensions at home. Contact with other women is important, however, for their personal and professional development. At the APV community the training space is ‘safe’ for the 5 months of the women’s training and it guarantees to the families that they will not be seen by men there.

The women come to sewing training for one hour at the APV community Mary with seamstresshome. They told us that if they were ever late home after training they stood the risk of being punished. Both of the women’s training groups are of mixed ethnicity. The women can get argumentative among themselves when resolving conflicts and this can divide along ethnic divisions and suspicions. For the women who have only just come out of the house, the prospect of starting a business is unthinkable, a huge leap in aspiration. The children of the women at the sewing training come to the community’s classes and learn in mixed (ethnicity and sex) classes which helps to broaden their horizons.

Mary with Pandora's Hope seamstresses
Mary with Pandora’s Hope seamstresses

The achievement of the women and the support of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Afghan Aid cannot be underestimated. For women to get together and to be able to thrash out their business models and plans without men or managers is unusual. The aim is to let them work it all out with minimal interference unless specific expertise is demanded. The objective is an economically sustainable project which benefits the women not only through learning skills in sewing garments for sale, but also increasing women’s confidence by letting them work out how to run their business themselves.

UK delegation with Pandora's Hope- women's seamstresses co-operative
UK delegation with Pandora’s Hope- women’s seamstresses co-operative