Sabreea, Kareema and NarziaOruj Learning Center is currently a member organization of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), an umbrella organization for over 80 women’s NGOs throughout Afghanistan (To learn more about AWN’s work, see the blogs of its intern, Erica Issac Sunshine. In addition to the organizational connection between OLC and AWN, I happen to be close friends and roommates with AWN’s intern, Erica; therefore, it is not surprising that our personal interests, priorities, and projects often overlap and/or compliment one another. In fact, several times over the last two months, Erica and I have found ourselves in the same conference room, the same meeting, and pursuing a similar personal project—clearly because we both want and endeavor to improve the welfare, status, and rights of women and children (regardless of whether or not the project is officially initiated by our employers).
Alison’s StudentA few weeks ago, after visiting a widow’s shelter – the only one in Kabul – Erica returned to our home, obviously energized and inspired. She described the shelter: discreetly tucked away behind a high wall, draped in grapevines, and filled with the voices and laughter of women and children. She showed me pictures of the children of these rs and each one was linked up with other large, direct service organizations; this approach, of course, increased women’s ability to access these shelters, but unfortunately, made the women’s preswomen, often stoic, on occasion smiling. She informed me that there are only twelve women in the shelter for two reasons: first, being a widow is a rather stigmatized position in this society; and second, this shelter, unlike previous ones, has a very strict recruitment process. In the past, when shelters or safe houses have been established in this country, it’s gone horribly wrong. A great deal of money was invested into these shelteences in the shelter overly public knowledge as well.
Brothers and fathers routinely, and sometimes forcibly, “retrieved” their sisters and daughters from these shelters; In fact, they frequently would tell male family members who had abused or oppressed them where they were and would leave the shelter willingly. Ultimately, many of these women psychologically and emotionally were not prepared for the experience of living away from their families. Also, in many cases, the children of these widows were suffering from significant developmental or emotional problems that their mothers and the shelter were unequipped to deal with (nor was the shelter).
Alison TeachingFurthermore, being alone, as an Afghan woman—irrespective of a decision to have an extra-marital affair (or the perception that she did), reputation, or status as a widow or a rape victim—dramatically increases vulnerability to harassment, violence, and poverty. That all of the women currently living in this shelter come from a low socio-economic class, are illiterate, and lived in rural areas further exacerbates that vulnerability. Hence there is a great need for “safe houses” for women who find themselves alone or ostracized from their communities, or from society in general.
The shelter Erica visited took a more innovative and effective approach to helping widows. Founded by an anonymous donor, this shelter follows the guidelines, procedures, and conceptual framework of UNHCR (United Nations High Commission of Refugees). As the twelve female widows who live there are basically IDPs (internally displaced persons), UNHCR’s guidelines, support structures, and services are relatively well-suited to address their needs. According to the UNHCR, the safety and security of a shelter (or camp) tends to be directly related to “distance;” that is, the further away the shelter is from the original or familial residences of the women, the safer the women will be. Since these women all resided in the provinces, the donor chose a Kabul location for the shelter. This donor also instituted a very strict and thorough screening process, ensuring that the women “knew what they were getting into” and what was expected of them if they and their children were to reside in the shelter.
I was captivated by Erica’s description and made her promise to take me with her the next time she visited. Could I be of any service? I have taught ESL (English as a Second Language) after all—could I tutor the 12 children of these women? Erica replied, “I was just thinking that!”
Less than two weeks later, I sat down in the office of the director of the shelter and, hesitantly, offered her my services as a teacher. She was ecstatic; she explained that, yes, the twelve children of the women at the shelter do receive lessons during the day, but they desperately needed extra-help and academic support in learning English. She informed me that while one 11-year-old boy spoke very good English, the rest had not yet even learned the English alphabet. We discussed schedules, materials, and the needs of the children themselves. I asked if I could meet the children before I left, to which she replied “Chura ne?” (Why not?/Of course). The children and their mothers gathered in the dining room and I met them, one-by-one, was told their name and age; I also took a photo of each child, as I hoped to learn their names before I arrived to teach my first class. Each of the eight girls looked down, and giggled shyly as they shook my hand; the seven boys were more confident and looked me straight in the eye. Ranging in age from three to sixteen, these children were absolutely precious—obviously curious and enthusiastic.
As I left the building, I watched fifteen pairs of eyes peer through the sheer curtains of the front window. My heart hurt began to hurt a little. I realized that due to the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the provinces, it was unlikely that I would be able personally to visit any of Oruj’s schools. However, the work, goals, interests, and friendship I shared with Erica had opened up another opportunity for me to provide a direct service to a group of Afghans—women and children who had experienced a great deal of pain, suffering, and persecution. As our car pulled away from the compound, I realized that this short visit to the shelter stimulated whatever it was inside me that had led me into teaching and the education sector more than seven years ago…. That feeling—when you can help someone, no strings attached—that’s why I study, that’s why I work. In fact, that’s why I get up in the morning.
Posted By Alison Long (Afghanistan)
Posted Jul 27th, 2006