The team briefs me on Saturday morning. WE was the UN’s longest road mission in 20 years. It took place just weeks ago.
The months-long effort was described by a WE security specialist in Kabul and one of our local security officials. The 14-member team covered more than 2,000 km, from Kandahar to Urozgan, Helmand, and Nimroz. They were also close to Iran’s border. They tell me that WE staff have now made it possible to access two thousand kilometers of villages in Afghanistan, which they say is accessible to them.
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Our car is moving across the Tera Pass as we travel south from Kabul. Mountains stretch in all directions as the car moves. For thousands of years, this land was once a route for travellers all over the globe. It tells a completely different story today.
Children are often seen on the streets of Kabul. A young girl looking for money to support her family. One of the many market stalls along the road is manned by a boy. Two weeks into Ramadan, the tables are piled high with vegetables and fruits. There aren’t many people here.
Everyday life has been affected by the economic crisis in Afghanistan. In 2021, most foreign aid was frozen. This led to the collapse of critical services and the disappearance of incomes. As families fall below the poverty line, 24 million people, more than half of which are children, now require humanitarian aid. Markets abound in Kabul, and other places with goods that few Afghans are able to afford.
The contrast between the place we are heading and the empty stalls is striking. It takes three hours to get to Paktya Regional Hospital in Gardez. There, dozens of families fill up the waiting room.
WE and WHO support more than 2,300 health centers in the country. This hospital is used by more than 75,000 people in Paktya Province. The ease of access to health care for Afghans has been a blessing. The health sector is being squeezed by the increase in demand. WE and WHO provide the necessary supplies, salaries, and training to ensure that services continue to run smoothly.
We arrive at the hospital and I am immediately taken to a treatment unit for severe acute malnutrition. Rana, a six-month-old infant, was brought in for screening.
Sayera Rana, Rana’s mother says that Rana refuses to breastfeed. Rana, the youngest of five children has lost too much weight and shows no appetite over the past weeks. A nurse measured Rana’s arm circumference. She confirmed what Sayera already feared: her child is severely malnourished.
Sayera says her family eats bread, tea, and potatoes for breakfast and lunch. Rice and potatoes are the only staples that they can afford. Her family is one of the 90 percent of Afghan households that don’t have enough food. In Afghanistan, 3.2 million children will be suffering from severe malnutrition this year.
As we move to another ward, Dr. Niamatullah Zaheer (the hospital director) tells me that his staff are overwhelmed. Each day, the hospital’s paediatrician screens over 100 children. The neonatal unit is often stretched. It is sometimes forced to take in more than one infant at a time.
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We enter an area of hospital that is reserved for children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. They are kept under close surveillance until they can return home.
Basmina, a four-year-old girl, is sitting in her corner, straight up, in her bed. I approach Basmina to say hello and she smiles at me.
Basmina isn’t the first time she has been in the ward. Jamillah, her 13-year old sister, is there to accompany Basmina each time. Their mother died, and their father lost work. Basmina is finally able to return home after a few weeks at the hospital. The family is deprived of food and water. Basmina’s health continues to deteriorate before Jamillah can take her back to the hospital.
As I listen carefully to the stories of the sisters – which nurses also witness daily – Dr. Zaheer asks that I convey one message upon my return to Pakistan: Without the support from the international community, what is being done to these children wouldn’t have been possible.
However, the need is increasing.
17 April 2022
My second morning in Afghanistan will bring me a surprise: I’ll be meeting schoolchildren today!
We headed to Halima Khazan School in Gardez. There, approximately 2,000 girls and 460 guys attend classes. As we turn a bend, the school is visible from my side window. It is a beautiful building that bears the name of the first female graduate of a high school in the province. Later, Halima Khazan assumed responsibility for women’s affairs and promoted girls’ education.
She lit the fire at the school and it is being carried on by 40 teachers, almost all women, and Nisreen, the female principal. Nisreen is quick to tell me what the school must do to continue its success.
Many of our teachers are mothers. “We need a creche [nursery] to care for their children or we fear losing them,” she said. The school also needs to have a borehole to ensure that students have safe access to water.
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These are the needs that our education officers note – they are ones we know we can alleviate. WE has been providing clean water and sanitation for school children around the globe for decades. Our education programming also supports teachers, particularly women.
As we walk, we discuss: Nisreen is already leading us to a classroom where Grade 6 girls can be found during art lessons. I ask the girls what their favorite things are to draw, and they respond with enthusiasm. ), and their favorite subjects (writing! ).
Two girls run to the front of our room to demonstrate their skills to us. My breath is caught by their enthusiasm for learning and school. We don’t know yet – we didn’t, then – if these beautiful, thoughtful girls will be able graduate to Grade 7.
It feels like I’m already in another school part. The first graders are learning alphabet and numbers. I am seated in the girls’ classroom. I ask them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
One girl surprises us all. She shouts, “I want to become a policewoman!” and everyone in the class is enthralled. We clap for her enthusiasm. It is that excitement, that hope that stays with me.
These children are too precious to be ignored. Schools are not just a place for learning. Schools are more than a learning space. They provide safe spaces for both girls and boys and offer clean water and food. Shelter from the streets, from harm.
WE has been present in Afghanistan for over 70 years. They have always stayed and delivered. More than ever, now. We continue to support community-based schools as well as salaries for teachers. We continue to provide millions of school supplies and textbooks for children. We are delivering nutrition programs and providing safe, clean water to schoolchildren and health professionals.
All that WE does is possible because of the continued support of the international community. That support is at risk.
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Politicians must not make the children of Afghanistan slaves.
Politics must not make the children of Afghanistan slaves. Both the de facto authorities as well as donor communities need to find ways of working together.
I appeal to the international community for the financial support we need to continue providing life-saving assistance: WE funding nutrition programmes, treatment of malnutrition, education for girls and access to clean water.
We call on the de facto authorities in Afghanistan to fulfill their promises to children and women to respect their rights and ensure that every Afghan child has access to education.
Today’s actions will decide if millions of Afghan children will thrive or suffer.