, October 2006

A Supporter's Visit to RAWA's Orphanages

Bettina Mueller, a freelance Austrian journalist

Did you ever come to the idea of meeting your sponsored child?

I mentioned this idea in one of my emails to Sharifa, my girl in Watan orphanage. And then I had no chance for an excuse: 36 children invited me to Rawalpindi! They gave me a heartily welcome, using my native language, German. After a night in the plane I had a hard time remembering all the names and faces of girls and boys playing around in the big common room and garden, but in the following days we became familiar with each other. Watan orphanage has a very comfortable guest room, with a picture of Meena watching over my sleep. We had meals and leisure time together; they showed me their schoolbooks and the beautifully ornamented letters for their sponsors. They enjoy talking to the world so much! Using a dictionary, drawings, hands and feet we had good times explaining our questions and stories to each other. The children were relaxed and self confident, you wouldn't notice the hard times they had experienced before. Sharifa stayed in the background, she wanted to share me with all her friends - also from the other four orphanages, which I visited later on. I suddenly had 150 young friends... During my two-weeks trip they also invited me to a refugee camp near Peshawar, where Sharifa had stayed when she arrived in Pakistan. This refugee camp is famous for its football team that in its "best times" won against the Pakistan national team.

The first impressions

Six people came to meet me at the airport, four children and two RAWA members (I do not know how far I should go talking about the exciting discussions I had with them, both had an international education and an amazing political and media experience. Myself almost twice their age I could learn a lot from talking to them. They gave me a fascinating insight about the situation in Afghanistan and the hard work as well as the chances of RAWA activities).

Sharifa was hidden behind a huge bouquet of flowers, which she had chosen for me. Her brother Shams and two friends had come to see me too. After the nice welcome they had given me I had time to relax in my room, then have dinner. They first provided "Western food" for me, but I soon switched over to tasty Afghan food with a lot of vegetables and a special type of yogurt, which you can only find in Afghan kitchens. I stayed with Afghan cuisine for the rest of my trip, also enjoying freshly made organic salads from the refugee camp's garden.

Life in the orphanage

In the first days they showed me all RAWA institutions in Rawalpindi. In the city there are two orphanages, which are both run with the sponsor system. Then some of the boys were still looking for sponsors. I really hope that they have found their sponsors by now.

Acording to RAWA principles coeducation of boys and girls is the basis for mutual respect between the genders, girls and boys share joys and duties, in school and at home.

Each orphanage - also in Peshawar, where they are sponsored as a whole - is run by a couple in charge. They check bills and repairs in the house, provide medicine and doctor’s visits to sick children, and buy and cook food. The couples live with the children, their children stay with the orphans, too.

The orphanages have dorms for about 6 to 10 children with a bathroom each. Girls and boys have separate rooms, but they share the common room and the garden. Some classes for first and second grade are held directly in the orphange, the other children go to school in two shifts. They are taken there with a truck owned by the orphange (don't ask my "westerner's" comment on Pakistani traffic, please!). In most orphanages they work and eat sitting on the floor, as it is common in Afghanistan. The garden is used for sports after school.


I also went to see the school. It is between Rawalpindi and Islamabad, located in an area where many Afghan families are living. They also send their children to this school which is free of charge and offers a mixture between international and Afghan education.

Following the rules of the Afghan education system they must have seven subjects of Islam. Information technologies are not in this list, and English only from 7th grade. The school provides classes in these fields besides the official schedule. Some Islam lessons are also smartly changed into more science, math and history lessons. For history they have a double system, one using a book approved by the Afghan government and provided by the United Nations and USAID (!), and besides that a second, more independent book. In the end the children can go for the National Exam, but also have the chance to apply at international universities.


RAWA runs three orphanges in Peshawar, a two hours bus trip away and close to the Afghan border. We were checked like on an airport and our faces were filmed, because of the bus blasts some days before. I felt safe. The Rawalpindi orphanages are sponsored with a different system. The whole orphanage is funded in one, not by the single children sponsoring system. Before coming to Rawalpindi Sharifa and Shams stayed in one of them. She was happy to see all their friends again.

I met about 90 chidren who talked to me, danced with me and sang for me (I better don't sing...) and dressed me up in an Afghan wedding dress. In the evening we enjoyed a Pakistani wedding party in the neighbourhood with everybody dancing to their music. Luckily the Pakistanis stopped celebrating at 11 pm and I had a good night sleep before going to the refugee camp.

The refugee camp

Sharifa also showed me the place where she first lived, after she had left Afghanistan. A camp close to Peshawar. It is surrounded by other camps, which are run by fundamentalists. Going there I had to cover my blond hair and direct my blue eyes to the inside of the ambulance car, which took us there. Ambulance cars can pass the police checkpoints easier. We were not checked.

The refugee camp has walls and watchtowers from where all male citzens watch for the safety of the inhabitants and visitors in a volunteer system. There are many visitors, my car was packed with people. Families from the surrounding camps also send their children to RAWA schools which are well known for their high level of education. Children risk their life to get this education.

RAWA has two schools in the camp, one gender-mixed and one for boys, as there are more boys coming to school still. All of them have extra classes in science, history, etc.; and they also learn democratic values. I enjoyed the physics experiments a lot which were prepared with selfmade, yet fully effective and comprehensible instruments.

I stayed with a family in a house built for about 12 people. Nowadays about1 000 to 1 500 people are living in the camp, but it has seen ten times as many. Most people have gone back to Afghanistan to rebuild the country, some have found jobs in the camp, i.e. widows.

Many Afghan widows are very thankful to RAWA to give them the chance to support their families themselves. It brings back their self esteem and helps them overcome their sad experiences. In its busiest days the camp has been something I would call a “cultural center” with lots of students, a fully run hospital and an excellent football team.

Sports are very important for coeducation. The children exercise together and learn to build up teams. Football (also for girls) is very common in the world, not so cricket. The children had a lot of fun teaching an Austrian the game and watching her play for the first time in her life.

One evening I was invited for an excellent dinner to the girls' hostel. After eating we had a nice time dancing and talking. The girls have great plans for their future, many want to study medicine, which is tough, also in Austria.


Afghans enjoy parties a lot. I managed to witness two. One was Nouruz, New Year of 1385, originated in the Zoroastrian religion, but adapted to modern Afghan Islam. The other was my goodbye-party for all my nice young hosts.

For Nouruz we all went to a nearby park, the children had sports and performance competitions and a nice meal including a 16 kg New Years cake (for 90 people!) . Everybody wore new clothes. For the children it is important to be happy on New Years day, then they will be happy for the rest of the year.

My goodbye- party was fun too. We danced Vienna waltz together and some other dance which was not really Viennese but a lot of fun. I have made a video of the whole trip.


What fascinated me the most was that the children were far away from resigning to their fate, not as many people in my (wealthy and safe) country do. They enjoy learning, they are open to people, they are independent, easily working out any conflicts amongst each other without adults interfering. They show respect for others and a very fine sense of humor. I hope to see them again soon. They have invited me to Afghanistan for Women’s Day on 8th March.

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