, June 2005

A Supporter's Visit to RAWA's Orphanages

Jennifer A. Hartley, Ph.D.

RAWA is the oldest women's organization in Afghanistan , working for human rights, freedom, and secular democracy. Everything about RAWA is uniquely inspiring; and their spirit of hope, love, and unflagging courage is especially visible in their orphanages. I recently returned from my second trip to Pakistan , where I did art projects with the children in RAWA 's orphanages as part of a forthcoming book of Afghan children's art and stories. These amazing kids are in my thoughts every single day, and I'm happy to be able to share some of their photos and drawings and to tell you a bit about what life is like for them. The most striking thing about all of the orphanages run by RAWA is that the children are truly loved and cherished. The adults in charge know the story of each child, and they seem to feel each child's pain in their own hearts. They help the children cope with their unspeakable losses and rejoice in accomplishments as the children begin new lives of hope and promise. Spending time at a RAWA orphanage feels much like visiting a large family. As soon as I walk in the door, I am surrounded by a chorus of young voices and giggling smiles. The children are boisterous and shy by turns as we do our best to communicate through translators and scattered words of Dari and English. They are eager for visitors and desperately want the outside world to know they exist.

Each orphanage is run by an Afghan couple, carefully chosen by RAWA for their genuine interest in the children's welfare. All of these "mothers and fathers" speak about their charges with the same pride with which they speak of their own children. Their dedication to raising these girls and boys clearly stems from a deep love for each child as well as the knowledge that they are doing their part for the future of Afghanistan.

An extraordinarily special aspect of RAWA's orphanages is that they provide the children with much more than love, food, shelter, and education. Through all of their projects, RAWA brings hope and meaning into people's lives. The orphanages are no exception. By gentle example, RAWA members show the children how to transform their pain into a desire to work for a future of peace and freedom in Afghanistan . Ask almost any child what she or he wants to do in the future, and the reply will be some variant of "I want to help my people."

The fact that they are able to contemplate a future at all is a testament both to the loving care of RAWA and to their own resilience. The children who have made it to an orphanage are the lucky few out of the thousands of street children who populate Afghanistan today. Every child has an unimaginable story of suffering. They have seen fathers shot, mothers raped, brothers skinned alive, homes and playmates blasted to pieces. At times, when they are not busy with an activity, the past is all too visible on their faces, and they seem to turn inward to events that they will never fully leave behind. After more than 25 years of war all Afghans have lost irreplaceable pieces of their lives, and none have suffered more than the children.

The orphanage parents describe how when the children first arrive, they horde food and have no understanding of how to relate to others in a home. Slowly, they begin to shed the rough edges learned in the streets. They relax, make friends, and find their places in their new, large family. Every day teachers come to conduct lessons, and the children proudly show off their notebooks. Education is given the highest importance, and the children are encouraged to study hard and make the very best of their abilities. They also have plenty of free time to play, and there are rousing games of cricket and boisterous dance sessions, accompanied by children playing traditional Afghani instruments. They eat nutritious meals together, and all help with the chores of the household. The orphanages are spare and cramped by western standards, but are extremely clean, neat, and most importantly, safe. The children sleep in rooms furnished with bunk beds. Day and night, the parents are always close by to help with studies, sort out squabbles, or soothe bad dreams.

But for all that these children have, their losses remain immeasurable. If I ask them to draw a memory, they quickly respond with pictures of rockets smashing into homes and people with bloody, hacked off limbs. If I ask for a picture of what they like to do for fun, they stare uncertainly. They have never contemplated such a question. Without RAWA , most would be back on the street, left to fend for themselves. The future of RAWA 's orphanages is not secure. Already, one has been forced to close, and the others can remain open only as long as caring individuals continue to support them. RAWA relies completely on private donations to carry on their humanitarian projects. I have never seen people do so much with so little. RAWA members seem to manage miracles with only the most meager of funds. Every bit of support they receive makes a difference.

Supporting these children is not only a gift to them as individuals; it is a gift to the world's future. Against staggering odds, they have made it this far, surviving as lights of hope through the darkest of nights. It is up to us to help them continue to shine.

- Jennifer A. Hartley, Ph.D. is an anthropologist and RAWA supporter from the United States.

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