RAWA, December 12, 2006

‘Turn your grief into positive energy’

By Kate Hannan, about her volunteer work with RAWA

Courage, hope, determination, steadfastness, devotion, action ….all these radiate from the RAWA members and supporters I met during my stay in Pakistan in October 2006.

I had gone to Rawalpindi to help in one of RAWA’s orphanages, intending to teach English for a month. Indeed I did teach English, quite formally for a couple of weeks, as well as informally outside the classroom and then I was invited to spend time in one of the Afghan refugee camps, located near Peshawar, to visit another orphanage, also in Peshawar and to look round the school run by RAWA in Rawalpindi.

My experiences in the orphanages, in the camp and in the school filled me with admiration and hope: admiration for RAWA’s magnificent achievements despite great hardship and hope for a future Afghanistan built by these young people, educated to believe in the value and dignity of every human being, to seek knowledge and develop skills, to find happiness in helping and sharing with others.

In the Rawalpindi orphanage I worked with 56 children, aged between six and sixteen, each with a tragic story, yet each with a determination not to be defeated by their personal tragedy. Rather, these children were filled with a love of life and learning. They attended school in two shifts, and when they were not at school could attend extra English classes, including mine, and extra Computer classes held at the orphanage by RAWA members and supporters. Each child also had an allocated task in the orphanage. As well as being responsible for their own belongings and dormitories, the children would clean, sweep, prepare vegetables, wash up etc, for the benefit of all. There was also time for homework and recreation, not to mention enthusiastic dancing and singing.

It is almost impossible for me to fully understand or depict just how much the children had suffered earlier in their short lives but I can describe what I saw in both orphanages – blossoming children, well fed and cared for by loving adults, educated to high standards, thriving in a secure home, bursting with energy and enthusiasm.

In the refugee camp I met more RAWA members dedicated to improving the lives of their fellow Afghans, especially the widows and orphans. The camp has existed for twenty years and RAWA has had a presence there for eighteen, providing schools and hostels for boys and girls, income generating projects such as carpet weaving, which enable families to survive, and a clinic staffed by visiting doctors, nurses and a pharmacist.

The schools in the camp teach a modern curriculum and those students who study till the final grade can then go to Afghanistan to sit the notoriously difficult Concours examination, needed for entrance to university. I was amazed at how much was achieved with so little. These schools have no laboratories, no specialist equipment and few books but they have excellent, dedicated teachers and eager, determined students, who can, and do, pass the Concours exam. All the students understand the value of education and some study during the day, whilst having to weave carpets at night.

The hostels are for older boys and girls who have lost their parents and are not yet able to make their own way in life. Some of the girls I spoke to had refused to return to their extended families for fear of being married off before being able to finish their education. One girl described much of the thinking in Afghanistan as being ‘backward’ and was delighted to be able to study in the camp school. The boys and girls, aged from eight to eighteen, are responsible for the running of their hostels, doing their own budgeting, cleaning, washing and cooking. Nothing is wasted, everything is cared for.

I also visited widows and children who weave carpets in order to earn enough money to provide the basic necessities of life. RAWA had provided the frame on which the carpets are woven, a ‘man from Peshawar’ provides the materials and the pattern and the widows and children do the hard work. Preschool children were proud to show off their skills, their little fingers deftly weaving the richly coloured wool, always careful to faithfully follow the pattern as a misplaced flower would mean no wages that month. School-aged youngsters study by day and weave at night by the light of a single electric bulb.

The clinic is currently open three days a week. Patients are treated free of charge by a General Practitioner, a Gynaecologist, an Opthologist and a Pharmacist. RAWA supporters provide medical supplies and the practitioners are paid from RAWA funds.

In my last week I visited the RAWA school in Rawalpindi. 107 boys and 90 girls follow a full curriculum delivered by Afghan teachers. Retaining teachers can be a problem for a variety of reasons, including pay, though the Deputy Head Teacher chose to work at the RAWA school because he could see how much RAWA was achieving with the poorest children. Some students are unable to complete all the grades but approximately five students graduate each year.

Afghan women are often portrayed in western media as being submissive and oppressed. Not so the RAWA members. The women I met are strong, educated, forward thinking and uncompromising. They strive for human rights, especially the rights of women. Their orphanages and hostels are run on democratic lines, with the children being involved in decision making from an early age. Illiterate women are taught to read and write – one RAWA member I met in the camp had been an illiterate widow and is now a teacher of seventh and eighth grade children. RAWA members do not shy away from condemning the criminals who have caused so much destruction in their country. At great risk to themselves they continue to expose the warlords who are now trying to gain power once more in Afghanistan and to demand they be brought to justice.

RAWA receives no financial help from any NGO or government. The women rely solely on support from international donors. With other events taking the forefront on the world stage, funds have decreased and RAWA finds itself forced to close some of its projects. The Malalai Hospital has had to be replaced by the camp clinic, once open five days a week, now only three. Where there were once ten schools in Rawalpindi, there is now only one and the children must pay 80 rupees (£0.80p) a month. Orphanages are being closed or combined. These closures and reductions are happening in both Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

My sense of admiration, wonder and hope at witnessing the work of RAWA was mixed with feelings of sadness as I learned of the diminishing funds and consequent closures. But I am reminded of the words of Meena herself – ‘Turn your grief into positive energy’. This is certainly what the RAWA members do; this is also the challenge to any of us who support the aims of RAWA and all freedom-loving people.


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