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Jalal-ud-din Rumi –

After great darkness ... a thousand suns open and begin to shine.

Hafiz of Persia

“I have come into this world to see this: The sword to drop from men’s hands Even at the height of their arc of rage Because we have finally realized There is just one flesh we can wound.”

Recent Posts

“My journey – as a former refugee – to help other refugees in Greece”

By Zuhra Abhar

In February 2016, I traveled from Washington DC where I went to Lesvos, Greece, spending three weeks as a volunteer interpreting Dari and Pashto spoken by Afghan people in a refugee camp called Moria, and helping them with basic needs.

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I heard both traumatic and inspiring stories during my time in the camp. Refugees showed how much they appreciate the ordinary residents of the Greek Islands, who open up their hearts and homes to save hundreds and thousands fleeing war and terror. Refugee families tried to help each other and they shared what they had, showing solidarity even in the midst of a harrowing survival situation. I was assigned to help in the distributing tent, and I provided dry clothes for the refugees who had just arrived in wet clothes from their sea-journey.

Many of them had lost all their valuables during the dangerous trip across the sea in small flimsy boats. A mother with three small children, ages five months, two and four years old, came to me and asked for dry clothes. I gave her a few shorts, pants and socks. After ten minutes she came back to me and she said, “Thank you for your help-I would like to return some of the clothes. As I only need one of each, I am sure other children need clothes, too”. I couldn’t stop my tears, seeing the generosity of a mother who not only cared about her children, but cared for other children as well. That mother taught us a lesson-it is okay to have less if it means sharing; even as she was struggling to survive the loss of her homeland and facing an uncertain future.

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I met so many families who were in deep financial trouble. By the time they got to Turkey, most did not have money. I met a young single mother with her three-year-old son at the shoes tent. When I saw her, she wasn’t feeling well-I had a chance to sit down with her and asked her if she needed to see a doctor. She started crying and I tried to make her feel comfortable with me. When I felt she had come to trust me, I asked her, why are you crying, what happened? She told me that because she didn’t have money to cross the border, smugglers held her in Turkey for 26 days-and she was tortured and raped. Somehow she managed to escape and crossed the border. Like her, there are many single women who have suffered the same horrendous situation. Her story still haunts me.

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Greece is a passageway to mainland Europe for the steady stream of refugees fleeing from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in search of peace, safety and a new life. Here, refugees are granted a 30-day visiting pass, which allows them to travel legally throughout Greece. Volunteers who greet them on the shores of Lesvos play a key role in creating a safe and comfortable environment for these exhausted refugees. Upon my arrival, I helped provide refugees with medical attention, clean and dry clothes and a hot meal. I also facilitated communication between the refugees and the governing officials who oversaw the registration processing. I made sure I created a climate in which the refugees felt welcome and valued.

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Refugee families undergo a whole gamut of emotions during their journey: the tension and physical exhaustion of the journey, fear of the unknown, sadness for what they left behind, homesickness and hopelessness. And yet they also have excitement and some hope. Most refugees are completely unprepared for the journey, both physically and emotionally. The Sad part is, many refugees do not even make it to Greece but perish along the way. The boats are terrifyingly flimsy, not made for an ocean passage and are crowded beyond capacity. Many capsize and end in tragic drownings.

Refugees know little about what they need to do to survive and often travel with nothing except the clothes on their backs. My family and I came to the United States as refugees from Afghanistan not too many years ago. My time at the Moria camp brought back many troubling memories of the refugee camp in Pakistan. I understand what it means to be a refugee. Many new arrivals face so many challenges: not speaking other languages than their own, lack of money and resources; hopelessness and fear that they will not find safe haven (the borders have been closing all through Europe). They also suffer exhaustion, previous medical conditions or those inflicted by the rigors of their harrowing journey.

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I had to put myself in their place, make them feel comfortable and gain their trust. I realized that they wanted someone to listen to their stories and the facts of their journeys. I felt connected with them, and shared my feelings and my own experience of being a refugee.

I told them: I think you are very brave. We-my family and I-were in your situation not too long ago. And we were able to reach safety and make a new life for ourselves. I am sorry for all that you have had to leave behind: your own home, possessions, a good job, friends and family. I hope you are able to start a life where you feel you belong-and where you can make a good, safe life for yourselves and your family. There are people here who really care about you, and think about your situation every day. There are people advocating for you, working hard to ensure that you are listened to, respected and supported. Things will be better—InshAllah.

This refugee crisis is a global issue which impacts all of us. As a world community we need to be more active in advocating for these refugees. This was my attempt to give comfort and support to human beings fleeing war and terror, just as my family did, such a relatively short time ago.

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PARSA Afghanistan

By Marnie Gustavson
Executive Director
PARSA
www.afghanistan-parsa.org
marnie@afghanistan-parsa.org

November 2015, I sit with my psychosocial trainer Fatema and eight Afghan women leaders from Zardozi Women’s Business Centers to launch our women’s peer counseling group that we call “Healthy Afghan Woman’s Support Group”. In my experience, announcing a program as a psychosocial one can be the “kiss of death” for women’s support groups in Afghanistan – unless there is a heavy stipend offered for attending. Even though I had oriented them to our work a couple weeks back and assured all attending that this was not a program for crazy people, my attendees were very nervous about working with me.

Afghan women are some of the most socially oppressed women in the world, living in a culture that condones violence against them, but the experience of sitting and talking with Afghan women never fails to amuse, endear and inspire me. After twelve years of close work with Afghan women from the mountains to the fields to the Afghan parliament, I must say that the perception that they are “put upon” victims is not how I experience Afghan women as a whole and this group was no exception. They welcomed me graciously, strongly stated their opinions and fears about our training, and settled in to learn. Only two of the women were literate, although all of them were responsible as community leaders for a group of women artisans working in the business centers.

“The work of a women’s group facilitator is a very special kind of work,” I announce. “When women gather to talk, the conversation tends to be what I call “tea time talk” where we share stories about how hard life is in Afghanistan, how we have been hurt by men, about all that is wrong with our lives. There is a certain comfort in sharing these things, but women can leave these conversations feeling very sad about their lives and feeling helpless. In our work with you this week, you have an opportunity to learn how to lead women’s conversations where the women talk about how to solve their own problems and when they leave your group they feel like they have a path forward and support to do so.”

Zarghuna comments, “We like hearing sad stories from others. It makes us not feel so alone!”

“Well, Zarghuna, you can always have that kind of a conversation but in this program it is saved for “tea time”, I say. “Here we want to assist the women in your centers to solve their problems, seek support, and make changes in their lives so they are healthier. I think everyone here wants that for themselves and other Afghan women. What kinds of challenges do you and your sisters face everyday?”

Aisha: “I am a widow and my teenage son won’t allow my daughter to go to school. He won’t listen to me.”
Hawa: “My husband did not want me to come to this training. He says that women are not important, and certainly not as important as men. I had to fight with him to come here. I always am fighting with my husband.”
Khadija: “There is a woman in my group who works very hard and produces good products but her family will not let her keep the money or spend the money on her children. So she is always hungry and always trying to beg for food for her children. It isn’t fair.”
Homa: “There is a woman in my center whose daughter was raped by a neighbor but the police sided with him.”

“As a facilitator, you will have the tools of listening, problem solving, advocacy, and mobilizing your beneficiaries,” I continue, “And again, a special kind of listening, where instead of finding stories in your lives to match the stories being told so you commiserate, you will act as a mirror and reflect back what you hear so your speaker feels heard.”

With these simple but difficult-to-practice concepts, my mostly illiterate group of women set out to learn how to facilitate by working with problems they were struggling with in their own lives or problems that other women in their communities were having. By our second day, they were practicing facilitating a group and during the problem-solving period coming up with solutions I never could have thought of because I do not live their lives. Competent, smart, and savvy about their communities and their constituents, I felt like I was witnessing a high-powered convention of Afghan women elders who were capably organizing themselves to address heart-breaking problems with vigor and determination.

As we start to get them ready to start their own support groups I ask them, “Now since most of you are illiterate, how do I give you materials so you remember the steps of facilitating a support group?”

Zarghuna answers, “Phfft! We have to do this all of the time! We have memorized the steps but give us materials anyway and if we forget we will have our children read them to us.”

Finally, I ask them what they feel was is valuable from our training. “Marnie,” Hawa says, “ It is such a relief to direct complaining to tea time, and to feel powerful enough to say Shut Up! It is time for solutions.”

I have lived and worked in Afghanistan for many years but it is my direct – up close and personal work with ordinary Afghans that continues to give me hope for Afghanistan. My experience of Afghan women, such as the ones in this training, astonishes and never fails to delight me. Against the backdrop of the hand wringing and anxiety of international leaders about the future as reported by the media, I am constantly heartened by the pride and resilience of Afghan women. I long for a more compassionate society, for their rights to be upheld by the government and for their lives to be safer but working with them I know that they are strong. It is a privilege to witness them as they grow and move forward, rebuilding their families and communities.

Names of the participants have been changed

Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan woman leader for peace and security

Ms. Frogh co-founded the Research Institute for Women Peace & Security (RIWPS-Afghanistan).

“If Afghan women are supported and stood with, they will be able to institutionalize and make these changes more sustainable in the decade of transformation, in the next 10 years”. – Ms. Frogh

Ms. Frogh has devoted more than a decade of her life to empowering Afghan women and children through constant advocacy, campaigning and project implementation for improved human rights conditions in Afghanistan.

In early 2012, Ms. Frogh co-founded RIWPS-Afghanistan along with a former Member of the Afghan parliament, Sabrina Saqeb, to focus on women’s grassroots mobilization and empowerment for the peace process. The Institute was conceptualized during the 2010 Peace Jirga and the 2011 Loya Jirga in which thousands of Afghan representatives participated to envision the peace process. Women’s inclusion was a struggle in both jirgas primarily because of the perception that issues of peace and security are not relevant to Afghan women.

RIWPS has started engaging the communities with the provincial level peace councils so that people’s perspectives of peace and security are integrated into the implementation of the peace process locally. That means that RIWPS started a process of facilitating regular dialogues and hearings with the local community representatives, women groups, youth and other social groups with the local governments to create a regular communication and also to reconcile people’s perceptions of peace and government’s plans for building peace.

Ms. Frogh believes that until and unless the local conflicts are not resolved, and local communities particularly women who are more central in the local conflicts are not empowered; political deals do not bring sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Therefore, RIWPS is building conflict resolution expertise among women leaders at the local levels through these Provincial Peace Councils and other platforms, and taking the voices of the communities and women into the peace process nationally.

Ms. Frogh, reflected that “in May 2013, we held one of the first National Youth Debate with over 500 young Afghans asking the government accountability around the peace process and the final message from every young Afghan was that ‘listen to our voices before insurgents recruit us’”.

After several years in Peshawar, Pakistan, Ms. Frogh says: “when I started experiencing the hardships that women and children went through being in a refugee camp, I realized that I had to do something”. Ms. Frogh started working with the most vulnerable women and children in refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan. At age 17, she started a career as a writer, reporter, and social activist, contributing weekly updates to The Frontier Post Newspaper about women and children living in refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Ms. Frogh reflects, “I found my way into the non-profit world by working with organizations that supported refugees and then got into the organizations working inside Afghanistan”. In 2001, Ms. Frogh returned to Afghanistan and continued with empowering women and children at the community level to national, regional and international levels. Conducting one of the first-ever gender reviews in the most remote areas of Afghanistan in Nuristan province in 2002, Ms. Frogh embarked on an empowerment mission for rural and urban Afghan woman.

The country’s first Afghan woman-led organization focused on women, peace & security

The country’s first Afghan woman-led organization focused on women, peace & security. Research Institute for Women Peace & Security (RIWPS) , established in 2012 by Wazhma Frogh & Sabrina Saqeb

“If Afghan women are supported and stood with, they will be able to institutionalize and make these changes more sustainable in the decade of transformation, in the next 10 years.” – Ms. Frogh

RIWPS is working closely with the High Peace Council focusing on women’s meaningful participation in the peace process as well as with local organizations and activists building community-based inclusive peace.

Research Institute for Women Peace & Security (RIWPS) is a woman-led initiative that focuses on increasing women’s leadership and inclusion in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan through research and evidence building and also strengthening the advocacy campaigns carried out many other women organizations.
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Jamila Akbarzai, a leader and a changer maker:

Jamila Akbarzai was encouraged by her father to obtain a good education, like a number of other Afghan women leaders in civil society.

Jamila remarks: “My father was a successful businessman. He encouraged me to get a good education, along with my six brothers. I am very grateful of my both parents and I want other Afghan women to have that chance.”

Jamila earned a B.Sc. from Kabul University and worked at the International Rescue Committee in Pashawar Pakistan. Jamila was driven by a desire to empower women to gain economic self-Sufficiency. In 1989, Jamila established one of the first local Afghan Women-led nonprofits: Afghan Women’s Welfare Department (AWWD).

Jamila reflects: “We as a women’s organization will keep trying until we bring Afghan women into decision-making positions. So far, women and men in our society have different power in decision-making. We want to change the situation …. I believe that any initiative and efforts without the participation and active role of women in Afghanistan will never lead to success.”
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Young Women for Change (YWC)

Young Women for Change (YWC) www.youngwomenforchange.org is the first young women’s movement NGO, established in 2011 by two young college students, Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary.

YWC is an independent non-profit organization formed by dozens of volunteer women and men advocates across Afghanistan who are dedicated to empowering Afghan women and improving their lives through social and economical participation. YWC focuses on political empowerment, advocacy, training, and community involvement.

YWC’s vision is to promote gender equality, empower women and increase Afghan women’s social participation.

Anita reflects that:“the current context of Afghanistan is very unstable and economically dependent,” with a lack of rule of law and “lack of governmental interest in the inclusion of women in the sustainability and transaction process.”
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Educating the next generation of Afghans: The story of an ambitious Andeisha

By Mariam Jalalzada

Andeisha, like many, is concerned about the faith of the country in the years to come, especially, the year 2014 when the international troops will withdraw from the country. However, she believes that “the generation of Afghans who were victims of the atrocities of the Mujahedin and the Taliban regime will not remain silent. They will raise their voice and will not easily give up on the gains made in the areas of human rights, rule of law, and economic development.”

The pessimism around 2014 has not yet deterred Andeisha’s commitment and ambitions for a better Afghansitan. AFCECO is fully committed in continuing educating a young and vibrant generation of Afghans. “We will continue to move forward and increase our enrollment and are very optimist and hopeful that the new and educated generation of Afghans will not allow for the events of a not-so distant terrible past to be repeated.”

Since the ousting of the Taliban government in 2001, many Afghan expatriates have returned to their homeland in the hope to contribute to the development of the nation. Some have joined governmental and non-governmental organizations, while others have started their own businesses and developmental organizations. Andeisha Farid, was one of these returnees who returned from Pakistan with big ambitions: to educate the new generation of Afghanistan by providing high quality learning opportunities for children from all kinds of backgrounds—children without parents and those who have parents yet cannot afford to go to school because of extreme poverty.
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Malala Yousafzai addresses United Nations Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday, July 12, 2013

Here is a video link to an address of astounding power, maturity, dignity and pure inspiration, from Malala Yousafzai, the courageous Pakistani teenager who was shot point blank in the head by the Taliban last year for advocating education for girls. But she survived, enduring long hospitalizations and reconstructive operations in Pakistan and Great Britain, where she now lives with her family. She celebrated her 16th birthday on July 12th in a stellar way— by giving this extraordinary address at the UN Youth Assembly to dignitaries and over 500 youth activist from around the world, calling for universal education as a key to a better future.

Gordon Brown, the U.N.’s special envoy for education, helped bring her to New York for this address. She stood there, diminutive, calm and strong, wearing a shawl once owned by Benazir Bhutto, and thanked all the thousands who sent love and good wishes, her doctors, nurses and staff, and all those who have supported her recovery and ongoing advocacy for equality and education.
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Presence and Persuasion: Women’s Communication for Political, Economic and Personal Empowerment

By Marissa Moran, Albany Associates

I recently attended a conference where the word “empowerment” was thrashed about in search of a definition. Western aid agencies like to think they can “empower” women by giving them the necessary tools and services to build a future for themselves, but sometimes it’s even simpler than that.

Different women, from Afghanistan to Libya to America, have different ideas of how they can become empowered in their specific circumstances, from the micro level of personal relationships to the macro platform of political participation. The solution to the empowerment debate lies in local affairs, but no matter the context, communication and the ability to present oneself in a way that makes others listen is key.

Verbal, written, and behavioral communication skills are often considered only for those in leadership positions (maybe that’s how they got there in the first place), but training in these skills should be available to all women in a community supplemented by a network of peers and mentors that allows for easy connections.
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Anita Haidary, A role model, a change-maker and a leader

By Zuhra Abhar

Anita, a young Afghan college student, is the co-founder and the Executive Director of Young Women for Change www.youngwomenforchange.org

Anita says: “I am proud of being an active voice of young women and men in society who believe in change.”

Anita grew up in an open-minded family: her parents played an important role in getting Anita and her four sisters and one brother an education. During the war in 1997, Anita and her family fled to Pakistan. In 2002, Anita and her family returned to Afghanistan with hope for a better future.

As a young girl, Anita always hoped that one day the voice of Afghan women could be heard and they would have equality and rights. Anita is a leader and a role model for other young Afghan women. In 2008, she graduated from high school and went to American University Central Asia. After six months of hard work and dedication, she was accepted and received a four-year scholarship at Mount Holyoke College. Currently, Anita is in her third year of college. Her passion and dedication encouraged her to become a voice of women in Afghanistan.
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