From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Afghan refugee women struggle to survive in Pakistan

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Wed, 5 Dec 2001 14:47:27 -0600

Dec. 5, 2001  News media contact: Linda Bloom7(212)870-38037New York

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.

By Paul Jeffrey*

QUETTA, Pakistan (UMNS) -- Qamer arrived in Quetta in the fall, a widow and
penniless, her four small children in tow.

She knew no one in this sprawling border city, so she went to the local
mosque and asked for help. The religious leaders there sent her to stay with
a family deep in a local neighborhood of featureless mud walls and mud
houses, filled with fellow refugees from Afghanistan.

Qamer joined the ranks of the "invisible refugees" who have fled their
war-torn homeland but haven't registered with Pakistani or international
authorities because they fear they'll be deported back to a land where
violence and anarchy still reign.

Even if she could officially register as a refugee, Qamer, who like many
Afghans uses just one name, is afraid of being sent to a refugee camp, most
of which are controlled by Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in
Afghanistan. Pashtuns are Pashtu-speaking Sunni Muslims, and the roughly
55-year-old Qamer (she's not sure of her exact age) is a Persian-speaking
Shiite Muslim, a member of the Hazara ethnic group, one of the smaller
tribes in Afghanistan.

She didn't want to leave her home in the province of Bamyan, but the ruling
Taliban, who are mostly Pashtuns, forced the decision on her. 

"The Taliban occupied our house and killed my husband. They killed him
simply because he was a Hazara," she said. "So I left. I didn't know what
else to do. I didn't know where to go. But many people from Bamyan were
coming here toward Pakistan, so I followed them across the border."

Qamer said she wants to go back. "It's our country. We have to live in our
country. But as long as there is fighting, we can't live there."

While she waits on the thin promise of peace for Afghanistan, Qamer is
supporting herself and her children by making quilts for other refugees.
She's one of more than 400 refugee women in Quetta earning money as part of
an innovative program sponsored by Church World Service (CWS), a member of
Action by Churches Together (ACT), an international alliance that also
includes the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

The program will produce 25,000 quilts, many sporting colorful designs for
children, for distribution to internally displaced families in Afghanistan
and refugee families in Pakistan, according to Gulshan Maznani, a CWS
emergency coordinator.

The women earn 50 rupees per quilt, about 85 U.S. cents. Each quilt takes a
day to make. The women earn more than they could at other jobs, if such jobs
were available, and their wages are competitive, at times even higher, than
what refugee men can earn in a labor market depressed by too many hands and
not enough jobs.

The women's income is more than just a means of survival, however. "By
contributing to the family income, the women come to have a greater say in
the family decision-making process," said Maznani. "It's much more than
quilt-making. It's really about the empowerment of women."

Early every morning, participants in the program line up at the local office
of the Shuhada Organization, a nongovernmental Afghan group that coordinates
the project with CWS. The women, organized in groups of eight to 10 members
each, collect the cloth, thread and four kilos of cotton batting that go
into each quilt. While some women work in their own homes, many gather to
work collectively, taking the opportunity to share with one another while
they beat the cotton flat and carefully stitch it into place between the
cloth covers.

The Quetta women have made more than 17,000 quilts in the last two months,
as part of a larger CWS project to produce 60,000 quilts in Pakistan for
distribution to needy Afghan families. Six thousand quilts were sent to
Afghanistan's war-torn Ghazni province in early November, where they were
combined in "shelter kits" with tents and food and distributed by Shuhada
among internally displaced families in the villages of Jaghori and Behsood.

The families there are ethnic Hazaras who over the years have migrated to
the larger cities of Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, driven out of their
home valleys by persistent drought, according to Jawad Ali, Shuhada's
program manager. When U.S. air strikes started battering those cities in
October, the families fled back to their home villages, but there isn't
adequate shelter or food to sustain them. And Ali said the area will soon
become inaccessible because of winter snows.

CWS has been hurrying to get food into affected areas of Ghazni and
succeeded in transporting 1,500 food packages, each with two months of food
for a family, into Afghanistan in early November. But the route from Quetta
over the border into southern Afghanistan has been closed for two weeks
because of fighting and security concerns. The last shipment of CWS food and
quilts was part of a truck convoy that became the target of U.S. warplanes
on Nov. 17, according to Ali. The CWS truck was one of few vehicles to
escape unscathed, he said.

More than 11,000 quilts are stored in Quetta, ready to be shipped into
Afghanistan when the route opens, Maznani said. In the meantime, as Qamer
and her neighbors keep producing the quilts, Maznani said CWS was
negotiating with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about
using some of the quilts for refugees inside Pakistan.

A route into Afghanistan from Peshawar, running through Jalalabad and on to
Kabul, has been intermittently open to trucks in recent days, despite heavy
U.S. bombing of the area around Tora Bora and scattered incidents of
banditry. CWS reports that its staff in Jalalabad recovered a vehicle that
had been seized by Abdul Qadir, a mujahadeen warlord who has declared
himself provincial governor.

Norwegian Church Aid, another member of ACT, has sent 1,301 tents along the
Peshawar-Kabul route since Nov. 20, and on Dec. 1 sent a truckload of
blankets. All of the Norwegian Church Aid relief materials have been
stockpiled in Kabul, where they are awaiting improved security conditions
for shipment to Herat and other needy areas.

Also on Dec. 1, a massive shipment of 2,000 family tents, 10,000 blankets
and 100 bundles of clothing left Peshawar on 11 trucks bound for Kabul and
Mazar-e-Sharif. Another 5,000 tents and 25,000 blankets are warehoused in
Peshawar pending shipment. The relief supplies are provided by CWS and
distributed inside Afghanistan by the Afghan Rural Rehabilitation

Association Director Mirza Ali Nazim said that once the current shipment
arrives in Kabul, his staff there will evaluate where it is most needed. He
suggested that most of the shipment would probably go to the Shamaly Valley,
a fertile area north of Kabul, famous for its vineyards. Residents fled
three years ago when the Taliban moved through the valley, burning houses
and destroying ancient grape plants.

Most of the families that fled have been living in Kabul, huddled together
in the former Soviet embassy, receiving some food assistance from ACT. Many
of the men from the valley have died or are currently fighting with the
Northern Alliance. Nazim said the women and children are starting to return
to the valley, and need assistance while they work to re-establish
agricultural production.

CWS also carries out a variety of programs with women in the Afghan refugee
camps near Peshawar. Much of the programming focuses on health education for

"I learned how to keep my house not just looking clean but really clean. I
learned how to get rid of germs, how to properly give birth, and how we can
keep our children clean and well," said Naeema, an 18-year-old refugee who
came to the Shamshatoo camp two years ago.

The health program includes women who have just arrived in Pakistan. Nafas
Gul lived in the camp for two years and then, tired of exile, went back to
Afghanistan early this year. She had originally fled her homeland because of
the drought. On Nov. 29, she returned to Shamshatoo, this time fleeing the

Gul, who is about 50 years old, runs a household in which the adults are all
women. A widow herself, she doesn't know what happened to a son who fled to
Iran as a refugee five years ago. Two sons-in-law were killed in fighting
between the Taliban and their opponents.

Her two widowed daughters share her home, along with six grandchildren. Like
the quilt-making program in Quetta, the health project helps empower women
by educating them about their bodies and how to care for their families.
Naeema said education is something that refugees have long needed.

"If I have a daughter some day, I want her to grow up to be a doctor or a
pilot, at least to have more education than me," she said. "My father is
well educated, and I think children should have more education than their

"But under the Taliban, I couldn't study past grade five. That's wrong," she
added. "I still want to study, to learn lots of things. But if I can't study
anymore, I want an Afghanistan where my daughter will be able to do more
with her life than I've been able to do with mine."
# # #

*Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary serving as an information officer
in Pakistan for Action by Churches Together.

United Methodist News Service
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