Opportunities for Widows and Children in Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan. For two months this year, I had the honor and joy of supporting the establishment of a remarkable new center in Kabul, Afghanistan, unlike any other I have seen or studied.   As part of a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense, Noori Foundation Afghanistan (NFA) – a private foundation started by a group of Afghan leaders in business, government and philanthropy, and representing a broad range of cultural and social backgrounds – established a center for vocational education using an approach that serves the “whole woman” and her family.   “Noori” translates into “light.”

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From computers to carpets, widows and their children are learning new skills while enjoying a very positive, supportive atmosphere.

Widows in Afghanistan are often left without family support after their husbands die, and by the numbers are usually illiterate and impoverished.   There are thousands of widows from many different neighborhoods and backgrounds living in Kabul, and as part of a pilot project, over 200 are enrolled and learning the basics of reading, writing and computers (depending on their level of literacy) and more importantly are becoming trained in the indigenous arts of carpet weaving, embroidery, tailoring, gem cutting and jewelry design and development.

While there are many programs in place teaching women and men how to create products that continue the rich traditions of the “Silk Road,” the Noori Center for Women is markedly different.

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One of the twin villas of the Noori Foundation in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The Center, which is run out of a very secure twin villa in a residential neighborhood, opens early in the morning as the women are picked up by a bus service and brought in – with their small children.   Noori Center offers free daycare for children from six months to six years old, and while their moms are being taught literacy and business skills one half of the day, and vocational skills the other half of the day, the children have access to instructors with educational toys, including little laptops! They are even learning in three languages using a mobile learning application developed by Interlecta, a technology company located in Bulgaria and New York.

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Noori Kids mobile application teaches in Dari, Pashto and English. Frank Fleming, co-founder of Interlecta, at a “focus group” at the Noori Center.

Like their moms, the children enjoy healthy snacks and lunch, which is prepared in the Center’s kitchen using the famously local, fresh and organic produce, rice, beans, and meats from surrounding farms.

The widows and their children also have access to free health check-ups and remedies from two registered “school nurses,” and access to volunteer medical doctors should the need arise.     “These women are some of the most courageous in our country,” said Maqbul Ahmad, co-chairman of the NFA, and an active participant in the peace process within Afghanistan, with his primary job at Parliament and the Presidential Palace.

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Mr. Ahmad is a young humanitarian with young children of his own, two daughters, ages eighteen months and nearly four years old.   “It took us over a year to put together the model for the Center, which has been generously funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business & Stability Operations, but only for its first six months pilot.   We looked at a lot of other programs like this, spoke with a lot of experts and spent time with widows to understand what they needed, and came up with a more holistic approach, including helping them with child and healthcare.”

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The Noori Foundation Health Clinic.

The progress in a few short months is nothing short of remarkable.   With funding becoming available only in late September, the entire Center was rented, cleaned, furnished, “wired” including a 50-seat computer classroom, and otherwise prepared for the widows and their children.   Instructors were hired and created their curriculums, and a staff including 24/7 security was put in place. Given progress and enlightenment over the last several years, these widows no longer face physical dangers because they want to educate themselves. In the past there have been attacks on women trying to become more independent, escape illiteracy, and take jobs to support their family. Communities are now supporting programs like those sponsored by the Noori Center.

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“We spent a lot of time and effort on establishing information systems,” Mr. Ahmad said, “and have detailed profiles on the women and children we are serving, so that we can track progress, understand what is working and not working, and gather the intelligence necessary to plan our growth for 2012.   We also have put in place financial systems including QuickBooks, and are in partnership with Afghanistan International Bank (AIB) who has generously provided opportunities including bank accounts for our staff and eventually our students as part of our goal to provide financial literacy.”

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The children having their lunch in the kindergarten room.

Developing all of this – into a reality – in a very short time – and in an often fragile environment – has not been easy.   “We are all so passionate about this,” Najeeb Arsala, Managing Director of the Center explained.   “Every employee here was born in Afghanistan, and we’ve all grown up in a war zone.   We have heard stories from our parents about what it was like to live in a peaceful country, and we want that peace back for our children.   Helping these widows build their futures – and seeing the smiles on their faces, and their children’s faces – keeps us going, no matter what the challenges are.”


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Najeeb Arsala (left) and Maqbul Ahmad (right) are working together to build a next-generation foundation, based on Afghans helping Afghans.

Like the other employees, Mr. Arsala also does this work as a part-time job.   His main job is working within the Parliament to assist the members of Parliament with projects, including dozens of committees working on initiatives related to reconstruction.   Like Mr. Ahmad, he also goes to University to further his education.

Like the women who run the literacy and vocational programs, Ayesha Moshini and Rihana Kawoon, the Center’s staff’s days typically start with the first call to prayer (before sunrise), classes from 6am – 8am, work at the Center, work at their regular jobs, then back to University for evening classes which can often run until 11pm or midnight.

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“We have a lot of work to do,” Ms. Moshini said, “and as young Afghans we believe in building our own leadership capacity so we are not dependent on international support in the long term.   We are so grateful for the help of the American people, and wish to honor their investment in us by standing on our own to build more Noori Centers throughout the country.”

The contract from the U.S. Department of Defense expires at the end of February, and in March, the NFA team will have new financial support in place, including generating revenue from sale of their student’s products.

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Women learn to read, write and use computers during one half of the day, and learn vocational skills associated with traditional Afghan arts and crafts during the other half.

“Our instructors and students are working really hard to create beautiful, high quality, small products to start,” said Ms. Kawoon, who manages all the “artisanal” programs.   “We are confident that we can sustain ourselves in the future, and are working on an e-Commerce platform as well as a retail experimental shop so that we can provide our first class of widows the opportunity to help other widows in the future.   We know it will take time, but we also know that based on the initial results of this program, there is a lot of positive energy and will forming.   We will be successful, Inshallah, and will expand throughout Kabul and into the villages and provinces.”

A visit to the Kindergarten one sunny day found around two dozen 4-6 year old children reciting their A-B-C’s in Dari, Pashto and English.   Dressed up in their winter clothes, the children appeared strong, healthy and happy to be with each other and their very kind teachers.

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Across generations – Rihana Kawoon, a leader at the Center (above) and two-year old girl in the nursery (below).

“When challenges arise, as they always do,” Mr. Ahmad said, “I like to come up to the nursery and kindergarten as a reminder of why this effort will be worthwhile.   I want my family and especially my children to live in an Afghanistan that is authentically ours – beautiful and peaceful.   Education is so important.   So is family, and that is what we are even more happy to be able to provide here.   It’s not just about the future of Afghanistan, but of our allies too – children are children everywhere, and we owe it to them to figure things out and build a better future, every day.”

All photos courtesy Afghan Lights Studio, Kabul.

Links
www.noorifoundationafghan.org
www.afghanlights.af
www.interlecta.com
www.tfbso.defense.gov
www.aib.af

Cynthia_Artin_12-11_L An American in Afghanistan

Cynthia Artin
is an entrepreneur and humanitarian currently living and working in Kabul, Afghanistan.   On assignment for the Noori Foundation Afghanistan, and helping to establish a center for war widows and their children, Cynthia will be publishing weekly profiles of interesting people doing good things in what she calls “one of the most beautiful places on Earth.”   Cynthia is a Global Advisor to The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation and a new contributor to The Stewardship Report.

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About Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan

View all posts by Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan
Cynthia Artin: An American in Afghanistan
Cynthia Artin has been writing for The Stewardship Report since 2011, starting with her column AN AMERICAN IN AFGHANISTAN. Back from Kabul, but still very active in supporting Afghan social entrepreneurs, she is now inking a weekly column on leaders in humanitarianism who are creating innovative and efficient models for positive change and sustainable impact. Cynthia is Founder and President of Artin Arts, and a James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation Global Advisor.

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