Telescope.

My Journey Into the Kabul Refugee Camps


The door of the white and muddied Toyota Hilux slammed shut, and I felt a deep and oncoming sense of sorrow bubbling into my chest. We had been in Kabul for almost a week, and in contrast to the uplifting moments of the past few days, today had been very difficult. As we prepared to leave, children from the refugee camp surrounded our car, tapping on the glass, asking for things we had not brought. We didn’t have enough. Mom was in the back seat sobbing, the tears streaking underneath her glasses. Oddly, I did not comfort her, or offer any words of support. I remember as a boy hearing her cry when she sat alone at our dining room table, looking at the bills she could not afford to pay, trying to figure out how she could make our lives work. Then, as now, I sat there quietly, my hands clasped uneasily on my lap. I didn’t want her to know how much it hurt to see her cry, for her to think that somehow her tears would be burdensome to anyone. I knew that for her, this trip was very personal, and that we had both had been given a serious reality check.

Donations
Bags packed

We had arrived for our second trip to Kabul in as many years, partnering with local Afghan organizations that have been doing incredible things for years on shoestring budgets. With the help of many friends and colleagues back home, we had arrived to bring warm clothes to displaced children in refugee camps, and to assist micro-finance programs for women in and around Kabul.

Only a week earlier we had been holding a fundraiser where friends and colleagues donated items to be auctioned. We set off for Kabul from D.C. shortly thereafter with $5,500 in our pockets and over 150 LBS of warm clothing packed tightly in white duffel bags. We had depended so much on the incredible support of Afghans and close friends, both in Kabul and at home. They made a monumental effort in arranging meetings, surveying camps and children’s centers, collecting materials, dealing with customs, passports, visas, and travel.

The unbelievable outpouring of support from everyone was tremendously touching; we were swollen clothing, money, and good will from complete strangers and close friends alike. We all had so much to give, and yet only a vague idea of how to do it, it was all so paradoxically different from going to the store for yourself. It’s such an odd thing… how easy it is to buy stuff, and how difficult it is to give away money for free. Going to the store and buying water from Africa is so much easier than giving away water to Africans. It all becomes very telescopic, without a firm sense of if what you are doing has any effect at all.

It all contrasts comically with the cold efficiency passed along by thousands of hands of our global marketplace. Trinkets from Kabul are only a few mouse-clicks away, but delivering warm clothes and buying sewing machines is fraught with logistical trepidation. You can’t help but notice how bizarre and absurd it is that we can rely on vast and efficient infrastructures for things we don’t really need, but have no such framework for giving things away.

This sign greets you as you enter the airport terminal. A security guard barked at me for taking pictures.

We arrived in Kabul 20 hours after leaving DC, greeted by the now familiar haze of coal-burning heaters and cigarette smoke. The smog in Kabul is visible, and I felt the famous “Kabul cough” forthcoming. Flying into Kabul over the stretching snow-capped Hindu Kush Mountains is incredible. The sight of them sends you somewhere else, somewhere older.

The Hindu-Kush literally means “Kill The Hindu”, from the days when Persian slavers would march thousands of Indian slaves to their death in their journey across Afghanistan and into Persia. Kind of puts “The Rockies” to shame. If only the bloody French could have official authority to name all mountain ranges. The world needs more Grand Tetons and fewer Hindu-Slave Killing Alpines if you ask me.

The Hindu Kush.

Before heading to the camps with our warm clothes, we first had some logistical meetings and organizing to do. We headed to Aschiana, an Afghan NGO that takes care of thousands of street children across Afghanistan. We weaved through the complete chaos that is Kabul traffic. Cars from every direction honked past weathered Pashtuns in their proud pakol hats, between horse driven carts, and beyond masked men in machine gun nests.

Traffic jam. You would think people wouldn’t cut a guy off if he had a mounted machine gun in the back seat, but you would be wrong.

The most amazing part to me of the whole driving experience in Kabul is that nobody seems stressed out by it. Where I flip my proverbial when someone drives 60 MPH in the left hand lane on 495, there is a strange calmness to the whole Kabul traffic affair. I guess when you spend 10 years at the sharp end of a war, traffic doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. We nearly had a head-on collision with a donkey and an AK-47 wielding Tajik, but nobody seemed too fussed. Strangely, the donkey was yielded right of way, which at the time I found hilarious.

There are street kids everywhere in Kabul, the shadow economy. They are the money earners for their families, sent out each morning to provide locals and expats with small favors like cigarettes and gum, as well as more sordid services to those cretins with the money. I’ve heard far too many heartbreaking tales of the “Chai Boys” who serve as sexual entertainment for some of the tribal men. The experiences and hardships have toughed and aged these kids beyond their years. Those that have made it are absolutely brilliant, street-smart, tough and mischievous. You can’t help but love their dusty bravado. Some of them speak an absolutely incredible amount of English, having worked near ISAF forces for nearly a decade. The girls come across smarter, brighter and far more sociably than the boys. Either they have weathered fewer traumas over the years, or they carry it better.

Street kids.

Aschiana founder Engineer Yousef started his foundation 19 years ago to provide these kids a safe reprieve along with some basic education and food. Yousef had initially come upon a street boy years 20 ago, scolding him for hustling on the street instead of going to school. “Don’t you think I want to be in school? Don’t you think I know how much good it will do me?” the boy snapped, “What will I do? Who will feed my mother? You??”

Yousef stammered, the boy had challenged him. In the months following Yousef started a small program to take care of some local kids, a program which has grown over the years to 3,000 children across Afghanistan. When the Taliban came to Kabul, they left him alone. The community had protected him.

Entrance

We drove up to his compound not far from the city center. The first thing you notice about Aschiana HQ is the unmistakable sound of children playing. PLAYING, for fun. It sends shivers down your spine. Nobody runs up to you with gum and cigarettes, they are far too focused on the taped tennis ball and batsman in their cricket match. The compound is large, and we bumbled along a mounded mud driveway towards the gate.

Mom and Yousef touring Aschiana.

Yousef greeted us as all Afghans do, with a broad warm smile and gentle handshake. He was cloaked in a woolen blanket and we walked up the ramp and into his offices. We drank tea, and discussed plans to bring donations to the camp which was in the outskirts of Kabul, a few miles from the headquarters. Last year, our travels to the camp had become very dicey, with cold weather and desperation leading to a large confrontation between Yousef and some of the camp elders. This time we asked our local Afghan friends to accompany us to the camp to help translate and ensure a smooth transition of items. We parted ways, and planned on meeting Yousef’s assistants at the camp the next day.

We then headed over for a trip to Skateistan, which is an amazing non-profit organization working across Afghanistan. Skateistan is basically a day-program that teaches young kids how to problem-solve through skateboarding. This was one of the most uplifting experiences in my life, watching young Afghan girls try kick-flips and brush themselves off after colliding with each other was truly incredible. We fell in love with the program and decided to donate some of our clothing to these girls.

The girl in the middle doing the devil horns was as incredible as it gets.
Hello Kitty backpacks and warm clothes.
Tamim (our driver), Mom and myself organizing the clothing.

We returned to our hotel from Skatistan totally buzzing and carefully separated the remaining clothing we had brought from the States for Aschiana. Mom laid out the clothing on the hotel floor, like Afghanistan itself, the clothes sat there proudly, a rainbow of colors, origins, styles and shapes, unified somehow through a shared purpose and mutual weariness. Like Mom, they were beautiful despite their age, warm and confident of their undertaking. Mom lovingly folded the coats, quietly counting them and ensuring them distinguished places in the large white plastic duffel bags we had purchased from The Container Store. The small pink North Face parkas and Michael Kors woolen pea-coats sat without judgment next to the thrifted off-brand ski jackets and good-will sweaters. Their branded distinctions felt ridiculous alongside their new shared charges.

The camp.

The Internally Displace People’s camps (IDP) house hundreds of thousands of people across Afghanistan. They house war refugees, often in plastic tents supported by pillars made of waste and refuse. After our visit last winter, we learned that hundreds had frozen to death for lack of warm clothing and fuel. The fact that people must choose these places over their homes is indicative of the horrors they have fled. I have heard bone chilling stories from Afghan Interpreters and American Special Forces of the things they found in the villiages and countryside during the height of the fighting.

We drove up the muddied path towards the camp entrance, children and adults squatted and stared bewilderingly at our car. Aschiana staff members greeted us with warm smiles and friendly handshakes. We took the bags from the car, and marched them over the dingy, wet and muddy path through the alleys of the camp.

We walked through the alleyways between huts and tents, the inhabitants of the camp poked through to watch us, their bronzed and muddied faces contrasting with their bright green and hazel eyes. A camp elder came and introduced himself, he stood tall and proud, with a large beard and weathered face. We walked into Aschiana’s classrooms within the camp, where dozens of children lay shoulder to shoulder underneath a plastic tarp. “SALAM!” I said, greeting the kids, “ SALAM!” they cheerily said back.

We discovered that there were far more children in the camp than we had anticipated, the elder decided it was best for us to give the items only to the girls classroom. We walked into a small alcove where the girl’s classes were being held. “SALAM!” I said again, “HELLO! SALAM” they all echoed back, giggling to each other and smiling. Some whispered to each other and nodded. The camp elder said some things, I looked over at one girl and put my finger to my lips “Shhh!” I said, pointing to the elder with a teasing grin. They giggled and nodded enthusiastically. I counted the girls, there were a lot of them. We started distributing the clothes slowly, and the childrens’ eyes lit up.

“Please, hurry” The Aschiana coordinator looked at me slightly worryingly. The bags were dragged in, and we started distributing the clothing faster. One by one, we handed items to the beaming kids. The jackets had found their home. But something was wrong.

More children started streaming in. We handed out the items a little faster, more children came to the windows. Children came up to me, sobbing, pointing to the coats and showing me their swollen hands. I tried to calm things down, but it was too late. Word had spread. There wasn’t enough to go around.

Girls started punching each other, grabbing items and collecting them in the corner for their own families. Desperately we tried to hand out more. Mom was surrounded and the girls started clawing at her, tears in their eyes, pushing and shoving to reach the white bags. Children poured in. “Please hurry!” the coordinator said.

Mom was in tears, “NO! NO NO NO!” She said desperately trying to separate the fighting children. I put myself between mom and the children. A girl came to me, she stretched out her hand and said “please”. I looked back at the white bags. They were empty. I felt a lump in my throat. I went over to the stockpile that a young girl had. She immidiately sensed my purpose and burst into tears. She could not protect her larder from me, her arms were holding her baby brother and I was far bigger than she was. I grabbed something from the pile and handed it to the other girl, who soon ran off.

“We need to go”, the coordinator said. The camp elder was trying desperately to keep the children from fighting, he shouted at them in Dari, some listened, others kept clawing at each other. I grabbed Mom and we walked towards the car. People from the camp came to us, muttering to us in a variety of languages. We had nothing left. How easy it would have been to bring more. A few more jackets, a few hundred dollars more, another day of fundraising. But we didn’t. It would have been so easy, a small portion of my paycheck given in exchange for my labor, some numbers on a screen, some paper in my wallet. I could have done more, and I didn’t. Even more shamefully, surrounded by so much suffering, I managed to find a few seconds to feel sorry for myself.

The camp elder extended his thanks, and I felt a sense of remorse from him, he was a proud man. I shook hands with all the staff, who had done brilliantly. I waved half-heartedly to the people of the camp, some of whom waved back. I softly placed my hand on my heart and said goodbye in Dari. “Khuda Hafiz” means goodbye, literally “God Watches Out For You”. I wasn’t sure of either of those meanings were appropriate. Our other trips in Kabul this time were so uplifting, but this day had brought us crashing down to earth.

Mom sometimes tells me stories about when she was in an orphanage in Taiwan. How toys and sweets would be distributed just in time for the Americans to come visit them, and then quickly locked away again once they snapped some pictures and left. The orphanage was broke, and the visits from foreigners helped to keep everything afloat. Children were beaten, but they did not starve. The Americans left with a sense of accomplishment.

Our efforts may not have helped at all, they may have created an even bigger problem than before. It’s hard to know. I suppose it doesn’t matter how I feel about it, at least not as much as the results. We should have planned better. I cant help but feel slightly sick when I think back to that camp, the children clawing at each other over the lack of warm clothing. Our DIY style of delivering aid came up short. I hope that the warm clothes bring somebody in the camp some sense of warmth. But it is near impossible to really know. I was and am still looking at the camp from a telescope, though we breathed the same air and stood on the same ground, we were always very far apart.

I have such hope for the people of Afghanistan, through most of our trip this year I have been so tremendously inspired by the youth of this country. It is they who have a greater capacity to see and do what is necessary to help the people here who have suffered far too much and for far too long. We can supplement that. Both of our countries have been at war for more than a decade, but it is they who are the worse for wear. Our own domestic trauma is at best invisible, at worst ignored.

For 12 years, little parts of our paychecks went to fight a war here, many died, some lived. We sent people our own age to fight here, some never to come home. What can we do now except make sure that it never happens again? To win the peace. So that some day we can all see each other eye to eye, instead of through a telescope.


Click here to sign up to our email list for the next trip to Kabul.


To find out more and to donate to Aschiana, visit their website.

Skateistan has offices in Germany, Afghanistan and Cambodia.

You can check out our work here.

A Special Thanks to The Zamani Foundation for all of their help.

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