The hands that feed

In Afghanistan thou­sands of women, many of them wi­d­ows, are too poor to feed their fam­i­lies and can’t even af­ford any­thing for if­tar. The Fa­tima Bint Mo­ham­mad Bin Zayed Ini­tia­tive is help­ing them dur­ing Ra­madan. Naw­ied Jabarkhyl vis­its the cen­tre in Kabul

Friday - - Society - Naw­ied Jabarkhyl is a jour­nal­ist for Ra­dio 1 and 2 and is a free­lance writer njabarkhyl@gn­broad­cast­ @naw­iedj

Twelve and a half kilo­me­tres… that’s about a 20-minute drive. It may seem a short dis­tance given the hus­tle and bus­tle of our ev­ery­day lives, but to walk it takes about two and half hours.

That’s pre­cisely what Maryam has been do­ing ev­ery day for the past two weeks, while fast­ing, and will con­tinue to do for the re­main­ing weeks of Ra­madan.

Her cause is sim­ple: she knows at the end of her jour­ney there’s a meal await­ing her – a chance to feed her six chil­dren. She’s one of thou­sands of women and chil­dren who are ben­e­fit­ting from a UAE-based pro­ject to feed the poor in Afghanistan dur­ing Ra­madan.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by the­World Food Pro­gramme, more than a third of Afghanistan’s pop­u­la­tion (roughly 10 mil­lion peo­ple) are liv­ing in ab­ject poverty. That means they are se­verely de­prived of ba­sic hu­man needs, in­clud­ing food, safe drink­ing wa­ter, health­care and shel­ter.

“That’s the main rea­son why we de­cided to start our food dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre,” Dr Fahim Pirzada says. He’s the deputy CEO of the Fa­tima Bint Mo­ham­mad Bin Zayed Ini­tia­tive (FBMI), a joint ini­tia­tive of Afghan com­pany Tan­weer In­vest­ments and the UAE govern­ment. “The ma­jor­ity of Afghans are suf­fer­ing on a daily ba­sis, and it is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say they are starv­ing to death.”

The FBMI is a com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme in Afghanistan. Set up in 2010, it has pro­vided em­ploy­ment for al­most 5,000 women in the coun­try, in an in­dus­try they al­ready pos­sess skills in: car­pet weav­ing.

But more im­por­tantly, it of­fers its em­ploy­ees and the wider com­mu­nity free ac­cess to crit­i­cal so­cial ser­vices, in­clud­ing vo­ca­tional train­ing, chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion and health­care.

A sober­ing re­minder

Rest­ing at the foothills of one of Kabul’s most iconic moun­tains, Bagh-e-Bala, is the head­quar­ters of FBMI.

Many post­cards of Afghanistan through­out the 1960s and 1970s – when the coun­try was a tourism hotspot on the hip­pie trail from Europe to In­dia – por­trayed the In­ter-Con­ti­nen­tal Kabul at Bagh-e-Bala. This was one of the first ho­tels the glob­ally recog­nised chain opened in Asia, long be­fore Dubai and Hong Kong.

Still stand­ing, it’s a sober­ing re­minder of what Afghanistan’s so­cial land­scape was like only a few decades ago. It now over­looks a vast city de­bil­i­tated by war, choked by pol­lu­tion and over­crowd­ing and plagued with poverty.

It’s here that the UAE is hop­ing to help change lives. Dur­ing Ra­madan the FBMI Cen­tre opens its doors each day to dis­trib­ute food to thou­sands of women and chil­dren who line up for what is their only meal of the day.

Maryam, who has walked alone from her vil­lage north of Kabul, is one of them. She’s a widow with three sons and three daugh­ters aged be­tween nine and 15. Hav­ing lost her

Queues build up ev­ery day out­side the

cen­tre – groups of women in blue burkas

and young chil­dren

hus­band to di­a­betes four years ago, her predica­ment as a widow is al­most nor­malised by now. Her sons – aged nine, 13 and 15 – have the re­spon­si­bil­ity of fend­ing for their en­tire fam­ily. They should be in school.

“It’s poverty, it’s nec­es­sary for them to be out on the streets,” says Maryam. “Even with them beg­ging and do­ing odd jobs in the city, we strug­gle to get by. I can af­ford to buy bread twice a week and eggs on the odd oc­ca­sion.”

Be­tween them the boys bring in about Dh2 a day. The price of a large piece of bread has dou­bled in the past four years to about 50 fils in most parts of Afghanistan – a sign of the in­flated costs of liv­ing.

“Then there’s the thought of pay­ing for ac­com­mo­da­tion and medicine if they get sick. Un­for­tu­nately that’s how life is – they’re more use­ful on the streets than in a class­room.”

An­other chance

It’s clear that not be­ing able to feed and look af­ter her chil­dren prop­erly has left a per­ma­nent mark on Maryam, de­spite the fact that she’s only 29.

She’s not alone though. Queues build up ev­ery day out­side the cen­tre – groups of women in blue burkas and young chil­dren run­ning around rest­lessly.

They ar­rive at around 3pm and wait po­litely un­til the doors open an hour be­fore if­tar, when work­ers start to hand out food. Each per­son gets a dou­ble-lined plas­tic bag con­tain­ing two pieces of bread, a gen­er­ous serv­ing of rice and meat – or palau, as the lo­cals call it – which is cooked in the cen­tre’s kitchen in the af­ter­noon.

Hash­mat Rahimi is one of the chefs at FBMI. He’s 25 and has four chil­dren. “I don’t re­ally find it dif­fi­cult be­ing sur­rounded by food while I’m fast­ing,” he smiles. “This is the most re­ward­ing thing I could pos­si­bly be do­ing. It is a spe­cial feel­ing that grips me in­side when we hand out the food.”

Hash­mat isn’t a typ­i­cal chef ei­ther. He’s a re­formed heroin addict who was of­fered a sec­ond chance with FBMI.

Lan­guish­ing in Eastern Iran as a refugee, job­less and with his fiancée – his cousin who had been promised to him – back home, Hash­mat says he fell in with the wrong crowd and started abus­ing drugs to es­cape re­al­ity.

“It was a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion to be in,” he says. “I didn’t want to go home. The lack of re­spon­si­bil­ity suited me at the time.”

You wouldn’t be able to tell the depths his ad­dic­tion reached now though. His en­ergy seems hard to re­strain as he hur­ries around the kitchen, keep­ing an eye on the large pots of steam­ing rice.

Along with his three col­leagues, he has to cook food for hun­dreds of peo­ple, start­ing at around 11 in the morn­ing. He talks about his

job and his chil­dren with pas­sion and a sense of ful­fil­ment. It’s clear he is happy in his new role.

This is the third year that FBMI has dis­trib­uted food dur­ing Ra­madan, and the re­sponse each year has been over­whelm­ing. “This is just a small as­pect of the phi­los­o­phy with which FBMI is ap­proach­ing its work in Afghanistan,” says Dr Pirzada.

“This is a poor and needy coun­try. Most peo­ple don’t have the bare necessities which most of us take for granted on a daily ba­sis. What’s worse is that their lot hasn’t re­ally im­proved in the past 10 years.

“Bil­lions of dollars have come into the coun­try through for­eign aid, but very lit­tle of that has trick­led down to the peo­ple.” There have been sev­eral me­dia re­ports on cor­rup­tion in the coun­try, lim­it­ing the aid that reaches the de­serv­ing. “It is our duty to help in any way we can, to re­lieve that suf­fer­ing,’’ he says.

The chance to take con­trol

For Dr Pirzada, who used to work as an ad­vi­sor in the US Em­bassy in Kabul, it’s no sur­prise that the UAE is the coun­try be­hind the ground­break­ing ini­tia­tive.

“Un­for­tu­nately the Afghan peo­ple can’t rely on their govern­ment to pro­vide them with pub­lic ser­vices,” he says. “That’s why projects like this are prov­ing un­prece­dented. It’s of­fer­ing our em­ploy­ees – the ma­jor­ity of whom are women – and the wider com­mu­nity the chance to take con­trol of their lives.

“It’s build­ing ca­pac­ity, it’s em­pow­er­ing women and then there’s the health­care and ed­u­ca­tional ben­e­fits. The em­pha­sis on women’s em­pow­er­ment was some­thing we and our part­ners in the UAE govern­ment shared.”

As the sun be­gins its de­scent in Kabul, and the con­stant buzz from the city’s re­lent­less traf­fic eases ever so slightly, prepa­ra­tions in FBMI are in full flow.

The com­pany’s staff of around 45 – most of whom are cler­i­cal work­ers – put food into bags and com­mu­ni­cate with the queue out­side the door, mak­ing sure all is run­ning smoothly. It’s no sur­prise to see ev­ery­one chip­ping in to help those less for­tu­nate.

It’s an ex­am­ple of the true spirit of Ra­madan in one of the most un­cer­tain parts of world. But the re­al­ity is all too clear. Ev­ery day – not just Ra­madan – is a fast for most of the peo­ple here. It’s a stark re­minder of the hunger that hun­dreds of mil­lions of our fel­low peo­ple are fac­ing each and ev­ery day.

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