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
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.”
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.