Courtesy of The Presbyterian Record (Canada)
Afghanistan, April 27, 2007-Nejabat Khan Safi is a quiet man, thoughtful in speech and careful in process. But below this calm demeanour is a man struggling to bring his beloved Afghanistan, and himself, out from the darkness of the past 30 years.
Safi's father was a civil servant in the 1970s. The family was comfortable.
Safi was born just as that peace was about to be shattered: in 1974 a bloodless coup shattered 40 years of progressive growth. It would be the beginning of the end of Afghanistan for the next three decades, as superpowers playing their Cold War games would mix with indigenous clans and ethnic groups to keep alive a seemingly endless civil war. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. More than three million people fled as refugees to Pakistan; a million to Iran.
In 1982 Safi's family started their trek across the country to the Pakistan border. He was eight, the eldest of three. They left behind everything, taking only what they could carry. Along the way their father got very sick after drinking water from a foetid pond used by animals. The father begged the family to leave him behind to die. Safi made the decision that they should all live or die together.
They settled finally in a refugee camp outside of Mansehra, Pakistan. Extended family lent them a tent, which was reclaimed a few months later. The family built a lean-to and lived there for a while. Finally an aid organisation provided them their own tent and Safi describes that as a proud day for the family.
He went to primary school in Mansehra, later moving to an Afghan boarding school in Peshawar, where he also attended an Afghan university. He got his degree in civil engineering, but there was no work available in that field. He returned to Mansehra and taught in a high school. He began working for aid agencies and is today the Assistant Disaster Response Coordinator of Church World Service's (CWS) Afghanistan office, after moving back to Afghanistan in 2004. (CWS is a member of the global alliance of Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, and its work in Pakistan and Afghanistan is supported by the members of the ACT alliance. Safi's work includes overseeing ACT supported camps, of the sort he once called home.)
When new offices were opened in Kabul, Safi remembers that there were no chairs and tables to be found in town. Everything was brought in from Pakistan. In a few short years Kabul has changed dramatically. The CWS offices now have access to the Internet, and everybody carries a cell phone. (Cell phone charge cards can be purchased on any street corner in Kabul.)
These small hints of an emerging future mix awkwardly with the overwhelming evidence of devastation. Roads are raw with potholes. There is an extreme shortage of schoolteachers and children go to school in three hours shifts, with primary in the morning, middle and then high school in the late afternoon.
As a humanitarian aid worker Safi is ahead of the curve in Afghanistan. He has gained training and understanding in gender issues and human rights, about poverty and the trauma of war. As an Afghan he is sensitive to traditional fealty. He remembers with shame doling out corporal punishment to his high school students. Today, through a Children's Rehabilitation Program, he understands children's rights.
The majority of his 33 years have been spent in Pakistan, always connected to Afghanistan. He worries about his children's safety (security is a huge issue, with children being kidnapped for ransom demands). But as an indigenous leader within an international organisation he knows he has the tools to affect the changes, to rewrite the history of his own life.