U.S. charity helps returning Afghan refugees survive winter in Kabul

By Stephen Kaufman, Washington File Staff Writer
Kabul - In the crumbling remains of what was once the Russian Cultural Center in Kabul, more than 100 Afghan refugee families are weathering the harsh winter with the help of a U.S. charity organization before completing their homeward-bound journey with the arrival of spring.

Those families, with little more than the clothes they were wearing, left their refugee camp in Pakistan in the summer of 2002. They opted to spend the winter in Kabul where food and shelter were more available than in their native region in the Shomali Plains of Parwan Province north of Kabul.

Community Habitat Finance (CHF), a charity group based in Silver Spring, Maryland, is providing the essential amenities to assure that the refugees survive the winter.

With funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), CHF has brought the families stoves for heat and cooking, as well as blankets and plastic sheeting to put over the windows and doors to keep out the cold. CHF also has provided each family with 200 kilograms of coal for the winter.

"We've been here for the past 10 months," said Kamal, one of the cultural center's temporary residents. With CHF's intervention, "the assistance has begun. In three installments they gave us stoves, they gave us coal, and they gave us blankets."

The 133 families living here "used to have houses and homes," he said. "Some of them lost them during the long reign of the Soviet intervention, and some during the al Qaeda (Taliban)."

"They've come in to Kabul because conditions are a little better here, and as deplorable as that situation is, it's better than what they would have out in the rural areas," said Jon Keeton, the CHF Country Director in Afghanistan.

Keeton said the Afghan government was not sure how to handle the flood of as many as 2 million returning refugees into Kabul and other parts of the country in 2002. "They don't want people in these public buildings," he said, pointing to the Russian Cultural Center, which was near collapse. "But what do they do with them? Where do they send them?" To ameliorate the situation, the mayor of Kabul turned to the NGO community for help.

With so many destitute families in the capital, CHF uses a survey to help prioritize those with the most acute needs. The survey asks how many children are in the household; whether the family has a stove and blankets, and whether the structure they are living in has windows and doors that can be closed.

Keeton led this reporter into the ruined cultural center, with a word of caution about "poignant scenes" inside . In each room, an entire family, some with as many as eight children, lived under appalling sanitary conditions, but they gratefully gathered around the heat provided by the CHF stoves.

"People are friendly, grateful, and as terrible as conditions are in Afghanistan, people are happy to be back in Afghanistan. They say that, yes, conditions were better in Pakistan, the water was better, the comfort level was a little better, but they are back in their homeland now. And they do feel that things are improving," said Keeton.

The Afghan government, anticipating another 2 million refugee returns in 2003, is urging former refugee families, such as those in the cultural center, to return to their original homes after the winter ends.

And if adequate homes can be built, said CHF Program Coordinator Dudley Conneely, "they would definitely move out of here."

"[W]e're trying to get the people to move back to [their rural homes] by giving them materials like roofs, windows, doors, and they rebuild their destroyed homes out there. And it's much better, because they'd have a job. They're farmers, most of them," he said.

In Dasht-i-Barchi, one of Kabul's outlying districts, CHF was having coal distributed to a group of waiting Hazara women, members of one of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities.

"Most of them are widows. Their husbands were killed by the Taliban, and the majority are from Bamian. They are also recently arrived from Bamian, probably in the last three weeks," said Conneely.

Marzia, one of the women, was asked what she had been able to bring with her from home.

"In terms of supply, we have just enough to go by," she said. "We don't have a happy life, but we are surviving. There is a plastic sheet on the floor. We have got some old stuff from here and there, and that's about it."

"What we received here [from CHF] is very good and we are very grateful. May God bless you," she told the NGO workers.

CHF also organized a school for the approximately 900 children living in Dasht-i-Barchi. Staggering the classes in shifts, the teachers make do with 11 classrooms, and teach traditional subjects such as mathematics, literacy, Urdu, Pashtu, and English. But they also teach practical skills such as tailoring and handicrafts, according to Amin, one of the schoolteachers.

The past year was the organization's first year for its mission in Afghanistan. Keeton said that CHF is helping as many as 11,500 families in the greater Kabul area, and has built aqueducts, repaired schools, and constructed 3000 shelter units, making it the major American NGO in the capital.

Keeton said that press reports implying that America wasn't responding sufficiently to the Afghan crisis, were refuted by projects such as this one. "We have been responding," he said, "and we're not the only NGO doing it, there's a consortium."

The hope is that NGOs, by helping the Afghan government shelter refugees over the winter, will also be able to offer help to the refugees to eventually return to their rural homes.

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: