December 2, 2007

Kabul Afghanistan - Day 1 and 2

I’m writing after our second day in Kabul. To my surprise, we have found much more depth and diversity in the hand crafts being produced by artisans in Afghanistan then we had imagined; cotton and wool textiles (both embroidered and woven), jewelry made of recycled glass and stone, ceramics and wooden carvings. Most artisan crafts are made in the northern and western regions of the country, either in Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan or outside of Kabul; little is available from the south and east near the border with Pakistan, a violent area still dominated by the insurgency and the Taliban. As I write this, I hear the morning call to prayer outside our window. It must be 5:00 am.

Not surprising, there are so many stories to tell. Every group we visit, and each artisan we talk to, is another example of the strength of the human spirit to rise above adversity. This country and its people have been deeply wounded by war; it is evident in the way that people talk and you can see it in their eyes. Nobody has been left untouched. As we drive through Kabul, we see building after building destroyed by bombs, the overwhelming presence of Afghan military and police, and the occasional presence of U.N. forces.

There is a feeling that security in Kabul has deteriorated over the past year, as the Taliban is beginning to resurge. One workshop organizer told us that while life under the Taliban was oppressive, there was less violence and fear of being blown-up by a suicide bomber or I.E.D. Now she can’t make the 1-day drive between Kabul and Jalabad without wondering if it will be her last. If you see an approaching convoy of tanks or other armored vehicles (usually U.S. military), you must quickly pull off the road and risk being blown up by an I.E.D. or fired upon by the military without any warning or provocation. Afghanistan and Iraq are now the mostly highly mined countries in the world.

Yesterday, we visited two groups:

Women of Hope was started by an American woman, Betsy Beamon, who once worked for U.S. Air Lines. After Sept. 11, she felt compelled to move to Afghanistan to assist in the plight of Afghan women, and arrived without any training, experience or a plan. In just five years, she's been able to create a Vocational Center that teaches more than 70 Afghan women to create crafts, and craft a future. In response to these women expressing a desire to educate themselves and their family, Women of Hope opened a school in Afghanistan that's grown to teach 200 children (130 boys and 70 girls).

There is also a refugee camp near Kabul called Ben-e-Wasak, a tent city in the middle of nowhere, that's home to more than 300 families. There are no stores or services, so the men have to commute 1-1/2 hours each day to Kabul looking for work. The Afghan government plans to move 42,000 refugee families into this area and to provide them with permanent land. When this happens, Women for Hope will distribute start-up kits to any resident who commits to start a business that will benefit the local community. Each kit will cost $500, and include the supplies a new store owner will need to set up shop. The goal is to fund a couple of grocery stores, as well as a propane shop, a bakery, tailor, textile shop, and a tool and building supply store. Ten percent, or $50, of the store owner’s earnings will be reinvested in setting up the next shop. This is how the community will grow and become sustainable. One World Projects will purchase one or more of these startup kits in the spring.

The second group, Zardozi, works with more than 2,500 female artisans living in Afghanistan and the refugee camps in Pakistan. (There are an estimated 1.5 million widows in Afghanistan, 70,000 in Kabul alone.) Zardozi is the most established handicraft project in Afghanistan and has been helping Afghan artisans to find markets for their handicrafts for more than 20 years. Their products include high-quality embroidered bags and gift items.

Today we are off to visit three more artisan groups: Turquoise Mountain, Nasima Silk, and Khaber Khosh Shop. Please stay tuned for the next report. Thank you for following and for your support.

All the best, Phil

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