Australian-born Mahdi shares his experiences of working in an orphanage in Afghanistan, the country of his forebears. He is continually inspired by the children, who have tragic stories, yet unyielding spirits.
It was three years ago when I first visited Afghanistan. I had heard stories from my mother and father and elders about how life was before the wars. I heard of the peace which reigned, the exquisite hospitality of the people, and the rugged beauty of the landscape. For one month during my university break I roamed the country. In the end, as I was flying away and past the rolling mountains, I felt an ache, a yearning which stayed with me for the next three years. I had discovered that, beyond the harsh media depiction, there was a country and a people who had withstood all that befell them, and I realised the essential truth: that beauty and goodness are strong and un-wilting.
Since I was a boy, all I wanted to do in the world was to support and serve those who are suffering, to give hope to the hopeless, and tell the forgotten that they are not forgotten. My travels in Afghanistan only strengthened this passion. I witnessed and came across tragic lives, of families hungry and cold in winter, and of children who worked in the streets instead of playing in them, going out to earn a dollar or so in a whole day instead of going to school to learn and grow. There are so many orphans in Afghanistan.
A calling that is impossible to silence
I knew it then and I know it now –that I cannot help them all – but I could have an impact if I tried. So I said to my mother’s old friend, Mahboba Rawi, who is the founder of ‘Mahboba’s Promise’, an organisation dedicated to the support of orphans and widows, that I was going to return to Afghanistan to work in one of the orphanages. Sometimes we feel a calling from a place which is impossible to silence.
I am living now in Panjshir, the smallest province in all of Afghanistan. It is a lush valley flanked on both sides by soaring mountains which are cut through by smaller ascending valleys. A roaring river in the midst, a road which snakes by the mountainsides and many mud home villages settled throughout.
The orphanage that I work in is called Hope House, a three-storey, orange and green building restingby the river. There is a garden within the walls full of peach and apple trees and roses. But the life of the Hope House is the orphans – a mix of boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 14 who don’t have fathers and/or mothers. It is the sound of their talking and laughing and running about which fills the entire Hope House. It is for these children that I am living here. I have wanted all along, more than anything else, to inspire them. After six months of being with them almost every day, I truly wonder who is inspiring whom.
Given away at birth and now no-one wants her
Beheshta is a ten-year-old girl and one of the liveliest of the Hope House children. When she was born her parents gave her to her aunt to raise, since they already had ten children. Her aunt and her aunt’s husband cared for her and raised her dedicatedly until her aunt died. Her uncle remarried and his new wife was mean to Beheshta. She would hit her and force her to do much of the housework. Eventually Beheshta was given back to her real parents, but her true family treated her as an outsider. Her own brothers and sisters did not care for her. So she fled back to the home she grew up in. Every time she was returned, she would flee again. She was unwanted in both homes.
Eventually her real father brought her to the Hope House. There Beheshta saw Mahboba for the first time and clung to her and she said to her, “Keep me.”And she was kept, and she has been living in the Hope House for a few months now. To be rejected by your own family, being a child and completely innocent, is a tragedy unlike any other. But from the beginning Beheshta was joyous in Hope House. Always the boldest and most playful. She always smiles and giggles when I look at her.
Her story is not unique
All the orphans have tragic life stories but they have unyielding spirits. I am amazed how anyone, a child most of all, can be so full of life when life has treated them so harshly.
I teach the orphans English and computer. Never before had I known the joys of teaching, but I know it now, especially here since there is such a strong desire for learning among the children. Many villages and homes in Panjshir are in far-flung spots, nestled in the distant heights and deep valleys. Commonly, children clad in their schools clothes, and carrying on their backs bags as big as themselves almost. They trek for at least an hour to come to school, and walk another hour back to their homes. Every day. Just to learn. For them it’s the subtle thrill of learning a new word, reading another story, finding out the names of other countries and continents, just sitting behind those creaky desks, crammed together, but looking up at a blackboard eagerly.
Feasting on books
I remember when I put some money together and bought about 500 storybooks to take to our orphans in Hope House. On my way I picked up a little brother and sister, Maryam and Sahel (meaning shore), who were on their way to school. When they got in the car and saw all the books, their eyes lit up and they asked me where I was taking all the books. They picked up the books and stared at the covers and paged through them gently. In the end, when I dropped them off, I gave each one of them one book. They quickly put them in their bags and immediately looked up and asked for more. I laughed and said the rest are for the Hope House children. And I drove away.
At the Hope House the orphans had a feast over the books. They sat around while I poured all the books amidst them. They went wild. The story books are still being read every night. I test them on their English lessons every once in a while and I ask them what should be the prize for the highest marks. To my surprise, they don’t ask for clothes, dolls, or toys. They ask for notebooks, pens, and books. The children yearn to learn. I bet they don’t consciously know that to learn is to grow wings and to change the fate of yourself and those around you. For them it is a natural impulse, and a strong one.
This impulse is coupled with the brave aspirations that live in their small but bold hearts. I remember sitting with the children one day and asking them what they would like to be in the future. Each one had some vision, something or someone they wanted to be, and they were not shy when raising their hand and exclaiming: “Doctor! Teacher! Architect! Pilot!” It is remarkable in itself for a child to be resilient in the face of poverty and loss, to not succumb to sadness and hopelessness. But to then aspire and dream, and try every day to grow and learn; that’s beautiful to see. If children have such strong spirits, then we all do, young and old.
For all of the joy which fills the halls of Hope House, there is also some sorrow which is hard to see. I’ve been here long enough to witness it. Another of the Hope House children is Yalda, a nine-year-old girl whose mother died and her father is in jail. I remember one day stepping out of the Hope House onto the stairs which spiral downwards to the garden. Yalda was sitting there, leaning against the railing and she was gazing towards the mist-covered mountains in the distance. When she noticed me, she got up and shyly went back inside.
Even seemingly sweet moments reveal underlying sad truths
I was surprised at first how quickly the children attached to me. Within days they would hold my hand and seek me out when I was in the office. Deprived of a mother and father, they lack love and so, whenever they experience affection, they respond wholeheartedly and become attached very easily. I know that to thrive, children need a safe home, warmth in winter, a full belly, and then means to learn. But just on par with those essential needs, is the need for love Unloved children will always feel empty, forgotten and hopeless.
But these children are resilient and they dare to aspire. I know that this is mostly due to their own resources, the inner well of human virtues which is drawn from most surely in the first years of life, before fear and doubt grow. We are often told that wisdom comes from our elders. But we must admit that wisdom comes from the youth too, as I have learned in Hope House.
In my happiest moments among the children of Hope House, I remember the many other orphans out there in the world who are lost, abandoned, and unloved, with dark fates ahead of them – unless I find them first and bring them here. I know I can’t find all of them, but the ones I do find, I’ll try to give love and teach them to build a life for themselves.
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