Friday, August 21, 2015

My Afghan Trip Report – Riyaz

Here is a perspective of CAI activities in Afghanistan from a newcomer to the country who accompanied my 28th trip there. Interesting insight into the challenges all of us face in the humanitarian work undertaken by CAI. You can view some wonderful photos of the trip here.

Ali Yusufali

My Afghan Trip Report – Riyaz

Having recently seen Tanzanian CAI projects, I agreed to Yusufali’s suggestion to join him for CAI’s Afghanistan undertakings. There were no lines at the Consulate in Vancouver; Afghanistan did not seem to be the destination of choice.  Although very helpful, the officer charged C$300 to process my visa and a letter taking full responsibility for consequences. I travel a lot, in war zones, but this was the first time that I have been asked to acknowledge casualty in visiting another country.

I had faith in Yusufali; he was going on his 28th trip to Afghanistan, so I figured I was in good hands. It also made me realize how precious life is; when my calling would come — important to ensure that I take care of affairs - complete my will, ask forgiveness, tell dear ones of how special and important they are; procrastinating issues. It was also hard to get excited about the trip, as I could not tell friends or family how eager I was when a written undertaking for safety is a requisite.  The few people I did tell must have thought I was insane, wanting to visit such a dangerous country.
Kabul airport looked like something out of a Hollywood war movie. The airport is divided into two parts, military and civilian, with the UN / NGO.  A war movie could be shot in Kabul unrehearsed, except this was no movie.  Following Yusufali’s instructions, I made it to the exit where Wasi and Basheer, CAI representatives, were waiting for me. They have been working with CAI, managing the projects for the past nine years — they are neighbors, have kids of same age, and if you did not know any better you’d think they are brothers in complete sync.  We had had a wonderful breakfast Wasi’s at house before picking up Yusufali, whose flight was three hours later.

Due to issues with regular chartered flights that CAI uses for remote areas, the only alternative was to fly to Bamiyan from Kabul and drive 15 hours to Dykoondy Province.  We arrived at the airport next morning, joined by Dr. Assef, medical coordinator for 4 remote CAI run medical clinics and waited around for our flight — there was nobody to tell us when or if the flight would depart — normal in Afghanistan.  We finally boarded the plane, an ancient wobbly 1962 Soviet aircraft.  It was a 30-minute flight to the small but new Japanese gifted airport. We picked up our luggage brought to us on a 3-wheeler motorbike, as ancient as the aircraft we just flew. Sher Hussein, our very adept and joyous driver, met us at the airport.

We left for Dykoondy, escorted by security guards provided by the Governors of both Bamiyan and Dykoondy. This security of about 4 -5 armed police was with us throughout our visit, a fresh group replacing old ones as we crossed districts. Our first stop was for breakfast at a dingy restaurant; the specialty were kabobs. As everyone else was eating them, I figured it was okay, so dug in.  The restaurant would have been rated -5 back home but since we were all hungry, everything served was eaten. We then left for Ozmook, a fifteen hours drive on bumpy mud roads, narrow and on the edge of mountains with no barriers; definitely the worst roads I have ever traveled. Roads in countries like India and Africa seem like super highways compared to these. The total distance is only 200 kilometer but took us 15 hours to traverse. Sher is definitely the best driver I have ever met — we drove through many narrow roads, past many high mountains where the edge seemed only inches away (including navigating two vehicles on the road).  Our only stop was for bathrooms, which was in the fields (so I had to figure out how to coordinate things) or to pray on the side of the road doing wudhu from a water bottle or along a stream. We arrived Ozmook after midnight, were served a nice meal by the hospitable staff — this was the first real food we had eaten since the kabobs some fifteen hours earlier. The six of us were in a small room with 6 blankets and mattresses and slept on the floor. One of the challenges in Afghanistan is erratic or no power.  The Internet is almost non-existent and works at a very slow 2G speed. Exhausted from being tossed around in the van for fifteen hours, we slept very well, but woke up for salaat three hours later.  The all-purpose room served as a bedroom, salaat area, meals etc. so we had to put the mattresses away.  We shared a very basic shower / bathroom, ate some Afghan bread and tea for breakfast and were ready for another day.

We were given the tour of the clinic; pharmacy, examination room, delivery room, vaccinations and mother/child care. It treats about 2,000 patients per month; many villagers walk up to seven hours to get there.  The old clinic will be replaced by a new one that CAI is building a short distance away.  CAI has also built a school nearby which the Governor of Dykoondy was to inaugurate that day. We arrived at the school greeted by a large number of students and villagers.  The Governor of Dykoondy Province is Masooma Muradi; she arrived with a convoy of 20-armed police vehicles, who quickly secured the surroundings.  There were a number of speeches and finally the ribbon cutting ceremony by the Governor, Yusufali, and other dignitaries in the area.  The school is the first in the area; kids simply did not attend school or held classes on the dirt floor, in the open. The weather is hot in the summer and freezing (minus 10 to 20) in the winter, so having a school that would educate over 300 children is a real luxury. This is possible by CAI donors and the hard work, dedication of the CAI team. Yusufali had a brief meeting with the busy Governor who assured him the promised boundary wall for the new clinic would be built by the government. We visited the clinic under construction, which will be ready by October 2015. We left for Nilli, which is about three hours away on same the rough mud roads through the treacherous mountain ranges with Sher’s driving skills.

At Nilli, we participated in a mass marriage ceremony for 100 poor couples, all arranged by donors of CAI. The couples have their wedding ceremony paid for and are gifted with a house initiation package. We then drove to Dyroos, site of another CAI operating clinic and spent the night amongst familiar Afghan hospitality. In the morning, we visited the site of new clinic CAI is building that is under construction, also opening in October.  Both clinics we saw are operated very well. Residents of the areas would not have medical services without these clinics and would possibly die without treatment.  Dr. Assef, in charge of managing the clinics, visits them every three months for audits and to ensure they are properly run.  In addition, he is the coordinator for all the doctors, nurses and other professionals needed to run a first class operation.

In the morning, we left for Yawkawlang, a 12 ½ hour drive and is located in Bamiyan Province. The ride did not seem as bad going back as we (or I) were finally getting used to the rough roads and figured out how to steal a nap along the way.  We arrived in Yawkawlang at Jamsheed’s, a local businessman and CAI well-wisher.  He has a nice home and insists CAI staff stay and eat at his house, all at no cost.

Were up again for salaat just after 3 am next day and then left on a 2-½-hour drive to Sacheck, the first clinic CAI built in Afghanistan.  The clinic is first class - construction, organization and professional staff.  A busload of about 20 people arrived to get checked while we visited. This clinic serves about 1,600 patients monthly; an invaluable service to humanity, who would otherwise simply suffer, or worse. A sick young girl, infected with a rare disease is brought to Yusufali who approved her immediate long-term treatment. All along our stops people made several applications for some aid or another, to be evaluated by CAI teams later. The cases are numerous; even with all the work that CAI provides, they scratch only the surface.
We arrived in Bamiyan and stayed at the Bamiyan Royal Hotel, a brand new hotel.  Until a few years ago, Bamiyan did not have any respectable hotels and the airport was a dirt strip where planes would land, sometimes with people on the ‘runway’!  We arrived at the hotel with our police escort and got us a double room on 4th floor with no elevator so a  good workout; US$140 for 6, not too bad.  As the room was not big enough for all of us, Wasi and Sher slept on the balcony with a mattress and blanket — Yusufali had crashed early on the bed so we made ourselves comfortable on the floor mattresses.  There was an inevitable power cut and it took a number of visits downstairs to get the hotel start the generator.  Internet service was a struggle, as usual, but managed to get few emails in and out. We had a good night’s sleep (until 3:15 am as the floor must clear for salaat).

We discussed plan B for getting back to Kabul, just in case the scheduled East Horizon flight canceled, a very common occurrence. If that happened, we’d be stuck in Bamiyan for a week; not acceptable.  The drive between Bamiyan and Kabul is only five hours, but dangerous, as the Taliban control a section of the road.  Dr. Assef and Sher were on a recent trip (along with eight other passengers that Sher was transporting).  The Taliban stopped them in between two police checkpoints; a sajdegagh and NGO material was found in Dr. Assef’s belongings, sufficient grounds for a death penalty.  A lot of duas by the duo did the trick as a passing police security team engaged the Taliban; there was an intense firefight and Sher managed to race the car to safety. This route was a no-no. The alternate? A 25-hour drive. We all prayed hard for East Horizon to make it.

East Horizon came through alhamd’Allah, coming in early as a matter of fact.  The aircraft had 3 pilots and a Russian maintenance guy. Needed I guess, if you are flying a 1962 plane? The SGH driver picked us up at Kabul airport and we went to Wasi’s place for lunch and to offer salaat.  Then we drove to Sakina Girls Home, CAI’s project for 30 orphan girls since 2011. The orphans are provided quality education, first class accommodation, 3 square meals a day and everything else a child needs for a healthy growth environment. The girls did a presentation for us - speeches, duas and answered religious questions. It was amazing to see how well behaved, and smart these children really were!  Their only fault is born to a poor family and their parent (s) passing away. Some of the girls go back to their families for a day every two weeks, and those that have no family are taken care of by Wasi, Dr. Assef and Basheer. The help of CAI and the local team is making a real difference in the lives of these girls. The cost of running the orphanage or 30 girls, including a quality education is about $5,000 per month — about the cost paid to educate one girl in a University in the United States. The rooms are immaculately kept, with five bunk beds, 10 girls to a room. The girls have a very rigid program; they start at 4:30 am and have a full program until 9:30 pm. It was gratifying to see the difference CAI was making in the lives of many underprivileged young girls. The teachers and administrators are also very passionate about the success of the girls – reason SGH is so successful.

After leaving the SGH (which is rented) we drove a short distance to the site of the new SGH and School under construction. The school and orphanage will be almost 20,000 square feet and will be able to house 60 girls (double the current number) and also have over 300 students. The school is in a safer, upper scale part of Kabul so will be able to draw a large number of students that are more affluent and can pay a higher fee. This will enable the school to be profitable and support the cost of the orphanage. It will open later this year insha’Allah, and the school will open in the spring of 2016. This is a wonderful project. Seeing the success of SGH and the other schools, I am confident this will be a first-class project that the CAI team should be commended for.

We then drove to Chandawal, which is a water project that CAI had executed 7 years ago. This was an important project for Yusufali, since his wish to alleviate the suffering of 3,000 plus families (mainly children) who toiled (through ice and snow in winter) for water up and down a mountainside resulted in his meeting Wasi and Basheer, who took on the challenging project.  They designed and built the project, chiseling through rock and stone through the mountainside. Today, the water project is still running, some seven years later.  Each household has an average of seven or eight people, who use about 25 liters of clean potable water per person per day, which is in excess of 375,000 liters. Without the assistance, the people would still be suffering the misery of lugging water for an hour one way.
After a good night’s sleep on comfortable mattresses at Wasi’s house (the hospitality is amazing in Afghanistan and people are very kind and humble) and breakfast we went to CAI office. It is a humble office with three desks for Dr. Assef, Basheer, and Wasi.  Yusufali was looking for good Internet service and also a wireless printer but got neither.  The day was busy with Yusufali meeting with the team, going over the progress of each project, financials and back up documents of each project and the plan for future projects.  Yusufali has the vision for CAI and the discipline and with the skills and dedication of the team in Afghanistan, are making a huge difference in the lives of many hapless people. We were then invited to Dr. Assef’s house for a wonderful dinner with his family.

Wednesday was my last day in Kabul.  We left at 6:30 am for Daste Barchi, an hour’s drive, to see some homes CAI has built for the homeless.  After a rather bumpy drive, we had a 15-minute hike up a mountain to go inspect the house.  CAI supplied the materials for about $5,000 for the family to build a two-room home with a bathroom.  I am in relatively good shape, but the hike up the hill left me winded. The path was a little dangerous; aside from the steep elevation, the rocks were not stable.  After making it to the top, the family greeted us and served us tea and sweets—a welcome break since going down proved to be more challenging, as the ground was not very stable.  Little kids with no fear would go flying by us; the tracks were normal for them.  There were children about 5 years old carrying two bricks up the same hill; older siblings carried four or five bricks, all pitching in to help build their homes. Afghanistan is virtually mountainous and many poor people live in houses in the hills or in caves in the mountain.  There are few or no roads up; so hiking up is the only way.

We then went to the nearby school where children from the area go. Classrooms are tarp tents with children sitting on nylon sheets, about 50 children to a class.  Few classrooms have no cover; the children sweat away under a 95F sun.  Afghanistan winters are brutal so I cannot imagine the students being taught outside with no heat. The girl’s section had 450 girls in session – one toilet! The school operates three sessions per day and the three cluster schools educate 7,500 students from the area.  The headmaster and village elders tried to impress upon Yusufali and CAI team how desperate they are and willing to donate a piece of land for a large school for all the students. The cost of constructing the building? US$500,000.  We visited the land site; Yusufali has his work cut out for him, to try and get donors for this incredibly worthwhile project.

As I prepare to leave Afghanistan with all their challenges, what I really appreciate is that all of us have the same goals and visions - providing for our families, educating our children, helping those in need and in practicing our religion. The main difference in Afghanistan is the uncertainty about life, either due to illness or attacks, that any day could be the last. I have met some amazing people during my visit, who are very kind and respectful, caring, extremely hospitable, and I leave Afghanistan with many more friends than I came with.  To really get to know someone, travel with them for countless hours cooked up in a van, share a meal or a mattress or live in their homes.  The team at CAI really needs to be commended for running a world-class organization on a very limited budget, where the funds are almost exclusively used to help people in needs, with very limited administration costs.  Thank you Yusufali, for arranging a very productive trip, and Wasi, Bashir, Dr. Assef and the local team for taking excellent care of us, keeping us safe, and for all the work that you do to help those in needs.  My friends, I am looking forward to seeing you all again.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

All Men Are Dogs...!

The Emirates A380 long haul flights can be comfortable, but rather lonely. Gone are the flights where I could chat with a fellow traveler and while away some of the long hours. I can eat a bunch, watch a couple of movies, nap a bit or read some, but the conversation certainly helps, especially to somebody interesting, from a different country, another culture. But the A380 isolates, imprisons me, providing a lot of privacy and space of course, but loneliness surely.

So it is with pleasure I find myself next to a pricey perfumed, young attractive damsel on a smaller 777-300 flight from Dubai to Mumbai. I nod to her in friendship and she gives me a bright smile in response, lifting my spirits; perhaps the final three or so hours of my long thirty hour haul from Orlando to Mumbai will conclude with some stimulating conversation?

Hello Uncle, kaise ho?

She greets me gaily; my smile slips and the good feeling I have dissipates somewhat. Bloody hell, can’t these younger generations treat me with some respect? Uncle indeed. We don’t converse again until the flight is airborne and she is done with wolfing down her dinner, including cleaning up on a massive mango moose for dessert. Mashaa’Allah; quite an appetite. She burps softly, excuses herself, opens a compact mirror, peers at herself, paints her lips a bright red, smacks them several times and gives me a flashing smile.

That was so good, I was so hungry. I wish I could smoke now; that would be a perfect finish.

She breaks into gay laughter as she sees the startled look on my face, showing off a perfect set of teeth and a very pink tongue lightly coated with remnants of the food she just ate.

Oh, Uncle, don’t look so shocked. Women do smoke these days, you know?

This gal is beginning to irk me.

Oh, you can smoke and ruin your lungs, Ma’am, no skin off my nose; I am an ex-smoker myself. Will you please stop calling me Uncle? Don’t let my gray hair fool you; I dye my black goatee different colors.

I see her digesting my jest as her pretty face clouds up in a frown, before clearing and breaking into full-fledged laughter. She laughs robustly for a while; to the point of dabbing her kajal clad koyal eyes with a napkin. The ice is broken and we begin talking. We introduce ourselves and I briefly tell her about my work, something she finds fascinating, since she also grew up in dire poverty under the care of a single mother, ending up without a formal higher education.

MoonMoon, she tells me, my name is MoonMoon.

Eh? This is getting interesting. MoonMoon? Never heard that one before.

Well, my real name is Shabnam, but my boyfriend calls me MoonMoon, so I have stuck to MoonMoon for the last few years. I was born to a single mother; my father disappeared one fine day. Mama tells me he was involved in gang business and they knocked him off because of a dispute over money. It was tough for Mama, raising two kids, my elder sister and I. Money was always a challenge and we had to do without many simple joys of life. I hated that. All my friends in school had loads of rupees. Not I. So I rebelled and dropped out of school and began modeling. People always said I had a great body and a selling face. Don’t you think I am pretty?

MoonMoon gives me a coy smile. A sly smile. I think I blush scarlet and stupidly grin back at her. She wags her head, accepting my silent consent.

Especially my teachers at school, especially the men teachers. They were the dogs. Well, all men are dogs, Uncle, sorry, but you guys are. Maybe you guys can’t help it, maybe God made you that way, but you are all dogs. All you want is one thing. Always.

She goes quiet. There is a far off look on her face, a look I cannot fathom. I have broken into a slight sweat, my heartbeats on the move. Should I be having this conversation?  Should I end it and shut up? But I don’t. For some reason, I want to hear more.

My looks worked both as an asset and liability for me. I was offered money to model and with that came aggressive men and agonies of the heart. The money was good, because I could finally have all the luxuries I was denied before. But Mama would have none of it, so I had to leave home. You know how tough it is out there as a single woman? The men, they eat you up and the women, they try and tear you down. Out of jealousy. The only way out is protection. From a man. A big man. A powerful man. A man with money. Lots and lots of money. I got such a man. He is married, has children and lives in Dubai. A big businessman. He flies me down here every two or so weeks. Business class, see? For his entertainment. He has bought me an apartment in Juhu. I have a car and a driver, all the money I can ever want...

She is absolutely quiet again. I want to ask her a lot of questions. What about her Mama and sister? Other families? How will she ever find a husband? What about children of her own? What about religion? Surely there is no future with this man? It is time for the flight to descend; the pilot says we are landing in thirty minutes and for us to get ready.

I am a born Muslim but don’t practice the religion anymore, not with all the sins I supposedly commit daily. My sister is religious. She is married now, to an accountant. I make more money in a week than he makes in a month, even more. But both Appa and Mama will not take a single paisa of my money. My extended family and community have disowned me, will not talk to me, and will not invite me to their homes, marriages or deaths. They are all afraid I’ll pollute their children. But I think they are simply jealous. Jealous of my good fortunes and all the money I have accumulated. Well, they can all go to hell for all I care. Let them burn in envy.

But her defiance is lackluster, lacking conviction. I can hear the loneliness and pain in her voice. This young woman is hurting and is headed for disaster. The aircraft shudders into a landing and heads towards the gate. I do my hujjat.

Well, it was nice talking to you MoonMoon; the time simply flew by. This is none of my business but let me give you some gray beard advice. I cannot say much about your money matters; can’t help or guide you in that matter. However, personally, I am a nobody without my religion, family and community; these are my roots. I strongly recommend for you to turn to Allah for help, for He is there, loves you and will guide you. He must. Never abandon your Mama, for that is the only person in our lives that love us unconditionally. As far as your boyfriend, drop him. He will drop you as soon as a younger face takes his fancy...

MoonMoon laughs out aloud, cutting me off.

My boyfriend will never abandon me. Never! She says feverously, pumping a delicate fist in the air for emphasis. I know too much about his private and business life; I have him in my mutthi. Even if he does, it will be way off in the future. And to his loss, not mine. She gives me that coy look as a sly smile spreads across her bright lips. By that time, I will find myself an elderly man, someone like you. Wouldn’t that be nice, Uncle?

My face turns purple and I break into a sweat, feeling hot and cold at the same time. The aircraft comes to a jerky stop and the seatbelt lights go off. I fumble with the belt, release it in a mild panic and get busy with gathering my stuff. We don’t exchange a single word as we wait for the doors to open, but I can feel her mocking eyes and matching grin burn a hole in my back.