When we hear the word orphanage, for most of us cavernous halls with rows of straw mattresses come to mind, cold and embattled attendants who have grown indifferent to crying, and dirty fi ngernails, soiled sheets, and lice-ridden hair. Whenever anyone visits an AFCECO orphanage, the fi rst thing they notice is how clean it is and how happy the children are.
It is as NBC’s Brian Williams aptly noted, “a haven for Afghan children”, not so much a place sheltering orphans and giving them food, as it is a place where a new generation of progressive Afghan leaders can emerge.
The Dari word Parwarishga means, literally, “foster haven”. When people ask, any attempt to describe gives way to a simple question: “Have you been to visit the children yet?” Most of the children are orphans, victims of child labor or street children who were forced to beg. They have been exposed to very hostile and painful environments.
They enter the orphanage in a state of wonder. This new environment is a world apart from their prior lives, a place where they can sleep and eat without fear. Here they begin a new life based on peace, love and respect. Diverse as Afghanistan itself, AFCECO children have one thing in common: if they were not in the orphanage they would be victims of the street, of war, of poverty. They come from Farah, from Nuristan, from Mazar, Bamyan and Herat. They come from the most remote mountainside village where water is still hauled up from a river. With heartstrings attached to villages and family, they are not disconnected from their country, but rather those connections are reinforced. They learn how a family can grow.
A typical AFCECO home is three stories with spacious rooms. There is a courtyard where flowers grow. With 80 children living there, every day is bustling with activity. Bread is to be made, floors swept and laundry to be hung.
Some children are off to school, others are gathering with a volunteer English teacher, while still others are upstairs in drama class preparing an Afghan version of a Greek tragedy. They all have responsibilities, and if anyone neglects their duty their peers hold them to it. At the age of 9 or 10, girls and boys are separated and go to their own orphanages.
They treat one another as they would any sibling. Their free time is spent playing games such as table tennis or jumping rope, or telling stories on the verandah while drinking afternoon tea. After school many go off to soccer or karate. They are given an hour in the evening to watch television but also have prescribed times in the library where they must do homework.
Every week there are guests to attend to, journalists and volunteers interested in AFCECO, or sometimes a family member or sponsor visiting from afar. There is constant interaction between the orphanage and the outside world.
With each orphanage AFCECO opens, the need becomes clearer. As soon as it is announced, the orphanage is filled. Frustratingly, dozens of children must be “waitlisted” until another orphanage can be opened. Most extraordinary is the plethora of AFCECO children from Farah Province, from Kunar and Nuristan, areas more conservative than the Kandahar and Helmond Provinces so much the focus of NATO forces. These provinces are almost completely controlled by Taliban forces. And yet, here the people are lining up to place their children in an orphanage where girls are taught to be equal, boys to allow it, and all are exposed to a secular and liberal arts education.
What most every Afghan is looking for, what they see in this orphanage, is opportunity. How this opportunity is provided dissolves ideological boundaries, because AFCECO’s tenets are universally desirable: create a safe, clean, home-like environment, encourage alliances through diversity, and provide a dynamic education. All of this in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect. The impact of such daily living upon the children, and by proxy their families, cannot be overstated. The impact on girls is so profound that it strikes to the core of the problems facing Afghanistan. AFCECO’s girls don’t only realize their rights, they practice them. They stand up tall, their scarves fall from their heads, and they begin to dream. It is impossible to call such a place an orphanage, because these children are reclaiming their identity, are moving forward stronger and more resolved than ever imaginable in the milieu of Afghan society.