The Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO) is an Afghan non-profit organization based in Kabul and fully registered since 2008 with AISA – the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s official registration agency. Founding director Andeisha Farid opened her first parwarishga, or “foster haven” in 2004, in Pakistan. An Afghan native who had grown up in war and displacement, her dream was to come up with an innovative way to help vulnerable Afghan children, in this case orphaned refugees.
This dream developed into a mission that dares to approach the problems in Afghanistan with a very simple, universally acceptable solution: what if a portion of the estimated 1.6 million orphans in Afghanistan could be raised in a new kind of orphanage, one that is inclusive, not exclusive of the villages and provinces where the children come from? What if this new orphanage operates with the blessing of the home village? What if aside from a liberal arts education it offers security, teaches equality, non discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or gender, and otherwise nurtures in a manner very much like that of an extended family? What if the goal is not so much to save as many children from the streets as possible, but to impact a large number of them over time, creating a civilian leadership, Afghan doctors, midwives, engineers, journalists, professionals who are not going to expatriate, but who will remain in their beloved country out of a deep sense of Khawk, what all Afghans long for: their homeland’s earth beneath their feet? What if these children could learn the power of community, and develop the skills to build and strengthen it on a local, national and international scale? What if they could learn that the first step to building a better society is to find one’s own voice, and then to listen and speak to others from the heart, with honesty, integrity and a dedication to the common good? To achieve these goals requires a source of funding that is sustainable, able to weather sudden changes in world events.
Fortunately Andeisha became known to CharityHelp International (CHI), a US non-governmental organization that funds programs through a child sponsorship program. This allows individuals from around the world to form bonds with the child of their choice, and participate in sustaining the orphanage by paying some or all of the cost of providing that child with her or his needs.
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NATALIE CARNEY, 2009
The Story of AFCECO
Natalie Carney, a multi-media broadcast journalist from Canada spent one month in Mehan Orphanage filming daily life of children.
Each orphanage houses anywhere from thirty to eighty children. The facilities are usually large houses with lawn and all the amenities that make a place feel like home. Every orphanage is run by a live-in couple, with assistance from a staff including widows who otherwise would be destitute in the streets.
Children are given a variety of responsibilities, all cleaning, cooking, maintenance and laundry is shared duty. They sleep together on double-bunk beds in curtained, homey rooms with high ceilings, four to six bunk beds per room. Initially they are assessed and treated for addiction problems and psychological illness. The children attend public schools including Afghanistan National Institute of Music. The children have variety extracurricular activities in orphanage and they are given responsibility to help in the running of the orphanage, and everyone is taught to work together as if one big family.
Through our countrywide network of friends, AFCECO now receives referrals almost daily. There are over a thousand children on the waiting list. If we opened ten more orphanages tomorrow, they would be fi lled in a week. The children come from the streets, from homes destroyed by war, they come from families too poor to feed them, and they come from abusive homes from which they have fl ed with their mothers. In all cases, we meet with family members face to face and discuss the long-term goals and benefi ts. Family members must agree and ascribe to all AFCECO policies, knowing that to give the world we offer takes time and commitment.
It is illegal to adopt Afghan children, primarily because of the strict doctrine that no Moslem child will be subjected to possible conversion. In addition, there are family members integrally involved, not only uncles and aunts. Worldwide, 75% of children deemed to be “orphans” actually have one or both parents still living. But AFCECO’s reasoning is based on the notion to create change here on the ground. Since the Soviet era millions of Afghan professionals, intellectuals, and would-be leaders were either killed or had to flee the country.
Today, 80% of young Afghan students attending university overseas never return to their troubled homeland. AFCECO is aiming to stop this rampant exporting of Afghanistan’s human resources.Our children are proud to be who they are and intend to stay, to be in ways small or large, a part of the solution.
AFCECO maintains a staff of around-the-clock armed guards who monitor everyone who comes and goes. Every orphanage is gated, and would take a significant effort to enter forcefully. All children are accounted for at all times, and girls especially are transported by van or bus to and from the New Learning Center, soccer fi eld and other locations. That said our greatest security is achieved because we are Afghans helping Afghans, and through connectedness with average Afghans and communities near and far. There is a broad, deep base of support among people from every corner of Afghan society. Remember, these children represent every tribe and every province. Each comes with an entire village of support. Targeting the orphanage or the children is simply at the bottom of the list for would-be assailants, primarily because to attack AFCECO would in essence create a storm of backlash from Afghans everywhere.
The people of AFCECO maintain a personal, face-to face relationship with all heads of family that send children to the orphanages. The spirit of cooperation, of common long-term goals, and of being in this together maintains a level of trust through the years. Occasionally it does happen that some estranged uncle or other relative appears, taking sudden interest in having a child “back”. Again through networking with communities, AFCECO is aware of these cases well before they come to a head, and therefore through various means wards the confl ict off before it develops.
In a few extreme cases, a deal can be met, such as taking even more children for the family, or working with powerful elders from the home village, or simply keeping the girl in question secure and “unavailable” for visitation outside the orphanage.
The first generation of children to have been raised in AFCECO orphanages is now approaching adulthood. This year four high school graduates are attending university. The children of AFCECO are not part of a program that once completed they are shown the door. They are like family, and as such we stand behind them as they make their way into the world.
The greatest effort will be made to get as many into higher education as possible. Also, who better to begin hiring for any of a wide variety of positions running the orphanages, especially as AFCECO grows? Inexchange for room, board, book expenses, tuition fees or transportation costs, who better than our very own are qualified to teach the younger children, to run the library, help with letters to sponsors, organize events and fundraise?
AFCECO staff such as guards, cooks, house parents, bookkeepers, drivers and so on are all Afghans who make a humble wage, enough to have their needs met.
Most enjoy the sanctuary of being able to live in the orphanages. There are no high paid executives, no expensive travel packages, no consultant fees, no fringe benefits, no advertising costs, no tinted windowed state-of-the-art SUVs or any of the myriad “expenses” most large NGOs are notorious for. The director, managing director and education coordinator are all unpaid volunteers. Every dollar goes to the children’s wellbeing, their environment and their education.
Over the years about 10% of children who come to live in AFCECO orphanages are lost back to their villages before reaching the age of 16. Given the situation prevalent in Afghanistan, though it saddens us to the core losing just one child, it is remarkable we do not lose more. Firstly, these families are desperately poor, and an older child that can work now for bread so people can eat is tough for families to spare for the prospective rewards of an educated professional some years down the road. There is also the predominant culture that forsakes and even shames the family of an older girl living away from home. And of course there is war, famine, crime and even drought causing disruption in people’s lives everywhere. It is our belief, though, that these ten children out of a hundred have essentially been touched with the seed of liberation, education and the joys of a free loving community of Afghans, and even if they only lived in the orphanage for a few years, they, too, contribute to lasting positive change in their families and communities.