Coming Face to Face with My Foster Child

By Rukhsana Khan

Notice that in this whole narrative I never mention Jama-uddin. At the time he wasn’t the focus of my story even though he was always there with Kareem.)

I suppose if I had gone directly from Canada to the refugee camp where my foster child Kareem lives, I would have found the conditions more appalling.

It was in January, before the fall of Kabul, that I stayed in Peshawar with my friend Maha, a Palestinian relief worker in love with the Afghanis and their cause, she’s one of the few women who work directly with them. She runs a mother and child clinic and a girls’ school. Her husband heads the Canadian relief organization branch of Human Concern International. It was through H.C.I. that I had sponsored Kareem, and it was Maha who arranged the visit.

To get to Akkora Khattak, the refugee camp where Kareem lives, we drove for about an hour and a half along a single lane highway bordered by groves of apricot trees, fertile fields, dusty villages and many graveyards. We dodged donkey carts, horse carts, ox carts, bicycles, and pedestrians without once applying the brakes.

We passed a plain to our left that was covered in white U.N. vehicles. They were to carry the refugees home--eventually. At that time no one knew when they would be needed.

We turned off the highway onto a rocky plain that looked to have been formed by a glacier’s retreat. There were still a few meltwater streams that trickled through the rounded stones and were used by the women to wash clothes. Peshawar is on a plain surrounded by mountains. In winter the temperature goes down to near freezing. The camps have water but no electricity.

Akkora Khattak means Hope Village, an H.C.I. project.

Maha took me into one of the rooms of the office, while she spoke to the person in charge.

We were having a late breakfast of biscuits and tea when Kareem and his older brother Jama-uddin arrived.

I looked up into Kareem’s blue eyes. His hair was dirty blonde and he had freckles. He looked exactly like his picture.

I was lucky that Maha had learned to speak some Pushto. She told him who I was and where I had come from. When she said "Canada", his eyes widened for a moment and he glanced at me. But before I could say anything he turned back to Maha. There was not even a hint of incredulity on his face. I didn’t want or expect gratitude but that wasn’t there either.

He probably didn’t understand who I was. He could have no idea how far I’d come to see him. Canada was just a name to him.

Suddenly he was talking. I watched him eagerly. When he’d finished I turned to Maha and asked her what he’d said. He’d just been answering her question about where his mother was.

Maha said, "You have to understand. These people have been through so much and have seen so much suffering that they don’t display emotion. He could be very surprised but you’d never know it." This was in response to some comments I’d let slip.

Because I was watching him so closely I noticed him glance at the biscuits. We filled a plate and passed it to them. They said thanks. Kareem smiled at me and they dug in. They had only eaten a couple each when Kareem asked Maha if he could save the rest for his family. I couldn’t help thinking that any kid I knew, including my own, would have wolfed them down and never spared a thought for anyone else. We gave him the rest of the bag. He thanked us.

Maha turned to me and said, "You know what they will do with the biscuits? They’ll save them for company. We never give them powdered milk. They would take it home and save it to put in tea when company comes over. When we give them milk, we mix it with water, or if it’s canned we punch a hole in it so they have to use it for themselves."

Kareem needed the milk more than any guest did. But then that’s the way it is in Eastern countries. Most of the people are so hospitable they would give their guest their last crumb and feel honoured while doing so.

Maha asked me if I wanted to see where they lived. I nodded and we were off.

We walked past marigold bushes, about three feet high, we passed a ditch the refugees had terraced and turned into a tidy little vegetable garden.

We got into the four-wheel drive vehicle and drove past the masjid and empty swimming pool. There was a clinic, with crops growing in its front yard, and vocational training centres where they taught carpentry, carpet weaving, and leather working. (H.C.I. provides the materials and the refugees provide the manpower. They sell beautifully made carpets, leather bags, and even hand-made quits for low prices.)

There was a boy’s youth hostel and through grimy windows we could see the cots that the young men slept on. After puberty the boys were separated from the family dwellings.

We even passed a little market selling vegetables, meat and other goods, that the refugees had prepared. I asked Maha who ran the refugee camps.

She said, "The Afghanis. All H.C.I. or any other relief organization does is set up child sponsorship programs, clinics, schools and what ever other services they need."

When I was staying in Lahore I had heard many people grumbling about the Afghanis. They claimed that they would get supplies from one group, go and sell them, then get supplies from another and pocket the money.

I expected Maha to deny this, but she nodded and said, "This does sometimes happen but much less now than in the beginning. These people are not angels. They will take advantage of you if you let them. But part of the problem is that relief organizations didn’t understand their needs. They would give them a brand new blanket, fine cooking oil, the best things. The Afghanis do not need fancy things. They would take that fancy blanket and sell it on the market for six hundred rupees. Then buy a cheap blanket for one hundred rupees that would do the job."

We arrived at mud walls about ten feet high. We walked into an alley, being careful not to step in the little stream that ran down the middle. It looked to be the sewer.

Entering a low beamed door, we stepped into a large courtyard with a few lanky trees, some chickens scratching in the dirt and a few goats.

Kareem led us to the right, looking back every so often to make sure we were still following. We had to climb a steep step and came to another level and another house.

There were about four little huts at the edges of a walled courtyard. Kareem told Maha that the hut across the courtyard was where they were staying. It actually belonged to another family but they were using it. Their hut had been ruined by the recent rains.

We had to wait for his mother to get back. She was the only one who had a key to the padlock on the front door. I was surprised that they had things they felt needed to be locked up.

I asked Kareem and Jama-uddin to show their house to me. They took me to the back gate. When we opened it a dark-haired boy, about Jama-uddin’s age, was standing there, staring intently at me. On impulse, I took his picture. We went past him, and across a steep slope, also planted with crops.

How nice and comfortable these mud houses looked in the weak January sunshine. These refugees did not seem to be so destitute, I thought, until we arrived at what was left of their house.

It was a small mud house about nine paces by four paces. The floor had dried but must have been a slurry when it was wet. The roof was made of wooden beams with smaller sticks laid across. A black plastic sheet was visible (garbage bag) through the sticks, and was all that kept out the rain. On top was a layer of mud mixed with straw. There was an odd shaped hole, not a window, at the base of one of the walls where the water had worn through to run down the slope.

I realized then how differently I would have viewed their accommodations if it had been drizzling. The courtyard was mud, the walls were mud, the floor was mud. No wonder refugees always looked unwashed. But at least they did not smell.

We went back to where Maha was still sitting on a straw mat. There were a dozen kids hanging around, including the dark haired boy. I passed out some candies. The mother arrived, panting and clutching her chest. She had run all the way from the clinic when she’d hear we were there. She sat down to answer my questions.

I asked her how her husband had died. Maybe he’d been killed fighting with the Mujahideen.

No, he had been ploughing a field and stepped on a land mine at the beginning of the war. Kareem had only been two, Jama-uddin had been three and his little sister Nooriya had been one.

I asked how they came to Peshawar. Maybe they had walked, their feet ragged and bleeding from the mountain passes.

No, they’d had a donkey to carry the bulk of the provisions.

Suddenly the mother pointed to Nooriya’s legs and pulled up her trousers to reveal scars all the way up to the girl’s thighs. I asked if she’d got those scars in a narrow escape from the Russians or Kabul government.

No, she was carrying straw home to be burned as fuel when she was hit by a truck.

In Afghanistan?

No. In Peshawar. They thought she would never walk again but the doctors operated and managed to save her legs.

Oh, I thought. That was too bad, but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

She pulled out a tattered photograph. "Who is it?" I asked. It was her oldest son. He was twenty-one.

Was he a mujahideen fighting for the freedom of their country?

No, he was a carpenter. He worked in Peshawar earning twenty-five rupees a day. He was the one who’d built their house.

I supposed his primary responsibility did lie in providing for his mother and siblings.

Kareem’s mother said something. I looked at Maha. She asked me if I wanted to see where they were living. I jumped up and we walked across the courtyard. She drew aside the tattered cloth that covered the door, pulled out the key on a string around her neck and unlocked the padlock.

I felt proud of what I was going to do and I must have been walking with my head held high. That was why I ploughed into the low beam of the doorway. Kareem’s mother hugged me, rubbing and kissing the goose-egg-sized bump that was forming on my forehead. Sheepishly I assured her I was alright. I was more embarrassed than hurt.

When we entered, I was shocked. Comforters, blankets and pillows were piled up neatly against the sides of the walls. A woven mat covered the mud floor. A kerosene lamp hung from a nail in the wall. There was a little fireplace and a small methane burning stove. The floor was swept clean.

What particularly shocked me was that these poor refugees managed to keep a mud house cleaner and more organized than the place where I was staying in Lahore.

I took out the things I had brought for them. It was best to give it to them while we were alone. For Kareem I had brought a matchbox car, some crayons and other little toys. He asked for another car for his sister. I gave the mother some money. She surprised me by politely refusing it. I was impressed. Maha was right. These people did have a lot of dignity. When I insisted, she accepted the money graciously.

I blinked when we emerged back into the bright sunshine.

I took a few more pictures but it was getting harder. The kids kept coming in the way of the camera. We were preparing to head back to the office when the dark-haired boy, I had noticed earlier, tugged on my sleeve and started yelling and gesturing at the camera and himself.

I tried to explain to him that I had already taken his picture. Maha came to my rescue.

She listened quietly. The boy was close to tears. "What is it?" I asked.

Maha turned to me and said, "He thinks you’re taking pictures for child sponsorship. He wants to be sponsored too. He said his father is dead and they are needy, why can’t he be sponsored. He wants you to take his picture."

Now I understood. Kareem and his family were well off because of the hundred and fifty dollars I sent twice a year. I should have realized it before. It was so simple. I was looking for tragedy and now I had found it. Kareem is the exception. According Ali Gohar, the provincial co-ordinator of the Afghan Refugee Commissionerate, there are almost 1.1 million Afghani children in Pakistani refugee camps. Roughly half of them are orphans.

Maha tells me to take his picture. It will calm him down. I won’t. I’m running out of film. Besides, it would give him false hope, and I had already taken his picture once.

We ride back to the office. I say to Maha, "There are needy people all over the world, even in Canada, why should people send money to the Afghanis in particular? There are others worse off."

She said, "The Afghanis are willing to fight and die for their freedom. No other people, having so little, have ever stood up to a superpower and won. Yes, the conditions here are similar to what they had in Afghanistan, but they fight against all odds, because they can’t stand to be oppressed.

"People should send money because the money only goes to the vulnerable groups: orphans, widows and the disabled. But even they work at the trades we’ve taught them, to help feed themselves. They are proud and dignified. We want them to stay that way."

Because Akkora Khattak is close to Peshawar and lies under the protection of the Pakistani government, Kareem and his people are relatively well off. In the tribal areas, it is harder to get help to those who need it most. The situation there is even more crucial.

Technically the war is over. But Afghanistan is a pock-marked invalid, still very weak. Roads, bridges, hospitals, clinics, schools and other infrastructure must be built. The Soviets left behind thirty million land mines that must be exhumed before it’s safe to plough the fields, plant the seeds, and reap the crops that will, one day soon, feed the people. Until then the need is still there.

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.