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
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
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
Maha asked me if I wanted to see where they lived. I nodded and we were
We walked past marigold bushes, about three feet high, we passed a ditch
the refugees had terraced and turned into a tidy little vegetable
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
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
No, she was carrying straw home to be burned as fuel when she was hit by
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
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
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
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.
article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or
produced without her express written permission.