When I see these three girls, my heart does a somersault; Zainab, the middle one, has no shoes! She dons a pair of chaffed and dirty plastic chappals with thin socks hiding her feet. At my urging, Nabavi stops to chat with them, but Fatema, the eldest, immediately takes a defensive stance and the other two fall behind her. It takes Nabavi a few minutes to convince Fatema we are not foes, but friends, so she relents and narrates their plight.
Fatema, Zainab, and Sakina are three orphaned sisters from somewhere in Mazar e Shareef in the north. Their father, a minority Hazara, a truck driver by profession, is massacred along with others during a food aid delivery linked to an NGO, who the Taliban consider invaders to Afghanistan. The mother, all alone, at her wit’s end and distraught, flees to Kabul since it is the safest city liberated by the Americans. She finds refuge with a distant relative, a widow herself, living in a tattered hovel uphill here in Chandaawal, with five mouths to feed herself. The mother is dead in three months, either out of a broken heart, hunger or the will to continue living. Her children end up as slaves, almost, having to fetch water from the well at the bottom of the mountain and lugging it up to their hovel twice a day.
I’m not sure what it is that makes me puke then, the numbing cold or the unbelievably brutal surreal tale that Fatema narrates. When I calm down, I am ready to do anything these children want. I pled with them to ask anything they wish, anything. I am ready to feed them, clothe them, whatever it takes. They fall silent, looking at their feet in discomfort at my emotions. I remember Zainab has her feet out of her frayed chappal, making vague images with her toes on the cold, muddy slush. Do Afghans have no feeling for cold?
No, they say eventually, they want nothing from me. But, says Sakina, if I can arrange for water to somehow come to them so they don’t have to toil for it twice a day, I’d be a hero in their eyes and they’d pray for me and my family real hard. I look to the overcast grey skies, trying to contain painful tears that prick at my eyes and give the girls a solemn pledge. I ask them to pray for Allah to give me enough life and the ability to make their wish come true.
He, Allah, listens to Fatema, Zainab and Sakina’s entreaty. For the next year and a half, I dedicate my life to get a mammoth project costing US$320,000, then, come to fruition. Through Nabavi’s contacts, I meet Wasi and Basheer, engineers, committed to CAI’s cause to this day. With Allah opening every, sometimes seemingly impossible shut doors, the orphans get potable water, 24×7, right outside their hovel, as do 30,000 other hapless people. This holds true to this very day, some nine years later.
Thus, begins my love relationship with Afghanistan where CAI donors have made the following possible:
> Construction of 22 schools, many in the most rugged and remote parts of the country.
> Built and operate 6 modern medical clinics in areas where residents had never met a medical doctor.
> Construction of water supply systems through water wells or distribution apparatus using spring water; providing potable water to over 300,000 suffering people.
> Constructed over 700 homes to house the homeless.
> Complete support for 150 orphans to live a decent life, including quality education.
> Annual feeding programs to at least 10,000 people fleeing persecution.
> Higher education scholarships for exceptional students, lifesaving surgeries for critically ill poor, marriage support for desperate girls, etc.
I’d be lying if I said it is easy; far from it. The initial first few years are exceedingly challenging but the CAI team is persistent; so, we prevail. I recall one such challenge. Wasi, Basheer and I are in remote Yawkawlang, Bamiyan District, scouting for a place to construct the first medical clinic for 9,500 people who have no access to a medical doctor or modern medicines. It is late September and bitterly cold; I can see the shimmering light of white moonlight bouncing from the snow-capped mountains surrounding Yawkawlang. I want to pause and admire the excessive stark beauty of the distant peaks, except I have to pee real bad and there is nothing comfortable but barren rocks and the desolate land for miles around. When I can’t stand the pressure on my bladder no more, I leave the vehicle with a torch and a bottle of water and head out into the dark. With an unbelievably bitter cold wind whipping around me, I squat and am doing my business when the beam of light from my torch zero on a pair of burning eyes; I lose my marbles, the torch and the bottle of water. I run to the waiting idling car, screaming and tripping on my pants still gathered halfway down my legs.
It is a harmless field rat, Wasi and team inform me later, intoxicated with much mirth, but that does nothing for my out-of-whack heartbeats or marred dignity at that moment and for some considerable time in the future as well. This one incident highlights the various challenges the CAI team encounters (and still do) in the formative years of operating in Afghanistan. Fear for life and or injury, and the constant dread of being caught up in the strife in the country give many families in our team sleepless nights. Alhamd’Allah, things are much better now that we have reasonable infrastructures built in the areas CAI operates; the security situation still remains highly dicey, however.
So, on this, my 39th visit to Afghanistan since 2005, as the Emirates Boeing 777-300 aircraft from Dubai hard-lands and bounces towards the deplaning bridge, my eyes take in the stark mountains surrounding Kabul and the memories of that glaring bleak day when I encounter Fatema, Zainab and Sakina come flooding back. I never meet them after the fateful day I ask them for prayers for water. I hope they are a bit relieved and happier however, that CAI donors are able to grant their wish.
Accompanied by my colleague and fellow Trustee Sohail Abdullah from New York, and the Bhayani brothers Parvez and Mohammed from Houston, I am in Afghanistan to officially open yet another CAI donor-funded school, this one in Mazar e Shareef, inspect another school under construction and handover 69 homes to the poor homeless families headed by widows. I get to meet the 150 orphans as well, always a soopa-special treat and also follow up on the extension construction of CPES, the CAI-run school that is a jewel in her crown.
CAI and her team are humbled that Allah grants us this incredible opportunity to be of service to some of His most wretched creations on this earth. And the service continues.