Christmas in Afghanistan

A few days ago, I wrote this nice blog about how I like Christmas here. None of that has changed but yesterday, as mourners participated in the remembrance known as the Day of Ashura (or 10thof Muharram), many were killed.  Children have been left without fathers, including two girls who attend our kids’ school.

Streets are decorated for Muharram

I feel so sad today, so not like celebrating anything.  Today is a day of grief and sadness.  There will be families for whom this time of year will never be the same.  We have personally known so many now who have died in this country, local and expatriate and today I question will it ever stop. When will people be able to mourn/celebrate in peace and safety? But here is what I wrote before I felt so sad…

I like Christmas in this country. In our home country of New Zealand, there are crazy numbers of end of school and end of year functions, as well as Christmas hype.  There is so much commercialism and pressure, that it seems like the object is to survive the Christmas season. 

Here in Afghanistan, the only pressure to shop and consume comes directly from our children and they don’t have the constant “You need one of these…” type advertising in their faces.  Here the object is to make Christmas special and memorable in some way. It does take some effort and some time, and we often have little reserves of energy and time, but the investment is always rewarding.  I can always remember who we spent Christmas day with and what was special, who we gathered with to sing carols and what we learnt about how other cultures/sub-cultures remember the birth of their Lord.  How different families relate the stories around Christmas to their children and what items on their trees are symbolic or special in some way.

As winter closes in, I am reminded of how special it is to live in the northern hemisphere where Christmas lights in our houses actually have time to be enjoyed before children go off to bed, while remembering happily that the Christmas break should at some point always include the beach and some tennis (neither of which we get here!).

As this year comes to an end, I am looking back and thinking of the hard things for our families at home and those we know or have known here in this country, and yet, acknowledging that God has plans that He can bring to pass through hard times.  I pray for the ability of Hagar to impact more lives in this country, that women and children who have suffered so much will find wholeness and fulfillment in the year to come and that we can play a small part in this transformation.  As our accountant recently said, “Many organizations work to make a small difference to many lives but I want to part of something that makes huge differences in the lives of the people we assist”.

This Christmas I invite you to put some light in to the lives of women and children who have suffered in darkness and isolation.



Earlier this year a boy was killed in the Juvenile Detention Centre in Kabul. His father alleged that older boys wanted him to engage in sexual activities and when he refused they beat him to death. You can read more at Prior to this our staff had interviewed boys who reported being victimized while in detention.

Just days before this news, I had sat with the director of the facility. She had explained that the facility was already beyond its capacity and that many of the boys needed counseling that was not able to be provided. They have boys from all kinds of backgrounds, those who have been trained as suicide bombers, as well as boys who have been exploited.

When questioned about the sexual abuse of boys, Afghans acknowledge that it occurs in this country – always far from where you are standing. Responses like “It happens in the South” or “It happens with the warlords in the North” are the most common. But the more questions you ask, the more widespread it seems to be. Whether it is bacha baazi, where boys are bought and sold and used to entertain guests (by being dressed in women’s clothes and dancing) which then leads to sexual exploitation, or boys being abused as they try to earn money by assisting truck drivers or working in hotels and those trafficked for labor or in debt bondage are also often sexually assaulted at night. There is an absolutely amazing (and frightening) lack of acknowledgement of the harm it may cause to these young lives. No-one in Afghanistan seems to want to discuss it as a problem that should be addressed and hence, no one is providing adequate services for these boys. As I think of the suffering of these boys, who come from poverty stricken families, I have a mixture of feelings – sadness and grief, a desire to act, tiredness (as there is so much to do), anger at a culture that wants to bury its head in the sand, and frustration that I don’t have a bag full of money, and a pocket full of well trained professionals, that would enable us to act immediately. But Hagar has begun the process of looking for funds. We want to initially do some research specifically about the problem of boys being trafficked in this country and then to develop a pilot that would trial culturally acceptable ways of assisting these boys through a period of recovery and on to giving them education and skills that would enable them to contribute to their families without exploitation. We would love to educate the communities where these boys came from about this problem and help to prevent more boys from poor villages suffering trauma that in this country remains unacceptable to ever talk about.

Whenever I talk or interact with the young of this country, I see such potential, such energy and enthusiasm. When you consider the young potential suicide bombers that have been arrested, I see commitment (albeit misguided) that I rarely see in other places. I believe we need to help them to tap into that potential – to give them access to education or skills. But please, don’t think that we view Afghan people as helpless or hopeless, but they will be able to help themselves so much more with access to some resources. I feel called to play apart in that process but anything I do would be so worthless if it wasn’t for all the God-given resources these people already hold.

Feel free to also contribute by donating at or write to us if you would like to know if your skills can be used here.

Hagar pursues the highest degree of care and protection for each of its clients. To protect the identity of our clients, names have been changed and pictures do not necessarily represent the individual profiled.


I recently read the “Dressmaker of Khair Khona” (by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon) which is the story of a woman who, with her sisters, supported themselves through the Taleban era, by sewing clothes and selling them through male shopkeepers in their local markets.  Her contact with these non-relatives was forbidden at that time but they needed a way to sell their work.

This book suggested that women through necessity have become successful entrepreneurs in this country and reminded me that perhaps we should celebrate the strength of Afghan women. Our celebration of their strength doesn’t mean there are not individuals and whole groups who need our assistance but we are not helping a helpless creature but one with inherent dignity, strength, experience and much to build on.

 Mahiba is one such strong woman.  Her husband became addicted to opium after their village, in eastern Afghanistan was destroyed in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  Overnight, he changed from being a farmer, with pride, to a traumatized and depressed man. His friends offered him drugs to give him short term relief from his troubles and so he became addicted.  In the land which produces more than 90% of the world’s opium, it is relatively cheap and widely available, unlike medicine, counseling or psychiatric care.

His mental health deteriorated further after their new home in a refugee camp outside of Peshawar in Pakistan was bulldozed and they were forced to return to Afghanistan.  One day when he was withdrawing, he came home and broke everything they had in their one bedroom mud-brick house, screaming at Mahiba to give him money. Every plate and cup was thrown at Mahiba or her seven children and so the next day her poor neighbours brought an offering of a cup or a plate (whatever they could spare) to her to help.  Then as arranged, she came with her children to our house to gather grass to feed their few animals, never mentioning what had happened. Smiling and enjoying her youngest son’s joy as he played on my son’s tricycle.  Her older children gathered small white flowers from our tree – they told us they were like candy and ate them hungrily. (My children tried them but were unimpressed).

 Mahiba is such a strong, active woman, who somehow manages to help her family survive her husband’s outbursts and feed her seven children.  She is not seeking handouts, just work if we have any to offer. She is now a facilitator of women’s self help groups in her area, respected by her peers who see her succeeding despite the adversity she has suffered. She is one of so many Afghan women struggling in the hope that her children will have a life better than her own.

 Let us celebrate all that our clients and other women in this country have to offer and have learnt through their suffering, while providing them with some small assistance, to lead them to life in all its fullness.

The Meaning of her Covering

Many from the West see Afghan women as being oppressed, because they wear a covering.

However, Afghans see the same covering as part of their protection.  It shows they are good women and provides them the protection when they are away from their families.

Families in this country, do limit their women and girls freedom, both in terms of leaving the house and in terms of choices that are available to them, in order to provide protection.

The women who lived near us in Pul-e-Charkhi wore full burqas whenever they leave the house. The young woman who lived with her husband, children and in-laws across the road only left the house to go to the clinic or twice a year for shopping before the major celebrations (and then only always in the company of her mother-in-law).

But to be honest, she was content and happy.

She had what she wanted, a husband who loved her, two beautiful children and in-laws who helped her raise her children and do the tasks that running a house requires.  She laughed easily and clearly enjoyed the company of her extended family.  Her younger sisters in laws were excellent aunties to her children and helped her when they weren’t busy with their school work.

While she may not have had many choices in life, she would have chosen what she had but unfortunately, for many it is not so.  And when the family does not provide the protection that Afghan culture is so proud of, then the woman is left without choice and without a voice, suffering behind the veil that is supposed to protect.

Peace in Afghanistan?

A suicide bomber with explosives hidden in his turban killed the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, Burhannudin Rabbani, this week. This has thrown the peace process into disarray as different factions accuse each other of involvement and in trying to destroy what is widely recognized as a fragile path to peace.

Afghanistan already lives with the devastating impact of decades of war and conflict – poverty and lack of livelihoods, poor health care and insufficient education on a national scale.  Throughout these decades of war, Afghan women and children have borne the brunt of human rights abuses. Whether it is local militias/police raping women or Taliban forces demanding young girls as brides[1], women and children suffer from the ongoing conflict and this country has been deemed the most dangerous for women in the world.[2]

Afghan Woman

While the future is uncertain, both for individuals and for the country as a whole, (with international forces set to leave in 2014) we can be sure that there are women and children who will desperately need the services of Hagar to find hope and healing from traumatic experiences.  Please pray for peace in this land and know you can be involved in helping restore lives by donating to our programs.

[1] Human Rights Watch 2011 “‘Just Don’t Call It a Militia:’ Impunity, Militias and the ‘Afghan Local Police,’”

Falling down…

Here in Kabul the weather is getting hotter and the frequency and seriousness of the security warnings are increasing. However, a security incident was not the cause of the loud bang in the office building today. One of the ceilings (well, more accurately a layer of plaster and concrete sufficient to dent furniture) came crashing down. Similar things have happened to us and friends and it seems that with flat concrete roofs and snow, water damage occurs in winter and spring, and then as the weather heats up, the concrete dries out and collapses. Perhaps, going shopping in the city or to a restaurant (which we are currently advised against doing) would be safer than hanging out in our houses!

I have rejoined Hagar, this time as director, after a two year absence. Our Afghan colleagues have come a long way in the past two years under the previous leader. You can see they have been truly impacted by walking beside people who have suffered terrible trauma, and it is so encouraging to see them committed to doing whatever it takes, for as long as it takes to restore a broken life.

In a country where men take great pride in their honour and feel the need to defend it at all costs; where women can only bring shame (or at best bring no shame); it is unsurprising that honour killings still occur and domestic violence is common. For a young woman, to be accused of bringing shame is far worse than a ceiling falling down. It means rejection from family, home and society.

As Hagar is working on some research into the vulnerable groups in this country, it is obvious there are not enough resources for women and girls who cannot go home, because of the threat of violence against them. Who are these women?

Shukria was imprisoned on murder charges after her husband was killed. The family agreed it wasn’t her who had committed this crime until the day, she refused to become the second wife of her husband’s brother. She does not eagerly await her release, as she has nowhere to go.

This is not a society where women can just go and rent an apartment or easily find a job, even without the stigma these women carry. And so Hagar will begin a transitional care centre for them. Not to keep them safe and institutionalized, but to help them recover and learn skills they and then assist them to be re-integrated into society with economic security. It is a huge task but Hagar is committed and courageous.

Personally, it is great to be involved in something so needed and in an organization where staff are passionate about what they are doing. Change in Afghanistan may come slowly but we will continue together, to push boundaries, so even the women and children from the toughest backgrounds, can live full lives again.

Help Hagar Afghanistan transform more lives. Visit our page.

A Thanksgiving Challenge…

I had my first ever thanksgiving yesterday, joining many of my American friends for wonderful food, games and good company… though I admit to bailing out just before the charades started! It felt a bit like Christmas, with Christmas carols playing in the background, a sparkling tree and lots of Turkey.

 It was lovely to have been invited despite being a Brit! I hope it will be one of many thanksgiving meals to come… But my feelings on this day were somewhat mixed. It’s a day of abundance and joy, yet earlier in the day I had seen quite a different picture.

Just before heading out to join the festivities, I went with an Afghan colleague to a small home for children with physical and intellectual disabilities. I wanted to meet the Director and to spend some time with the children, one of whom had been in our own shelter for some time.

Run by a 19 year old girl with physical disabilities of her own, I couldn’t help but feel impressed that she was managing this place by herself, bar a couple of house mothers who took shifts in caring for the children. But at the same time I felt incredibly sad. She was quite alone in her work, getting a lot of pressure from the community to take children in, but with little support or encouragement offered. From the 10 children aged between 4 and 16, two were able to go to school and were now in grade 4, three were in bed full time, where they’ve been for the past 9 years, and five others were able to walk around and help feed themselves, but little else was available to them. When our little boy recognized us his face lit up and he showed us his new walking skills since having supports attached to his legs. It was a pleasure to meet him again and to shower him with affection.

The manager’s own story was one of loss and immense grief, being orphaned and disabled from 6 months old. Many questions were raised in my mind as to what support was being made available for such a centre as this, where there is so much potential for good work, and where a young girl has given so much of herself to see severely disabled abandoned or orphaned children cared for. It would be so easy to walk in and criticize, but how would that be helpful? Instead we chose to encourage and to love, and to commit to connecting the centre with the right resources and skills necessary to give each of those children a positive future, and to simply be a friend and a support.

In Afghanistan there are few services available for those with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. When a child is rejected and abandoned, with no relatives to give a home, it’s a challenge to find good reintegration options – there just aren’t places and resources in place to help them. Finding this little centre tucked away in the back streets of Kabul gave me a glimmer of hope. If we can invest in what is already available, while also building the capacity of staff, more doors can be opened to serve those most in need – It’s hard to care for someone with these severe disabilities, but perhaps along this journey, attitudes will be challenged and transformed.

Leaving the centre, my colleague and I sat in the car in silence. Our eyes filled with tears. It wasn’t a feeling of hopelessness, but a feeling of disappointment that the support for this centre was not in place. I turned to my colleague and told her “it’s when our hearts break that the challenge to push for something better is born in us.” This is our challenge, and also the challenge of the community.

A Moment of Creativity…

Perhaps it’s having a couple of weeks away but I feel surrounded by creative energy at the moment! – when it comes to the house it’s kind of forced, but actually I’m enjoying myself…

We had to move office and home a few weeks ago, because the landlord sold the land. It was heart-breaking at the time but I think this new place will be quite something. I’m surrounded by paint colour books and home decor magazines (thanks to a friend), and am well on my way to having the colour selection sorted for the home atleast. Staff are choosing their office colours, I’ve just advised against PINK the current colour… Some interesting choices were made by previous tenants. It’s tough coordinating with the ‘5 different colours’ used to create the kitchen!  But we’ll get there… 🙂

Whilst visiting a friend’s place this afternoon to check out how she’d made her veranda, I saw her children’s playground. A perfect fit for the small area in the Shelter, where we’d like to build a playground for the kids! Perhaps this week the staff can check it out with the carpenters… Hagar USA are currently fundraising to help pay for it, and it feels so much closer to becoming a reality.

I was at the Shelter this morning, drinking green tea and having lunch with the women and children. It was lovely. I haven’t seen them since I got back from the UK and as the office is closed today I took my chance to have some time with them. While I was away, the interior was repainted ready for step 2!  I have a friend who is a children’s artist, painting animals etc. and he’s coming over tomorrow to look at the space and with the kids decide what illustrations will be painted.  They’re now all busily drawing and colouring their favourite animals ready to show him tomorrow. Apparently red roses are a must! One girl asked if she should draw them directly on the wall. I asked her to start on paper first… there’ll be plenty of opportunity to paint on the walls soon enough…  We’ll see tomorrow if that instruction was followed…

One year on…

I’m sitting in a garden of roses, listening to the sound of kites in the sky (a beautiful sound once the helicopters have passed), and studying a book on career counselling and career development, ready for my first assignment, which I’ve already asked for an extension on! I’ve also got my novel close at hand for the regular text book breaks!! I find myself moving around the garden regularly, trying to avoid the sun… amusing to my friends…

It’s voting day and the helicopters are flying over head keeping an eye out no doubt on the polling stations and goings on of Kabul. I vacated my home last night and am staying with friends just around the corner. The mosque at the end of my street is apparently being used as a polling station so we thought it best to stay clear for now. I’ll head back home at the end of the day.

It’s interesting being back here in the house where I first resided one year ago, when I first came to Afghanistan. I spent my first month here and it’s where I met Glen, my friend, and one of those recently killed in North East Afghanistan. I’m reminiscing back to times in this garden, playing table tennis, reading under the sun, the hours of conversation… Wonderful memories, even if I did get thrashed at table tennis!

So, one year on, here I am. A significant moment to reflect upon what has perhaps been one of the most amazing years of my life, and also one of the most difficult. But this is the reality of living and working in a war torn country and something I knew I might have to face on coming here. Still, it is hard. Who is ever prepared for the sudden loss of a close friend? Many people try to reason, give their thoughts on why such a tragedy might occur, but I’m not in that place. For me, it’s simply that bad things happen to good people, and it’s ok to grieve that loss. And time will heal… it has to.

I’ve just come back from two weeks in the UK where we’re setting up a Hagar support office to fundraise for our social programs in Cambodia, Vietnam and Afghanistan. We now have offices in New Zealand, Australia, USA and Singapore. Being a Brit, I’m glad to see one set up in my homeland and look forward to getting involved. I feel refreshed and energized. I’m thankful to be here in Afghanistan and am ready to press on with work and to see the success that comes! Doors have already begun opening for new opportunities… There are exciting times ahead!

A Reason to Smile…

I need to take the time to blog about how I’m feeling right now, having lost friends in the killing in North Eastern Afghanistan… but it’s still so unreal to me, and I’m hurting a lot. I lost one of my closest friends in the attack and I’m not sure how to feel… some moments it sinks in, other moments it just feels too unreal and I wait for my friend to come by for coffee on his way home from work…

So I will write in a few days… when I’m ready… for now, I wanted to share a moment that made me smile yesterday. We all need moments like this, and I’m just very thankful for knowing that I’m where I’m meant to be, even faced with the tragedy of losing loved ones. I’m thankful for who I am, for the friends and colleagues I have around me… and for knowing with confidence why I’m here…
This is just a light hearted story that I hope will make you smile as it did me…

The office guard strolled into my office this afternoon with one handful of straw and a plate of soil… he mixed them together as I silently and curiously watched and then he asked me ‘what is this in English’… I told him there really wasn’t a word, it was like clay, so I googled it for him, with a smile, and came up with clay straw… he then went away and came back having added water and mixed them together, I couldn’t help but laugh and told him it was clay… I had to write these words down on a post it note for him… he left happy… I was left baffled but smiling…

In my colleague’s office they were giggling so much they couldn’t even tell me why he had wanted to know those words. Later I called one staff in to my office and asked… Apparently there’s a guy in his community who treats him like he doesn’t know anything, ‘he tries to make him look stupid’… Our guard got upset last night and picked up straw and mud and rubbed them together asking him “do you know what these are in English and do you know what they make mixed – In English?”… the other guy replied “no” to which our guard announced “I do!!!” before walking away.

This afternoon’s moment was him doing his homework and covering his back… He really makes me smile!!

At the end of the day he came into my office and asked if I’d like to play football with him and the others in the garden…

I have wonderful staff…. how blessed am I 🙂