No easy answers: praying for peace in Afghanistan
Why are you leaving? There is no work. I lost my job when the project closed. My brother lost his job when the international school closed. My other brother lost his government job when his boss’s nephews needed work. My uncles lost their jobs when the factory closed. My sister lost her job when the family she worked for emigrated. If one of us had work, we would have hope somehow. God is kind, we would find a way. Without work, we cannot live. Without work, we cannot stay. God is still kind but His mercy alone will not feed and educate our children.
Why are you leaving? A thousand times we hoped for peace. We hoped again and again that this year would be different, that this regime would not end in violence and corruption, that this would be the way toward peace and justice. Look at what is happening. One day an explosion, the next a suicide bomber. One day a hospital is bombed, the next something even worse. There is no end to violence. No end to death. All this bloodshed, what has it achieved? We pray for peace but cannot wait for peace any longer. We have buried too many children already.
Why are you leaving? I finished my education, now I need to use it. All my classmates are the same. We graduated with high hopes, ready and eager to work. Nearly a year later, not one of us is working. Some left for Europe months ago. Those who haven’t gone yet are making plans. I hoped to stay, but there is still no work . . . I don’t want to miss out, to be left behind. We need to learn, to grow, to make something of ourselves. God willing, in Europe . . .
Why are you leaving? I promised God and my family that I would never leave. This is my country. This is where I belong. I was ready to suffer – indeed I have suffered. But then my daughter noticed someone watching her as she left university. She was afraid. I am afraid. There are men who make money out of other people’s misery. I will not keep my daughter safe by imprisoning her at home or marry her off. I will not deny her an education. Yet neither can I permit her to continue her studies knowing that someone is watching, waiting to take her. There is no choice. I must leave.
Why are you leaving the country? It wasn’t my choice. My family decided to leave. Why did they decide to leave? They lost hope. They were left without hope.
Why are you leaving? I don’t want to leave. I love my country. I long to stay. But I have no choice. How so? For me, I would stay. For my children, I must go. There is no future for them here. There is no hope. Only war.
These are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of stories that lie behind the queues of refugees and other migrants seeking hope elsewhere. Stories of people whose hopes for their own country have been disappointed too severely and too often.
The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations reports that 3,000 Afghans returned home in 2015 while more than 150,000 left the country. The Kabul Passport Office now issues 4,000 new passports each day. There are no official estimates of numbers of informal departures. A large, newly erected sign at the passport office asks passport applicants to reconsider. It reads: Your country needs you. Don’t leave!
The Asia Foundation’s 2015 Survey of the Afghan People reveals that Afghan optimism about the overall direction of their country fell significantly over the year and that fears about personal safety rose to a record high. The survey cites deteriorating security, unemployment and corruption as the main reasons for their grim outlook.
What role does an international Christian development agency play in a context of such hopelessness and fear? First, we need to acknowledge that what we would like to do, what we can do, and what we should do are three very different things.
Rather than getting frustrated and angry about what we would like to do but can’t or shouldn’t, it’s helpful to focus on what we can and should do.
We can and should listen with respect and understanding. There are very real causes for despair and hopelessness. The war is real. Unemployment is real. Corruption is real.
We can and should acknowledge that the causes of these problems do not lie in Afghanistan alone. Other countries – the countries to which people would like to flee – do contribute to difficulties here.
We can and should be very clear that we are called to do what we can, often seemingly insignificant things, to open opportunities and enable hope here and now, with these people in this place.
We can and should acknowledge that aid and development organisations are not immune from the fear and hopelessness around us and that we, sadly, sometimes contribute to fear and despair.
We can and should work and live with gritty, realistic hope. We can and should grapple with the real and incredibly painful challenges of life here and now, while also stepping out in faith towards a different future. It is not our place to determine what shape that future will take – Afghanistan is not our country. But it is our place to live and work in ways that show that death and violence and hopelessness are not the end of this country’s story.
So what does that hope look like in practice? Well, to be honest, it’s difficult to keep a long-term hopeful perspective in the middle of everything going on in the world, in this country, and even in the agency itself. Our agency, like many others, is cutting essential programs and shedding staff. This exacerbates unemployment. It also feeds corruption, conflict and criminality – hopelessness being a major driver of all three. Why, then, are we doing it?
The simple reason is that when security deteriorates too far, long-term capacity building work becomes impossible, ineffective and potentially harmful. But it is more complicated than that. Afghanistan is no longer an attractive or fashionable place to work. Recruiting and retaining skilled expatriate staff is difficult. Sending agencies, including Christian agencies and churches, are reluctant to send people to dangerous places. Donor agencies, including governments, are unwilling to fund work unless they are confident of good outcomes. With conflict breaking out in more and more regions of the country, work here is risky, much riskier than before. It is a risk that fewer and fewer are willing to take. But even that does not give the full picture.
A rarely publicised major factor that makes redundancies and cuts necessary is that among the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who left the country last year are some of our most senior Afghan staff. Some of these people took 20 years to develop the wisdom and experience and skills that equipped them to be the mainstay of our work. You cannot replace people like that. Without them, we can do less and contribute less. Without them, programming must be cut and fewer staff employed. And so, in leaving, our colleagues indirectly exacerbate the forces that prompt so many decisions to leave: insecurity, unemployment, corruption, fears about personal safety and – beyond and behind everything else – the loss of hope.
Estranged from her extended family after refusing to marry her beloved husband’s brother, Zarmina (not her real name) rents a single room in someone else’s yard. Amazingly, she has somehow managed to send her three children to school consistently. Zarmina’s husband was a manual labourer, hard-working and honest, a kind husband and devoted father. Zarmina remembers how, before his death, her husband sat up late night after night, first teaching himself to read, then poring over books to make up for the formal education he never received. He dreamt of making something of himself so that he could get the type of job that would enable him to send their children to school. Zarmina believed in him. She shared his dream. And now that their children are all in school, she too is learning to read.
A year ago, Zarmina came to me with a suggestion about how to improve security at our office. Although we did not eventually implement her suggestion, Zarmina later crept into my room to tell me how much it meant that her opinion was heard. “All my life, if I speak people tell me, ‘Oh don’t you have a lot to say. You have so many clever ideas.’ What they mean is: ‘What would you know about anything? You are just an ignorant illiterate woman. Keep your opinions to yourself.’ I am a cleaning lady and am only now learning to read a little. But my opinion matters here. I am respected as a human being; I am not shamed.” Thanking Zarmina, I assured her that there were no big and no small people in our agency. We have different roles but belong to the one team.
Now, with more redundancies looming, these words sound hollow and insincere. Decisions about who stays and who goes are not mine to make. My only responsibility is to ensure that necessary decisions are made fairly and implemented as compassionately as possible. Still there is no escaping the human cost. What would redundancy mean for Zarmina and her family? Would she manage to keep her children in school? Would she retain the hope and resilience that drives her to learn to read?
It is tempting to retreat and withdraw, to turn inwards and defend ourselves against all the pain and all the fear. But that is not what we are called to do. Indeed, as followers of Jesus we can expect that our current environment will wound us even more deeply. We should not go on as if nothing is happening, continuing business as usual in blind determination that all will work out in the end. We need to face current realities. We should not make promises that we might not be able to keep. We should not try to implement programs that we no longer have the capacity to implement well. We should not retain staff for whom we have no work and whom we cannot pay. But neither should we pretend that these necessary reductions will not constrain lives and dash hopes. They will.
So what can and should a Christian development agency do? We can and should respect our neighbours by acknowledging the limits of what international interventions can achieve. We can and should pay our colleagues the dignity of admitting that losing this job might have terrible consequences and that they might not find another job any time soon. We can and should admire the courage and resourcefulness with which they – and so many others – somehow muster the strength to keep going and even to dare to hope. We can, in so far as they let us, share their pain. We do so knowing, as they do, that nothing in heaven or on earth or under the earth will ever separate them from the love of God.
We cannot do everything. We cannot even do most things, but we can and should do something and we can and should do it well. We are not assured of success. But, by the grace of God, our efforts might make life in this country a little more tenable for at least some of its people.
We can and we should pray for peace.
The author worked as an Executive Director of a TEAR partner agency in Afghanistan until May this year, and previously spent years living and working among poor rural communities as a TEAR Fieldworker in Afghanistan. The author has also studied and taught community development and theology, served on the Board of TEAR Australia, and worked as a training and evaluation consultant for development projects in Afghanistan and elsewhere.