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Notes about life in the Sitara orphanage: coping with trauma

A RAWA orphanage is a way of life. Education is at its core, as well as children’s physical and emotional well-being. Here, as the housemother told me, children presented all kinds of war traumatisms. In the beginning, most children fought at meal times over food, would regularly hide some under the mattress. They would eat as much as they could out of fear that the opportunity might not repeat itself. Many could not sleep in beds and would lie on the floor (something Auschwitz survivors apparently did as well for a long time after returning from camp) ; they didn’t want to dirty the toilets, so they would go outside in the yard. Nightmares, bed wetting, general anxiety are still part of their life. I saw one ten year old burst into uncontrollable tears because he had suddenly thought of his father, killed by the Taliban. The lady in charge of the cleaning took him in her arms in the most loving, touching way.

In the West, we would call upon psychologists but there can’t be that many fluent in Dari and Pashtu, but this kind of therapy is not part of their culture. Here, a regular carefully planned life-style is helping to rebuild these children. All of them are enjoying, for the first time in their life, comforts we would deem elementary but appear to be a luxury in this context. Bunk beds with decorated sheets, a bathroom in every bedroom, light, cleanliness, a place to play and watch TV, classrooms where they are getting enough basic education to start in a Pakistani school in the autumn. They get three daily meals, whereas previously, they subsisted on bread and tea. As a treat, fruit and meat are served a couple of times a week and we have ensured weekly ice-creams They sing songs about Afghanistan and democracy, learn about conflict resolution through discussion and exchange, even gender equality in a very deft and subtle way- all things RAWA has evolved across the years, not through some patronizing internationally sponsored scheme (of which I have seen many fail in war-torn Bosnia) but through working on a grass roots level, tactfully balancing different needs and modern feminist aspirations with the existing culture.
Of course, problems ensue when these children go to visit their families- the upkeep of family ties is encouraged :they return on average once a month to the camp and a room is used by parents on visits. Girls especially have trouble re-adapting, as they have been treated like privileged boys in the orphanage ! There has been the heartbreaking case of a mother visiting her son, only to find herself rejected by the boy who found her too primitive.

Humanitarian help for an Orphanage on the subcontinent: a perspective on the problems encountered

In autumn 2003, an enthusiastic FemAid supporter from the US suggested sponsoring a music class, which I also thought was a good idea for the Sitara orphanage which we help in Peshawa. I suggested it to the orphanage administrator who went to discuss my proposition with the children. Three days later, she came back to me and said that learning music would out of the question for the families, as it was deemed an extremely low-class occupation ;
« The families would be outraged that RAWA is teaching their children music » she said.
I should have remembered. The Indian caste system has somehow injected its scale of values all over the subcontinent : musicians, dancers, actors (however successful) are practically on the same level as prostitutes- as they were in Western Europe centuries ago (I may add that mullahs are n’t very high on the social ladder either, which is something of a consolation !) All this has to be taken into consideration, even if it seems contradictory to us, coming from families who did not mind their children being rag-pickers. French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu coined the term ‘symbolic capital’ to explain precisely the paramount importance of what these people are holding on to, having lost everything else. A way of life, some principles, some educational choices continue to define people and make them respectable in the eyes of others, even in extreme circumstances : which is why veiling and purdah are so strong in some of the poorest refugee communities.
To get back to the orphanage, the children apparently suggested a computer course instead. I objected, pointing out the lack of electricity to be expected in rural Afghanistan where they are theoretically all headed, not to mention the improbable availability of computers in the Pukhtun/Hazara/Baluch (etc) hinterland.. I do hope I don’t sound too patronizing, but standards of progress are far from universal : even if the odd clapped-out computer were available in these areas, it would hardly be entrusted to a mere female cooped up in her backyard surrounded by a dozen children … It would land in the reception room reserved to the males in the family, on show, never plugged in, like the antiquated A/C installation which I was made to admire in a refugee camp ; it was n’t working, but everyone thought it looked stylish.
I suggested a woodwork course for the orphanage, a useful skill that they could use anywhere ; even though carpentry is not see as a high class occupation, it is at least honourable. I am trying to get the girls taught as well, but this proposition has raised a few eyebrows. It seems that they will learn tailoring, which often in a male preserve, but is acceptable for women. One of the problems is that the traditional crafts (carpet-making, embroidery etc) are no longer a real source of income : countless NGOs have set up such projects and since 9/11, the demand for crafts has plummeted and Persian/Afghan carpets (often the work of nimble little fingers in refugee camps) appear are remaindered in many Western capitals.