The Sitara orphanage

The Sitara orphanage
L'orphelinat Sitara


Since late 2001, we have been supporting an orphanage run by RAWA in Peshawar: in fact this is a joint venture between FemAid and RAWA which we launched together.
It was named after our first major sponsor, designer Stella Mc Cartney who held a charity sale at the Thadeus Ropac Gallery in Paris, selling specially designed T-shirts for this cause.

Situated at the north of Peshawar, in a typical slum- a far cry from the majestic crumbling beauty of the old city, the surprisingly spacious house is in a cramped street in something of a residential area. There are seven rooms which house some 50 children aged between 6 and 12 30 boys to 20 girls.

These children have been saved from refugee camps and slums.RAWA’s orphanages (of which there are half a dozen within Pakistan) receive children who have lost at least one parent, usually their father (here ten have actually lost both), or whose parents for reasons of sickness and/or extreme poverty are unable to care for them. Widows frequently feel they are too poor to look after their offspring (of which there is a national average of seven). At Sitara, there is one child here who narrowly escaped being sold- unlike his unfortunate elder sister whose present whereabouts are now unknown . Another two were brought here after their widowed mother would chain them all day when she went out to work. They still bear the marks of their shackles on their wrists. Parents prefer to ensure safety for their sons than their daughters ; apart from their inferior status as girls, they might bring in money through marriage : according to Muslim law (unlike India where brides have to bring in an ample dowry), the husband has to pay what is known as 'bride-price',basically payment to parents a kind of compensation for removing their work force and transferring her potential fertility to his clan (as if purchasing a heifer). because of the intense poverty girls are sold off at an increasingly younger age, sometimes before puberty (and these marriages are consummated...)Likewise, I visited their orphanages which cater for children who have lost at least one parent, generally their father. In Pakistan, nearly all the poorest boys and some of the girls (Pakistani or Afghan) from age seven onwards do some kind of work after class, often until nightfall : begging at gas stations, rag-picking, collecting paper off rubbish mounds ( one kg for one rupee) , hammering nails into shoes, making metal wire sponges (25 dozen for 10 rupees-sold individually at 8 rupees, $1=50s). Needless to say, these frail kids look at least three years younger than their well-nourished Western counterparts, their growth has been stunted by poverty. I could not believe their age at the orphanage and checked by looking at their teeth:: six/seven year olds looked like Western four year olds, and that does come as a shock..

What we financed at the Sitara orphanage until 2005
We had decided to finance as much as possible of the running costs, including rent, electricity, food, clothing, education etc.
To the existing budget, we have decided to pay for the weekly visit of a doctor, put her /him on the payroll, in fact as soon as he/she has been found . The children are very often ill, with the blinding heat and the staggering Pakistani urban pollution, asthma, dysentery, skin complaints and now malaria are the summer’s offerings.
We also want to buy games- toys are not part of this culture. In each orphanage, I have seen dolls and soft toys- on display in the shelves, never in children’s arms. (But there again, babies over there are always in someone ‘s arms when they’re not in their cot, so they don’t need cuddly substitutes for human warmth.) However, the subcontinent is adept and expert at board games of every kind, including chess and these are the ones we should purchase and encourage.
As with other orphanages, we sponsor some of kind of birthday parties ( to the extent that birthdates are known, often they are not) and attempt to develop relationships with the children : have their birth dates, keep an eye on their school results. They need to know some people in the world care about them

In January 2003,an enthusiastic supporter from Cornwall supporter, Sadie Brinham sent each child an individual box of toys and clothes: the reaction was total amazement, never had they ever had such a present in their entire lives!

As from Spring 2004, we financed a tailoring class for girls and a carpentry class for the boys. For the first course, fifteen girls, including Lina, Frazana, Razia, Saliza, Rana, Shazia (I and 2), Shahla, Lida, Pakhana, Zalba, Laida, Nilofar, Basira, Soama,, who have had at least four years primary schooling have been chosen. They will learn some elementary pattern cutting and how to use a sewing machine: 15 sewing machines will be bought.. On the boys side, Mohammad, Zakir Mahmood, Watan and Fahim will launch the carpentry course. The average age of the pupils is nine/ten. This is the age where most Afghan children are at work and, for girls, thoughts of marriage begin to cross their parents' mind. The aim of these vocational classes is to equip them with marketable skills for when they return to Afghanistan because return they certainly will have to some day. Those with one surviving parent may be summoned to go home any day, once the situation back home becomes more stable. The return will be a harsh one after the respect and comfort these children have known at the Sitara orphanage, but the fact that they will be able to earn money as result of these classes will be a great help for the rest of their life.

Sitara's new godmother- sponsor Margaret has launched a great scheme in the US, she is selling cuddly 'Olie loves the World' baby blankets to help the children in the orphanage!

Henceforth, we will be concentrating on vocational courses of the same time for other orphanages: the first course has started already for boys and girls and English lessons are being held in Sitara-

Do check Sadie's website

photos of the Sitara Orphanage

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.

photos of the Sitara Orphanage


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.

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Click here to check out our missions to RAWA in Pakistan (December 2001, May 2002, January 2003, November 2003, April 2005)

See photos taken during these trips

See photos of the refugee camp and Sitara Orphanage

Help Afghan teachers (in English)

See emergency aid to Afghan refugees