Afghanistan, standing at the crossroad between East and West Asia on the legendary Silk Road, has experienced wave after wave of invaders from before the time of Alexander the Great. According to Ahmed Rashid*, the country and the people are among the most extraordinary on earth--no outsider has ever claimed their soul. The rough, arid terrain has produced some of the world's best fighters, while its gaunt mountains, lush green valleys and fruit-laden trees have been an inspiration to poets.
I recently met an Afghan woman with poetry and vision in her soul. Mahboba Rawi is a softly spoken mother in her thirties living in Sydney, Australia. Six years ago disaster struck her extended family as they enjoyed a day out on the lovely south coast of New South Wales. A freak wave swept seven family members, including her older son, out to sea and all were drowned. Later her husband went off with another woman, leaving her with two small children.
For the last four years Rawi has been raising money for Afghan widows and orphans in the refugee camps in Pakistan, bypassing police, tribal chiefs and professional aid agencies, and delivering the money directly to the most needy. She has also travelled to the camps in Indonesia which hold Afghans who have been classified as refugees but not accepted for settlement by any country.
Her organization, Mahboba's Promise, receives no government funding but has been praised by UNICEF for its effectiveness. The 'promise' refers to her commitment to care for the orphans of her country: she started out in 1997 by feeding 35. She now cares for over 4,000 widows and orphans, funds a school for the children and a bakery and chocolate factory to provide food and employment. In a recent interview, she shared some of her extraordinary story with me:
You grew up the much-loved daughter of a middle-class family in Kabul. In 1979, when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, you took part in student demonstrations. Why did you do this?
I was 14. One morning we woke up and saw all the soldiers and Russian tanks in the streets and knew we had been invaded.
There is something in Afghan people's blood that will not accept foreign invasion. All the high school students began spontaneously to demonstrate. I didn't belong to any political group. We followed a few girls who showed leadership, and then they put them in jail and I took over.
It was my job to ring the bell for the end of class. So I pressed the bell when we were supposed to be having lessons and I led the students onto the streets. As we passed other schools, they joined us, until there was a huge demonstration shouting, 'Russia out. We don't want you.' The soldiers came and hit us with electric rods, but I didn't give up. I just came back the next day and did it again.
They took so many students away and we never saw them again. My father was scared and tried to stop me getting involved.
Your father was a businessman?
No, my father was a public servant with the previous government. Everyone was against Communism because Afghanistan is 100 per cent Muslim and the idea of Communism is so different. People practised a very tolerant form of Islam, but Russia ruined everything for us.
They tried to arrest me twice. The second time I escaped and went into hiding. Then my uncle took me to Peshawar by walking over dangerous mountain paths. I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to my parents. I only had what I was wearing. I got very sick and vomited. There were a lot of young people running away. It was very dangerous--in that steep terrain, if you slipped and fell, you died.
What was your experience in Peshawar?
We were the first of the Afghan refugees. Before there were any camps, the Pakistani people rented us the rooms under their houses where they used to keep animals. The conditions were terrible and crowded.
In the beginning, the camps were terrible too. Even if aid was given, it didn't reach those who needed it. Many spent it on their own families and businesses. Someone got rich, but those who needed it did not get the money.
Your mother tongue is Dari--so you don't belong to the dominant language group in Afghanistan. Does this mean you are a member of the Hazara minority group and belong to the Shia branch of Islam?
No, I am Tajik, from the North. I am a Sunni Muslim, but I don't call myself anything. I try to be a good Muslim and to do what God tells me. All I know is that God tells me to do good to everybody as long as I live.
I don't worry about Shia, Sunni, Hazara, Pashtun. In the Indonesian refugee camp I have two 'sons' who call me mother, one is Pashtun and one is Hazara.
The Hazaras have suffered a lot in Afghanistan. This is the group I am supporting very much in the detention camps for asylum seekers here in Australia and also in Indonesia. For me they are all Afghans, and even more important, human beings.
What is your vision for Afghanistan?
My hope is that one day all Afghans will be brothers and sisters to each other, as my Prophet said. We must respect others--and he mentioned all people. If you are educated and love God, you don't hate or kill.
After my son died and my husband divorced me, I would think to myself in the night when the children were asleep. It is so easy to blame the other person, but I decided to go inside myself. I made a graph of myself, all the good and bad. I put my list of weaknesses on the fridge and worked through them to change myself.
It took me four years to know myself and to know God. If you love God, you have to love human beings--how can you pray to God five times a day and still plan to kill fellow human beings? I believe some of my people have gone in the wrong direction and that is why we are in trouble.
They read the Qur'an but they don't follow it. In four years studying the Qur'an, I did not find one Sura (verse) that told me to hate someone because they were Hazara, Tajik or Pashtun. We have to love our neighbour like ourselves.
What do you think about the role of women in society?
I want women to be educated and free. When I speak about a woman being free, whether in the West or in Afghanistan, I think about being free in the heart. And it doesn't matter whether you wear the burqa or not--real freedom is in the heart.
What projects are you working on now?
We are building a women's centre in a village which has never had a school or medical centre for women. This village is in the north of Afghanistan in Abdara Valley. These women don't even know how to use simple painkillers. I want to use this as a pilot scheme and then reach out to villages across the country with such women's health and education centres.
My uncle gave me his house in Kabul, which we use to help widows. We bought sewing machines and the widows do beautiful embroidery. I need to find outlets for them to sell this--they can make dresses, tablecloths, pillowcases, anything. I already have orders for belts. Perhaps a fashion designer will read this and use some of these lovely materials to make dresses.
I have a bakery and chocolate factory in the Pakistan camps which I want to move back to Afghanistan. I am also opening a computer class for orphan girls in Jalalabad. This will give the girls, aged 13 to 22, a training. Families use these girls to clean the house and look after the kids, so I not only offer free classes, but I give the families $10 a month if they release the girls to come.
My greatest wish is one day to build a huge orphanage for 4,000 children in Kabul, where there are thousands of street kids. Three out of five Afghan children are orphans. There will be a school next door, a medical centre, a swimming pool, an area for tennis. I design it all in my mind and I can even see the trees and grass. I would like to have a big room so that the kids can take turns to have a 'free day', to have fun, shout, dance, paint, make a mess, experience childhood. When you are an orphan, you have to be disciplined and behave well, otherwise no one will accept you.
My children, Tamina (13) and Naweet (6), are very supportive of my work. If I can't achieve this dream, they say they will do it for me. If my son has one dollar he will give it to me and say: 'Here you go, Mummy, this is for your orphans.'
I will end, as I began, with a quote from Ahmed Rashid, who wrote in 2000: 'The entire Afghan population has been displaced, not once but many times over. Each neighbouring state needs to recognize not only its own national security needs, but also those of its neighbours. Peace here would pay enormous dividends across the entire region.' Since he wrote, many nations around the world have been involved in the tragic developments in Afghanistan. The dividends for peace, stability and a decent life for the Afghan people would be felt to the ends of the earth.
*'Taliban Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia' by Ahmed Rashid, IB Publications, London/New York 2000