Here is part 11 of my blog ‘A personal reflection on ‘serving in Afghanistan’’ – if you missed the earlier parts, here they are:
:: part 1
:: part 2
:: part 3
:: part 4
:: part 5
:: part 6
:: part 7
:: part 8
:: part 9
:: part 10
Last time I talked about carpets and visiting Turkmen people from Afghanistan. This time more about visiting Afghan refugees in Pakistan and things I learned.
Look at the map of Central Asia below and at all the countries surrounding Afghanistan. Historically, as well as presently, people travel over these borders. Also some of the current borders didn’t exist then or have changed. It’s not so easy to cross nowadays because of visas, and higher security levels and procedures. When Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan and Iran in the 1990s the borders weren’t always open but people knew ways of getting over the mountains into the next country. I am sure it happens a lot nowadays. These are not easy journeys but they are used by smugglers and those desperate to flee war situations. An Afghan I know remembers being taken over the mountains as a child on a donkey, leaving behind a middle class life to live in a tent in a refugee camp. I met and still know many such people.
Of course as the years passed not only did the camps develop into settlements but many people were able to move out of the camps into the community. They got jobs and were able to improve their lives.
I visited many such Afghan families in Pakistan. One well off family left Kabul with two lorry loads of belongings, fleeing the then war-torn situation. En route they slept overnight at a roadside inn. They woke up to discover the lorry drivers had taken their payment and driven off in the night. Everything was lost. I visited them living in one room in a city in Pakistan in a shared house with relatives who had moved from the refugee camp when they were able to rent a house. The room had barely any furniture. Their relatives had given them something to sleep on but had nothing else to spare. At this point the family had the clothes on their backs but no spare clothes. This was not a poor uneducated family. They were in shock! Imagine losing your home and all your belongings and finding yourself in a strange place with no financial support, dependent on others for the smallest thing. Of course we hear of many refugees today from a wide variety of countries who are in similar situations.
The father, who had had a high position, was reduced to sitting on the floor. Nothing to do. Eventually after some years they got asylum overseas. They were educated and spoke English. I had some language practice with them as well as social times. Even though they had lost everything they were always very hospitable offering tea and nan bread or biscuits. It was the only remnant of pride that was left. We talked about many things from trivial to life challenges. They were very practical and stoic about what had happened to them. They adjusted their life plans according to what was realistic. University education for the oldest child was no longer possible so a marriage was arranged. The future of the individual was secondary to the needs of the whole family, which is very different to how we think and plan. Everyone accepted this.
I once had a box of really nice notelets (pre internet when we used to write letters) and I divided it up into 3 to give to 3 different family members as Eid gifts. I wrapped each in a pretty ribbon and passed it to each female as a gift from me. They received them gratefully but immediately passed them all to the mother who put them all together. They were a bit bemused…it was for the family not a personal belonging! There were no personal belongings i.e. that belonged to an individual, apart from their clothes.
Visiting happened in the one room so whoever was in the room received me and whatever was discussed was heard and responded to by all. Rarely when you visit Afghans is it a one to one discussion. I have visited village households where there was a whole extended family and half the neighbourhood (which included loads of kids) all sitting at one side of the room and the visitor sitting on the other side with the tea and refreshments. I have even had multiple people peering in at the windows and watching. Everyone watches you but usually the oldest or most senior person will talk to you. Sharing stories in such a context is good if opportunity arises, Bible stories and stories to get people thinking. Often though it could be quite intimidating and challenging if you were trying to share in the local language. People in villages often speak in a local dialect and use slang/local words….aargh! Pushtu isn’t a standardized language so is always a challenge especially with women who never leave the village.
I visited another family in the city who sent someone to buy biscuits to offer me with the tea. On this occasion I was unusually left alone for a while with the older daughter of the house as the family went out. I was eating my second biscuit when she said “Every day I am so hungry and my belly hurts!” The biscuit turned to ash in my mouth as I realised they had spent their few precious coins on biscuits I didn’t want and didn’t need. I tried not to eat more but their hospitality demanded I did and she pressed me to eat.
We always tried to take bags of fruit when visiting because often fruit was too expensive for them to buy. Many meals were just bread or rice. One very poor family insisted on giving us a couple of eggs in return. We took them so they felt they had dignity. They were living in a rundown “shed-like house” at the time but could still provide hospitality and feel they could give to friends. There were others who just took whatever you gave with little gratitude but it is hard to judge people who have fallen into poverty like that.
When I finally returned to the UK I felt so angry at our wealth. I remember visiting one house in the UK and feeling so angry that they had two (TWO!) lamps in one room. Extravagance! Of course after a while I calmed down. If I sold all I had and gave it to the poor there would still have been so many people left tomorrow who were hungry. In a country like Afghanistan the Gospel usually has to be “preached with actions” before words as James says in chapter 2: 15 to 17
15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Next time I will tell you a very funny story about a family I visited by accident and what evolved from that (including that they saw the Jesus film!)