By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
In recent weeks, we’ve posted three stories by ChildFund’s global communications manager, Julien Anseau, who traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia with our assessment team as they collected information on the needs of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly children.
Julien and Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Zachary Reid, who also went on the trip, did an excellent job putting a face on the migration crisis facing Europe. Like the global scope of ChildFund’s work with children and family members who live in poverty, the problem in Europe is vast. But in both cases, real people are suffering. We just need to take a moment to learn their stories and see their faces.
By Julien Anseau, ChildFund Global Communications Manager
Julien Anseau has worked with ChildFund in Asia and specializes in emergency communications. In January and early February, he joined our assessment team as they traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to take stock of needs among Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants, particularly children. In Julien’s final report, he continues the journey from Macedonia to Serbia.
Since the events described here, Macedonia and other European countries have limited the number of migrants allowed through their borders. This has caused a major bottleneck in Greece and occasional violence at border towns.
At least four trains arrive daily in Tabanovce, a Macedonian refugee camp near the Serbian border. But when we arrive, it’s deserted. The place feels eerie and empty, showing the transient nature of migrant camps.
Most migrants coming through here arrived from Greece, their landing point in Europe; they pass through Macedonia to Serbia and then, if they’re fortunate, on to Germany and other western European countries. Others take a route through northwestern Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. Both roads are well known to smugglers, who often make the journeys possible — at a steep cost.
But also present along the migrants’ trail are ChildFund, our partner Terre Des Hommes-Lausanne, and other non-governmental organizations, which are trying to keep children safe on their journey.
“We focus on the special needs of children,” says Marija, a social worker with La Strada International, a group of organizations focused on human trafficking in Eastern Europe. Its member group in Macedonia staffs children’s centers at refugee camps in Tabanovce and Gevgelija.
“They come here to play, draw, sing and take part in games,” she says, “so that, for a while at least, they can forget the situation back home and the stressful journey ahead. It’s great to see smiles on the faces of children. It is important to allow children to express their fears and concerns; many are traumatized by war. For younger children, we provide diapers, milk, formula and blankets, as well as a warm place for mothers to rest and breastfeed in privacy. We also give information to mothers about preventing separation from their children along the journey. We ensure children know the full names of their parents and have copies of their parents’ identity papers.”
Often, Marija offers a listening ear: “We listen and support parents as they express the hardships they have faced along the way, the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect next, the fear that they will get stuck at a transit center, and anxiety of not knowing if and how they will keep going to reach their destination. Children’s stress often mirrors their parents’ stress.”
Along the Turkey-Bulgaria-Serbia route, we see migrants in Dimitrovgrad, a town in southeast Serbia near the Bulgarian border. They’ve walked through forests, over hills and across fields under cover of darkness to reach this point. Many migrants are men, but it’s not uncommon for women and children to travel this route, too.
Today, temperatures have plummeted, and it is snowing. I speak to a young man from Afghanistan who doesn’t want to be named. He is shivering, his pants are ripped, and his shoes are broken down. I ask why he has no belongings.
“My bags were stolen in Bulgaria,” he says. “A group of men took my bags, money and phone, and they beat me. Still, it’s better than braving the sea.” As of March 8, 444 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The young man looks exhausted, but he continues: “I’m happy. I’m a free man now. I have a cousin in Germany. I don’t know which city he lives in, but I’ll call him once I arrive. I want to find work and settle.”
Later, we see 38 more migrants, including 14 children, arrive at Dimitrovgrad’s police station to get their papers stamped. We walk through barn-like doors to a large, open room with bunk beds covered by blankets.
There’s also a yard, just beyond the station. Clusters of girls and boys engage neighborhood dogs in play. Despite the harsh conditions they have faced, the children appear happy for a moment — a testament to their resilience.
By Julien Anseau, ChildFund Global Communications Manager
Julien, who has worked with ChildFund in Asia and specializes in emergency communications, joined our assessment team as they traveled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia earlier this year to take stock of needs of migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, particularly children. This is the first of Julien’s reports from the field.
Thousands of Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians are fleeing their war-torn countries and embarking on a perilous journey to Europe seeking refuge and a better life. In Izmir, a western port city of more than 2 million people in Turkey, many throng the streets, desperate to get to Greece — the entrance to the European Union.
It’s an anxious and fearful time for many. The most dangerous point of the journey to Europe is the illegal boat crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands.
According to the International Organization for Migration’s last update on Feb. 19, 413 people — including children — have died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016. Migrants pay smugglers anything between $500 and $1,200 and take their chances aboard unseaworthy rubber boats in a desperate bid to reach Europe.
Around Izmir’s Basmane Station, shops sell everything migrants may need, as well as things they don’t. Merchants do a brisk trade in lifejackets, which cost about $25 each and are sometimes useless. This is just one of many examples of people making a quick profit on migrants’ desperation.
A few days later, in Athens, Greece, we see many more migrants, but this time, the mood is of elation and relief. They’ve made it to Europe. In Victoria Square, a central meeting space in the city, I met a group of young Afghans taking their first steps on European soil.
Hamid, who says he is 20 years old but looks younger and may in fact still be a minor, describes his harrowing ordeal on the boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos.
“I’d been trying for three weeks to reach Greece,” he says in English. “I was losing hope, and then one night at 4 a.m., the smuggler came and said it was now or never. I grabbed my bag and followed him to the beach. Forty-seven of us piled up on a small rubber boat. The smuggler stayed on the beach and told one of us to steer the boat straight towards the lights on the island in the far distance. What was supposed to be a one-hour journey took five hours.
“A Syrian guy steered the boat into the darkness of the night,” Hamid continues. “None of us had ever driven a boat before, but he was brave. The high waves were crashing against the boat, and I was cold and wet through. Everyone was afraid, screaming and crying because we thought we were going to turn over. Some people were praying together. I can’t swim, and I thought I was going to die. When we arrived on shore, I was exhausted and lay down for a while, too tired to realize I made it.”
I can’t swim, and I thought I was going to die. When we arrived on shore, I was exhausted and lay down for a while, too tired to realize I made it.
Mehdi, another young Afghan man whom Hamid met earlier in the journey, jumps in: “We tried a few times to cross by boat. When the weather is bad and the sea is rough, smugglers drop the price. But we didn’t want to risk our life. We know some boats never make it. This time we were lucky. I’ve met some people on this journey who have lost friends and family at sea.”
Just that morning, as the city of Athens woke up, came news of yet another boat that didn’t make it to Greece. The boat capsized, killing several people, including children.
For most people seeking asylum in Europe, Germany is the destination of choice. Usually people have friends or relatives already living there, and the government has been welcoming of migrants fleeing political turmoil.
Ali, a man in his early 30s from Bamyan Province in central Afghanistan, says he hoped to complete his studies so he could rebuild his life away from the pervasive violence of his homeland. He was anxious to recharge his phone so he could tell his family that he was safe and learn the latest news on the migrant crisis.
“There are a lot of rumors and hearsay,” he says. “I heard that countries are closing their borders. I want to check online for myself.” Ali has kept in touch with friends further along the route to Germany, who relay practical information and advice.
Reaching Germany takes a great deal of planning and money, as well as procedures to protect migrants from losing their savings to dishonest smugglers.
Instead of paying smugglers directly along the route, Ali keeps his money in trust with a middleman back in Afghanistan. After hearing from Ali, this man released a payment to the smuggler who got Ali to Greece and made arrangements with the next smuggler along the route to Germany. If Ali had not reached Greece, the smuggler would have had to keep trying, or he wouldn’t have been paid.
The expense and trouble are worth it to Ali. “The insecurity in Afghanistan drove me out of my home,” he explains. “It’s a war zone. There is no education, no jobs, no safety, nothing. I am sad to leave my parents behind, but I have to save my life. This is not my first attempt to leave Afghanistan for a better life. The first time, I was caught without papers by police in Iran. I was beaten and sent back. This time I made it through.”
A few weeks after I met Ali, Hamid and Mehdi, the situation suddenly changed for Afghan migrants, who are no longer allowed to travel through Macedonia. Many are now stranded in Greece.
Stay tuned for more blog posts from Julien, and also check out Richmond Times-Dispatch staff writer Zachary Reid’s reports from his time spent shadowing ChildFund’s needs-assessment team in Europe.
To find out more about the children and families undertaking this journey — and to help — read more on ChildFund’s website.
Earlier this week, ChildFund President & CEO Anne Lynam Goddard visited the White House for the launch of Let Girls Learn, a U.S. government initiative that aims to make education accessible for all girls worldwide, despite some daunting obstacles. Girls’ rights and the barriers to them figure strongly in our work at ChildFund, so it is thrilling to see such a major push led by the Office of the First Lady, involving USAID, the State Department, the Peace Corps and other agencies. You can read more of Anne’s thoughts on Let Girls Learn on her Tumblr page.
On the ChildFund blog, we’ve written about many girls and young women who have overcome significant barriers to attaining a full education — including early marriage, spotty electrical power, long walks to school and cultural mores that discourage women from getting an education. Read about Phanny, a Zambian woman who works as an automotive repair supervisor; Mahdia, an Afghani woman who is learning to read despite the objection of some of her male relatives; and Alexia, a Dominican police officer who encourages her younger siblings to remain in school. They’re heroines in our book.
By Janat Totakhail, ChildFund Afghanistan
Janana is 15 and the oldest of four sisters. They live in a village in northern Afghanistan near the border of Tajikistan, where few children — especially girls — have the opportunity to get an education. Janana, too, had never been allowed by her mother and father to attend school.
Her father works as a shopkeeper and sometimes as a hired farmer, while her mother takes care of the household. As the oldest sister, Janana also has many responsibilities at home. But she always hoped to go to school. Today, that goal has become a strong possibility.
In Afghanistan, ChildFund supports Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) where children and teens can study and play. In Janana’s village and four more, we started 10 CFSs in 2013: one for boys and one for girls in each community, and 1,001 children have taken part in the program. Many have experienced war-related trauma and are still at risk of violence, abuse and neglect, so the spaces don’t just serve educational needs. They help keep children safe and also let community members plan for emergencies, particularly how to protect their children. Once ChildFund’s direct supervision ended in January, community members have stepped in to run the programs.
The CFSs for girls have eased some of the stigma attached to education for young women. Janana persuaded her parents to let her attend.
Now, it is her second home, giving her a place to learn and spend time with girls from her neighborhood. Janana is able to read and write names and short sentences, and she’s about a year away from mastering primary school-level literacy and numeracy. One of her sisters has joined her at the CFS.
“I like learning the Pashto language,” Janana says, “and I feel proud and empowered while reading a letter for my parents and helping my little sister to read and write.”
If she had not attended the CFS, she adds, “my life would be different. I would be busy all day with housework, with no opportunity to interact with peers, make friends, play, and learn to read and write.”
Janana’s parents also are happy to see their daughter progressing in her studies.
“An illiterate person is like a blind person,” her father says. “My daughter helps me to learn Islamic principles; she reads for me the letters, invitations and wedding cards; takes note of money that I lend to people, and she helps me understand the details of the electricity bill. She helps her mother and sisters in understanding personal hygiene and health issues. I am proud having Janana as a helping hand.”
Kochai, who facilitates the CFS, also has noticed her progress: “Janana has been very active participating in learning activities. She learned to respect parents and elders, gained awareness in health and hygiene, and, more importantly, is progressing well in literacy and numeracy. I am hopeful that one day she will join school with children of her age.”
Her family, too, is encouraging Janana to continue her education at a school close to her village. She has a big dream for the future: “I want to be a teacher, to help all school-age girls in my village to go to school and learn to make their future and help others.”
Saturday, March 8 is International Women’s Day, which has been observed for more than 100 years. Equal rights, education, empowerment and independence for women and girls — all over the world — are the cornerstone of the day, tenets that ChildFund supports. Mahdia, the Afghani woman interviewed here, declined to have her photo published because she was worried about her husband and male relatives’ reaction to her likeness being seen by people outside the ChildFund Afghanistan office, particularly men.
A huge smile lights up Mahdia’s face as she reads a sentence from her Dari book, which teaches phrases in the language used in Mahdia’s community.
Mahdia is one of ChildFund Afghanistan’s cleaners and, like the majority of Afghani women, she is illiterate. Two times a week, she and I sit together, as we are taken through the intricacies of the Dari language in our quest to read and write it. She has an advantage over me in that she can speak the language, but as for the rest of the tasks, we both struggle.
For the rest of the day and ensuing days, the ever-present smile gets bigger and bigger, and there is a sense of something different about her — a confidence that is slowly uncoiling and emerging like the blooming of a flower.
Like Mahdia, I come from a poor background, but the difference between our somewhat parallel lives is that I was able to receive an education. Also, I was born in the country that, in 1893, became the first in the world to give women the right to vote. Today’s New Zealand women benefit from the struggle in which our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers succeeded in ensuring equal opportunities for women. In fact, if you were to ask New Zealand men how they perceive the rights and opportunities for New Zealand females, they would more than likely tell you it is 60 percent/40 percent in favor of women.
Afghanistan’s women were awarded the right to vote in 1964. The new constitution established in 2004 states, “Any kind of discrimination and privilege between the citizens of Afghanistan is prohibited. The citizens of Afghanistan — whether man or woman — have equal rights and duties before the law.” But despite having the ability to vote and having a constitution that notes gender equality, the majority of Afghani women have not seen many significant improvements in their lives. Indeed, Afghanistan is recognized as being one of the most dangerous countries to be a female.
It is estimated that 75 percent of Afghani women have no education. The average lifespan of women is 49 years; 85 percent of women face, or have faced, abuse or physical violence. And Afghanistan still has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Early marriage is extremely common as well.
Most women and girls face precarious prospects in a highly fragile environment buffeted by low economic performance and high poverty, food insecurity, as well as high levels of insecurity and exclusion on account of gender.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day and reflect on the progress made so far in the quest to achieve equality for women and girls worldwide, we also recognize what still needs to happen.
A month after International Women’s Day, with its theme of Inspiring Change, the people of Afghanistan will head to the polls to elect a new president. As many of the presidential candidates campaign on the need to recognize the rights of women and make promises of bringing improvement to women’s lives, many Afghani women are hopeful that 2014 will be a year of positive change for both them and their country. They are calling for changes in attitudes and positive action for women’s equality; if Afghanistan is to make progress, the status quo cannot continue.
Mahdia tells me that she is doing all she can to encourage her daughters to get good educations so they can have opportunities that she has been denied. She also tells me — with that big smile lighting up her face — that they are so proud of her learning to read and write.
As I sit here in Afghanistan, I can’t help but wonder how my life may have turned out had it not been for the opportunities I have had, because I was born a female in New Zealand.
ChildFund and Nokero International, Ltd. have partnered to expand educational opportunity to 1,200 girls and 800 boys from a nomadic tribe in northern Afghanistan.
Our first effort with Nokero, in 2012, was to provide safe, inexpensive solar-powered lights to schoolchildren in Liberia. This time, we’re taking advantage of another quality of Nokero’s lights: their portability.
In northern Afghanistan, the nomadic Kuchi people move with the seasons, herding animals and bartering along the way. As one of Afghanistan’s most marginalized ethnic groups, they face extreme poverty and instability.
Since they settle only temporarily in rural, isolated regions, the Kuchis go months at a time without basic services like electricity and education. The literacy rate among the Kuchi men is less than 7 percent, and among women, it’s less than 2. Less than 2 percent of Kuchi girls are able to enroll in school.
This project supports a larger grant initiative to expand educational opportunities for 2,000 Kuchi children. It has two components:
625 Nokero solar-powered lamps and chargers that students can use to study, even when they’re in remote locations without electricity
peer-led study clubs that will be monitored by trained mentors and teachers so that students can continue their studies while on the move
Lights and study groups will empower children — especially girls — to sustain their learning without abandoning their nomadic way of life.
But to make this happen, we need your help to raise $8,864 by March 1 for our Fund a Project, Solar Lights and Study Clubs for Kuchi Children.
Join hands with other like-minded people and bring this project to life. And don’t forget to share the link with your family and friends.
Children in Afghanistan face some of the greatest challenges in the world: political instability, lack of infrastructure, few educational opportunities and poor access to water, health care and other essentials. ChildFund started working in Afghanistan in 2002, and we’ve made some progress, particularly in providing education and fresh water to communities, but there is still a long way to go.
View the video:
Reporting by Ahmadullah Zahid, ChildFund Afghanistan
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Malik Nader fled to Pakistan and lived there as a refugee for 20 years before returning to his homeland. Now 41, the father of eight lives with his family in Sheikh Mesri New Township, a refugee resettlement community near Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. ChildFund is at work in Sheikh Mesri through its RESTART program, a collection of services designed to help meet the needs of the community’s youngest children for education, nutrition, water and sanitation. In this remote, dry landscape, water was the greatest challenge. Malik shares his story as we mark World Water Day on March 22.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, we lost everything. We had to take our last option ― migrating to Pakistan ― and it was very difficult to live with no basic services in another country. We settled in a refugee camp, where we were provided tents and some food items.
Like other Afghan refugees, I started working as a laborer to feed our family. Twenty years of my life passed without any promotion to any other work, but still we were happy that our families and children were safe.
But after a while, the Pakistani government began destroying our small mud houses and camps, and we became afraid again. Nothing in our lives was guaranteed, and we had to deal with the Pakistani police every day. Tired of this, we finally decided to return to our home country.
Arriving in Afghanistan with only a Voluntary Repatriation Form from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we received a piece of land from the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations. And so we began our new lives in Sheikh Mesri New Township.
At first, we lacked even the basics for life such as water, health care, food, decent roads and jobs. It was just like 20 years ago, making a start in Pakistan.
The most difficult problem was drinking water. We spent as much as five hours a day bringing water from far away to meet the needs of our children and families. Awhile after we arrived in Sheikh Mesri, the UNHCR built some wells, which helped to some degree, but they were often out of order, and water would be unavailable.
Then, last year, ChildFund built seven solar-powered water systems in Sheikh Mesri. The design is great! It’s very easy to collect water, and it’s accessible to everyone ― enough water 24 hours a day. We had dreamed of seeing water flowing in our camp, and the solar-powered water systems made our dream come true.
In fact, the UNHCR is building similar solar-powered water systems in Sheikh Mesri, which will solve 100 percent of the water needs of the Afghan returnees who are making their lives here.
Now life feels more stable, and Sheikh Mesri feels like a place where we can stay.
Were you inspired by today’s blog? Share your thoughts on the subject with your Twittter followers! This week, ChildFund is encouraging its supporters to “tweet-out” for World Water Day using the hashtag #Water4Children. Top tweeters will receive water gifts sent to a family in their honor. More details here.
Reporting by Ahmadullah Zahid, ChildFund Afghanistan
On International Women’s Day, we’re spotlighting some of the amazing girls and women we’ve encountered in ChildFund-supported communities. We honor their struggles and cheer their successes.
A young girl stood before a panel of adults in a government office in northern Afghanistan. It was not her first visit.
What is your name, and how old are you?
My name is Nazifa, and I am 12 years old.
Are you happy with your family?
Yes, I am. My mother is a kind woman, and my father is often away from us, working.
Why are you in the district governor’s office?
I presented a written complaint to get out of being married to an old man.
How much is a 12-year-old girl worth?
To Nazifa’s grandfather, $2,000 sounded about right. This was the offer from the pair of community elders who approached him a year ago about arranging a marriage between his eldest granddaughter and a young boy from their rural village.
The three men, says Nazifa, showed her a picture of the boy and made her agree to the marriage despite her objections, which included her desire to continue school.
On the wedding night, she was taken to a room where an old man sat. She kissed his hands, the traditional demonstration of respect for elders by Afghanistan’s young people. And then she was made to sit next to him. She began to cry, harder and harder as she came to understand that this elderly man was her new husband ― that she had been deceived, and that there was nothing she could do. Finally, she fell quiet, and the man did as he wanted. He was 72 years old.
Nazifa’s grandfather left immediately after the wedding on a pilgrimage funded by Nazifa’s bride price.
Within two weeks, Nazifa’s husband began to abuse her.
The moment she saw an opening, Nazifa ran home to her mother and told her everything, and they submitted a complaint to district authorities. Eight months later, there was still no resolution.
ChildFund learned of Nazifa’s case through its Social Work Coaching project in Takhar province, which aims to improve child protection systems to address the needs of children at risk. In addition to working with local and national government authorities, the project trains social workers and community outreach workers on child rights, child development and protection, referrals and other social work services. ChildFund is one of several partner organizations in the project, which is supported by UNICEF.
After Nazifa told her story, the room fell quiet, her listeners struck by her tender age, her sweet face, her directness, her passion for education. Her questioner changed the subject.
Do you go to school?
Yes, when I am not coming to court.
When you go to school, does anyone bother you?
Yes, on the way to school and in class, they all laugh at me and say unpleasant words.
Do you want to continue going to school?
Yes. I will never stop going, even though it’s hard.
If you don’t succeed in getting out of this marriage, what will you do?
I am sure the government will decide in my favor. Otherwise, I can’t accept life with an old, disturbing man, and I will end my life somehow.
Nazifa was finally able to leave the marriage, and school is easier now, thanks to some support from social workers trained by ChildFund.
Authorities had no good answer as to why this case had taken so long, and there are many more such cases throughout Afghanistan due to the cultural breakdown following the country’s two decades of conflict. Social work is not really a formal profession in Afghanistan, but this is beginning to change as authorities recognize the need for it, thanks largely to awareness raised by ChildFund and others working to strengthen child protection systems in Afghanistan.
We work to expand people’s knowledge about the rights and worth of children, and we help protect as many children as we can from becoming victims.
Because a 12-year-old girl is priceless.