Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Archive for July, 2008

Afghanistan: A lasting commitment [IRC at 75]

Posted by The IRC on 31 July, 2008

An Afghan boy at an IRc hospital shows his scar from surgery. (IRC photo)

An Afghan boy at an IRC hospital shows his scar from surgery. (IRC photo)

As we observe our 75th anniversary this year, International Rescue Committee president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from our rich history each month.

In December 1979, the Soviet Union airlifted troops into the mountainous country of Afghanistan.  The Soviets and their Afghan allies took the capital, Kabul, and launched nine years of war with indigenous resistance groups. Thus began three decades of conflict and massive displacement for the Afghan people, along with the devastation of their country.Within weeks of the Soviet invasion, the IRC rushed to the aid of Afghan refugees who poured into bordering Pakistan. In 1988, when the Soviets withdrew, the IRC established operations in Afghanistan itself to help its people rebuild. The IRC has remained at work with suffering Afghans in both places—through the rise to power in Kabul of the extremist Taliban regime in 1996; the U.S.-led invasion to overthrow the Taliban in 2001; elections establishing a permanent Afghan government in 2004; and, by 2008, renewed concern over a resurgence of Taliban guerilla fighters. The IRC’s efforts in Afghanistan are now the IRC’s most longstanding.

The consistency and quality of the IRC’s work in Afghanistan owe much to the skill and determination of our staff members, both international and Afghan. It is doubtful, however, that when then IRC board president John Whitehead made his first visit in 1980 to the makeshift refugee camps springing up on the Afghan-Pakistan border, he could have known what a long and difficult commitment the IRC was about to make. What John did know was that a terrible human tragedy was unfolding on the border: one in three Afghans—some five million people—had fled their homeland and were living in terrible conditions.

By the end of 1980, the IRC was operating an extensive program of relief. We dispatched mobile clinics and set up dispensary tents. Scouts went into the scattered encampments to bring sick refugees to the medical tents. Vocational and self-help programs were developed. One of the IRC’s greatest accomplishments was its educational programs, which ranged from preschool to postgraduate courses and included a high school for refugee girls in Peshawar. Among the young refugees who passed through the camps was Mohammed Haneef Atmar, now minister of education, who worked for the IRC as program director in Kabul before joining the government of President Hamid Karzai.  And when I met him in 2002, President Karzai reminded me that he had once taught English at our IRC school in Peshawar, Pakistan. 

In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, ushering in, not an era of peace, but a new round violence and civil war. The IRC was one of the few aid agencies that continued to operate inside Afghanistan under the Taliban, with a team of Afghan national staff members who, among other activities, organized home schooling for Afghan girls forbidden an education under the regime’s rules.

Even before we established an official presence in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, the IRC was sending teams into the Afghan countryside to repair roads, rebuild irrigation systems, and establish public health and sanitation facilities. With the overthrow of the Taliban, the IRC ramped up efforts to help Afghans rebuild. In 2007, the IRC enrolled some 11,000 students in 400 schools and trained over 1,000 teachers.  Nearly 2,000 people graduated from our vocational programs. And we helped to establish locally elected community development councils in which villagers make the decisions.

Despite the continuing instability in Afghanistan, the IRC remains as committed to the land and its people as it was nearly 30 years ago.  Our staff is now 99% Afghan – talented colleagues, many of whom have been with the IRC for decades.  As Razia Stanikzai, an Afghan refugee and a field manager for an IRC education programs in Pakistan remarked, “We Afghans have bled a lot, and now we want our children to experience peace.”

You can read all of George Rupp’s history posts here.


Posted in Asia, children, education, history, refugees | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Pakistan: IRC builds house of hope and learning

Posted by The IRC on 30 July, 2008

Photo: The IRC
Shoaib Mughal lives in Durbang, a village in the Khawara Valley of Pakistani Kashmir, where he works as a day laborer making 150 rupees ($2.50) per day to feed his wife and six children.Until the October 8, 2005 earthquake that devastated parts of Pakistan, Shoaib lived with his wife, Roma, and their children, three girls and three boys between the ages of one and twelve, in a small two-room house. They lived on a small compound with another house where Shoaib’s relatives, including his three brothers’ families and his parents, lived. The earthquake destroyed the houses.The Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA), a Pakistani government agency, compensated Shoaib’s relatives to rebuild house, however, Shoaib’s house was considered too small to rebuild. Shoaib received no compensation, and his family remained homeless.When the IRC came to Durbang, as part of a multi-sector rehabilitation project funded by Stichting Vluchteling, the Dutch refugee foundation, the community recommended Shoaib’s family receive a new house. Shoaib provided 30,000 rupees ($500) to help pay for the wood and masons, and the IRC covered the remaining cost in materials and skilled labor.

The new house site was located near the busiest road in Durbang. The site’s location served as an ideal open air classroom for IRC trainers to conduct training sessions demonstrating earthquake-resistant construction techniques, cinder block and brick placement and steel reinforcement, to the community.

Community members participated in the trainings. People from Durbang and the surrounding area stopped by everyday to see the house’s progress and observe construction techniques. Community members particularly valued learning steel fixing skills for reinforcing structures. Shoaib’s brothers utilized the techniques to rebuild their home.

“I am very happy to have a home constructed,” Shoaib said. “It had been my greatest worry.”

Once again Shoaib can focus on work and providing for his family, including raising enough money for his oldest three children to attend school.

“Now, I can try to send my children to school and work hard to give them a better future,” Shoaib said.

Posted in Asia, refugees | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Making a difference in Ethiopia

Posted by Emily Holland on 25 July, 2008

Photo: The IRC
International Rescue Committee communications officer Emily Holland and IRC intern and Princeton University student Daniella Raveh are visiting Ethiopia where they will be blogging about the lives and struggles of refugees and young girls and women.  You can read all their posts here.


I just got the OK today. It’s final: I am traveling to Ethiopia to document the lives of refugees and the local population. Emily just finished giving me her “Africa 101” lesson: what to bring, what to wear, what new foods we’ll be trying, and most importantly, the important IRC projects that we’ll be visiting. Generating expectations is far from easy, however. This is my first time in Africa, and I don’t know what to expect. Since I live in the Middle East, people assume that I might have a better understanding of what a country that has endured conflict might be like. To be honest, I don’t know if my life has prepared me for this mission.

When I tell people I’m going to Ethiopia, they seem puzzled: “Ethiopia? Why, what’s happening there?” I quickly recite a long list of problems: Famine, disease, child labor, and poverty, not to mention the horrible violence against women and continuous border disputes. But these horrors are rarely mentioned in the media. With war and conflict happening all over the world, suffering becomes relative. Compared to what’s happening in Darfur or Congo, Ethiopia is a small story.

So I’m going to document what people don’t know or have forgotten about Ethiopia. I’m going to see with my own eyes sights that excited or shocked me in movies and pictures. Never in my life have I looked forward to seeing such sights, but in a weird way, I am excited and can’t wait to land in Addis Ababa.

Emily Holland, The IRCEmily:

As for me, I’m thrilled to be able to introduce someone to the field for the first time. Daniella has done a stellar job working for the IRC this summer, and I can’t wait to see what she makes of life in one of the many countries where we work.

As Daniella says, we’ve certainly got our work cut out for us. People know Ethiopia, if they know it at all, as a place where periodic famines break out and the AIDS pandemic soars. As humanitarian workers, we propose to do something different—to tell a new story.

First, we’ll be investigating one of the most basic aspects of aid: water. We will chart the many (and sometimes unexpected) benefits building a well can brings to a small village. And we will look at how the IRC is using sophisticated satellite imaging technology to locate new water sources.

Next, we will meet young girls and boys who are working as gold miners in Ethiopia’s remote desert regions. Extreme poverty has forced thousands of children to take up this dangerous work. How is the IRC working to combat this and other forms of child labor? We’ll find out.

Finally, we will document the lives of refugee women and girls living in Ethiopia. Women and girls are the key to development in Africa. Until they are able to take their full place in society, it will be difficult for Africa to reach its full potential. Daniella and I will participate in education awareness campaigns that the IRC is conducting to encourage girls to stay in school. We’ll learn how distributing feminine products contributes to helping them to stay in school. We’ll also participate in “coffee sessions”: dynamic meetings where IRC staff champion concepts like gender equality among women and men.

It’s sure to be a rich and rewarding trip. In closing, I often talk about “Africa eyes.” It refers to a vision people visiting the African continent develop: new insights into what’s important and how they should lead their lives. I’m excited to be there when Daniella’s Africa eyes open.

Posted in Africa, children, refugees, women | Tagged: , , | 16 Comments »

Pakistan: A new family home

Posted by The IRC on 24 July, 2008

Photo: The IRC
Nadar Hussain lives with his wife, Chaudery, and their seven children in Kot, a town located in the Khawara Valley of Pakistani Kashmir. Nadar worked as a gardener in Islamabad until he was forced to retire 22 years ago to receive a large severance needed for a family emergency. Since retirement, the Hussains have mostly relied on Nadar’s 1,500 rupees ($25) monthly pension to survive. They also earn a small amount of money cutting grass and growing corn on their small plot of land. The yearly corn crop is minimal, and typically yields only three bags of corn (150lb per bag) worth 1,300 rupees ($21).

Illness has taken a heavy toll on the Hussains’ income. Nadar has tuberculosis. His children are between the ages of 15 and 30. The four oldest sons are disabled. The two oldest sons are purblind, which means they cannot see at night. The third son is deaf, and the fourth is epileptic. Only the two youngest sons can earn a wage laboring, and the daughter remains at home. When Nadar gardened in Islamabad, he could afford to send his children to school. However, after Nadar’s retirement the family needed the small wages the youngest sons earned laboring, which ruled out attending school.The Hussains lived in a small two-room house with Nadar’s brother, the brother’s wife and their four children, until the October 8, 2005 earthquake that devastated parts of Pakistan. The earthquake destroyed the house and left everyone homeless. Fortunately, no one was hurt because everyone was outside helping to harvest corn.

When the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA), a Pakistani government agency, assessed the damage and disbursed compensation for building a new house, the money was given to solely Nadar’s brother. A family dispute kept Nadar and his family homeless.

The IRC approached the Kot community about building a house for a vulnerable family as part of a larger multi-sector rehabilitation project funded by Stichting Vluchteling, the Dutch refugee foundation. The community chose the Hussains. The IRC built a house to shelter the Hussains and demonstrate earthquake-resistant construction techniques to the community. The Hussains were the perfect choice because their need was great and their land was close to the main road in Kot. Construction began in June 2007. Nadar provided 16,000 rupees ($266) worth of wood and materials, and the IRC provided the remaining 296,000 rupees ($4,933) needed. The IRC contracted masons in September to ensure the house was built before winter.

“Everyday during construction, people visited the house to learn building techniques,” Nadar says.

These techniques included cinder-block and brick placement and steel reinforcement to make the house earthquake-resistant.

Today the freshly painted house provides a safe home to Nadar’s family, allowing them to focus on a livelihood, instead of seeking shelter.

“We were too poor to build a house, yet now through IRC’s help we have this house,” Chaudery says beaming with pride.

Posted in Asia | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The IRC in Burundi: Helping Refugees Return

Posted by The IRC on 24 July, 2008

The cooking skills training in the commune Nyanza-Lac. These youth are supported by IRC in a 6-month training course on cooking; they learn both practical and theoretical aspects of the trade. Their instructor was a local woman who expressed to us the joy she felt in teaching the youth and despite her small kitchen was willing to take on more students.
Photo: /The IRC

Barri Shorey is the International Rescue Committee‘s youth and livelihoods program manager based in New York City.

In April, Barri traveled to the central African country of Burundi, which is recovering from more than a dozen years of war and mass displacement following a 1993 genocide that drove more than 500,000 to seek refuge in neighboring countries, including Tanzania. The IRC has been working in Burundi since 1996, reuniting uprooted families, assisting former child solders, helping returning refugees reintegrate, and promoting peace and stability as the country rebuilds after the conflict.

The following guest post is the first in a series of three.


Arriving in Burundi I was first struck by the amazing beauty of this mountainous country. Our first assignment was to travel to Makamba, a province in the south bordering Tanzania. Makamba will soon become home to many of the 100,000 Burundians returning from refugee camps in Tanzania slated to close next year. These refugees—over half of them children and youth— will need support for a peaceful return and reintegration. Host communities will need help absorbing these new arrivals into what are already overtaxed local economies.

The markets and town centers we visited in Makamba were busy and full of life. People were out and about buying and selling bread, fruit and vegetables. Bicycle repair shops and tailoring shops were whirring with activity. But In and around the market place during school hours were tons of children, without books, school uniforms or even shoes – their school fees too great for their poverty stricken families to afford. Burundi’s education system, crippled by the conflict, is unable to accommodate all its children—and as more and more families return from Tanzania the number of children and youth who don’t receive any schooling will continue to grow.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) supports training for out-of-school youth in skilled trades to help them become more employable and able to contribute to their families’ incomes. We visited a couple of these courses, run by local tradespeople specializing in carpentry and cooking. While the trainers and IRC staff members clearly took pride in their students’ accomplishments, they said they worried that after graduation the students would have difficulty finding jobs—and a path to self-sufficient adulthood— in a struggling economy where opportunities are few.

What youth need to make it in the markets – and ultimately in life – is a sense of innovation, the ability to cope with shocks and setbacks, and the confidence and self esteem to believe they have a future.

The hopeful young Burundians we met and who the IRC’s youth program staff encounter each day are willing and even desperate to try new things and dedicate time to learning new skills. But they need more than just a trade to succeed. They also need the know-how to start their own business and access credit, the knowledge to keep themselves healthy mentally and physically, and the ability and understanding to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. The IRC has received new funding to expand its youth programs and is working to provide young people with these “big picture” skills that will help them navigate their way to a healthy and peaceful adulthood.

What I was most struck by in Makamba was the hope of the Burundian youth that, despite all odds, they were going to work to restore peace and stability in their country. Their optimism was cautious, but they remained hopeful that things can and will change for their country.

Posted in Africa, children, refugees, women | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »