This Is How Wheelchair Basketball Improved Orthopedic Treatment in Afghanistan

A growing sports program is providing people affected by regional conflict in Afghanistan with dignity, confidence, and hope for the future.

Since the first wheelchair basketball tournament was held in 2012, rehabilitators have found that developing organized sports programs for people in wheelchairs can change lives. Leisure activities are not always emphasized in Afghanistan, but therapists are bringing sports into the forefront of treatment.

History of Wheelchair Sports in Afghanistan

wheelchair sportsPeople in wheelchairs in Afghanistan began organizing to play basketball before an official organization existed. In 2009, a new team asked for someone from the United States to teach them how to play, and Jess Markt, a player for the New York Rollin’ Knicks in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, responded to the request. In November of that year, he went to Afghanistan with plans to work with the team for one week.

Markt, who became a paraplegic at age 19 after his spine was severed in a car crash, said the experience in Afghanistan was life-changing. He subsequently deepened his involvement with the new wheelchair basketball team there. He collaborated with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Motivation UK to have basketball wheelchairs sent to Afghanistan and publicize the new sport nationwide. The work became known as the Afghanistan Wheelchair Basketball Project.

“Wheelchair basketball has the ability to remove the distinction of disability,” Markt told the online magazine Folks. “It gives these young men the idea that they can accomplish more than what society thinks they can.”

Therapy through Leisure

Since 2011, Markt has worked with Alberto Cairo, who leads the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) orthopedic program in Afghanistan, to integrate wheelchair basketball and therapy for people who have lost limbs or can no longer use limbs due to injury. Cairo, a physical therapist from Italy, helps people learn to use prosthetic limbs or re-use their limbs.

Cairo recently told NPR that in Afghanistan, people with disabilities are often fiercely protected by their families. While that means families are vigilant about caring for loved ones with disabilities, they may shield them from developing outside hobbies careers, or friendships. For many, developing skills on the basketball court has provided them with new purpose that spills into other parts of their lives. Many look forward to basketball practice, which provides fun and an otherwise unheard-of opportunity to play a sport.

Markt described one Afghan man who was injured as a child in the war and had “no active life” as an adult because his family did not expect him to contribute. At age 29, the man began playing wheelchair basketball and eventually joined the national team.

Wheelchair basketball helped the man envision a new path for himself. He took out a microloan through a Red Cross program and opened an automotive parts and repair business. He is now a key member of his community, and he returned his relief card that entitled him to a monthly food allocation because of his disability. He stated he no longer needed it because he had a job.

This man is not alone. Markt said that wheelchair basketball has given many players the confidence to start businesses or find jobs.

Taking on the World

wheelchair sportsThe ICRC organized the first wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan in 2012, an event that Cairo said at the time would have been “unimaginable” before. Cairo noted that the players had been transformed physically and psychologically, becoming “much stronger in many ways.”

Now, more than 500 people now play recreational basketball in seven Red Cross rehabilitation centers across Afghanistan. Players compete in tournaments across the country, and the national teams have traveled to other countries such as Japan to compete and take part in international wheelchair basketball training. The national teams are hoping to compete in the Paralympics, even though they haven’t won any international tournaments yet.

In the 25 years that Cairo has worked in Afghanistan, he has hired several hundred patients to assist in ICRC’s rehabilitation centers. Cairo has helped more than 100,000 people, including more than 150 patients who have learned to play wheelchair basketball.

The Future of Rehab

Cairo and Markt continue to partner to advance rehabilitation efforts for citizens of Afghanistan. They recently toured the United States to talk about their work, including the latest technology in their field and their expanding work in other countries in the developing world.

Innovations are being made in wheelchair design, spinal cord regeneration, and prosthetics. Additionally, the ICRC is still building centers around the world to meet a “relentless” demand for prosthetics, treatment, and rehabilitation.

In Afghanistan, ICRC centers treat thousands of patients each year while also addressing issues with security and on-going conflict. Even with these challenges, ICRC’s innovations, including its home-based therapy and wheelchair basketball, are transforming lives across Afghanistan.

5 Things You Need to Know About Turquoise Mountain

turquoise mountain logoEstablished in 2006 by Prince Charles in partnership with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president, the non-profit, non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain aims to preserve historical areas and revive traditional artisanal activities in Afghanistan. In just over a decade, the organization has already achieved remarkable success, garnering an international reputation and transforming the lives of thousands of Afghans. Read on for the five things you need to know about this unique organization that are helping to revitalize a cultural industry and rebuild a country.

  1. Turquoise Mountain is bringing traditional Afghan arts and crafts back to life.

Due to decades of civil conflict and political instability in Afghanistan, many traditional arts and crafts practices were, until recently, all but abandoned. Turquoise Mountain is helping to bring these activities back to life at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Afghanistan’s premier vocational training institution for arts and crafts. Students receive a world-class education in some of Afghanistan’s most culturally rich crafts. They can select from disciplines such as woodwork, jewelry and gem cutting, ceramics, calligraphy, or miniature painting. Around 15 artisans are selected for each craft every year. The students learn from some of Afghanistan’s most renowned and skilled master craftsmen, thus reviving the traditional practice of knowledge transmission from master to pupil. At the end of three intensive years of training, students at the institute graduate with a City & Guilds accreditation that is internationally recognized.

  1. Turquoise Mountain completely revitalized an at-risk historic district.

Looking now at the magnificent setting of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul’s historic Murad Khani district—once an ancient silver bazaar—it’s hard to imagine that just a few short years ago the entire area was buried under several meters of accumulated garbage. (Not surprisingly, the district was featured on the World Monuments Fund Watch List, which keeps track of the world’s most endangered historic sites). Turquoise Mountain worked to completely restore Murad Khani, digging through the garbage to reveal the beautiful centuries-old structures and courtyards below. The process was also a learning opportunity for artisans, focusing on the traditional skills of architectural woodwork and mud-plastering. Today, the beautifully restored old city is a vibrant artistic and economic hub.

  1. Turquoise Mountain plays an important community role.

The Murad Khani district is not only the home of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, it’s also an established community of long-term residents. Community development was an integral part of Turquoise Mountain’s restoration activities in the area. In partnership with the Murad Khani community, Turquoise Mountain has worked to provide employment, education, and healthcare programs to local residents, including a public school and an out-of-school education center that is free of charge. The Firuzkuh Family Health Center, which focuses on maternal and child health, welcomes thousands of patients every year. The center also hosts regular events and gatherings where the entire community can come together and celebrate their culture. Due to Turquoise Mountain’s work, and the active presence of the institute, residents of Murad Khani are feeling a renewed sense of pride in their district and their community.

  1. Work from Turquoise Mountain has been exhibited internationally.

One of Turquoise Mountain’s main goals is to train artists in Afghanistan and revitalize the country’s arts and crafts industry. The organization also believes in the importance of international connections. As a result, Turquoise Mountain works hard to showcase the work of its students and artisans not only at home, but also on the global stage. The work of Turquoise Mountain artisans has been exhibited in Bahrain, Qatar, Italy, the UK, and, most recently at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. In addition, Turquoise Mountain works to find international buyers and retailers for its artisans’ work. Some of the individuals and organizations that Turquoise Mountain has partnered with include Kate Spade Fifth Avenue and London’s five-star Connaught Hotel.

  1. Turquoise Mountain by the numbers.

Some of the most important statistics associated with Turquoise Mountain are:

  • 112—The number of historic buildings, such as those in Murad Khani, that Turquoise Mountain has restored worldwide. (Turquoise Mountain operates in Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.)
  • 36,000—The number of cubic meters of garbage that were excavated from the Murad Khani district during the old city restoration project.
  • $5 million—The dollar value of traditional crafts that have been sold through Turquoise Mountain to international markets and customers.
  • 1,100—The number of artisans who have received training in the restoration of heritage buildings (including activities such as traditional architectural woodworking) through working on Turquoise Mountain restoration projects.
  • 80%—The percentage of Turquoise Mountain Institute graduates who go on to own their own businesses (entrepreneurship and business training are an important part of the Turquoise Mountain curriculum, in addition to craft work).
  • 17,000—The number of patients who obtain primary health care annually through Turquoise Mountain’s community development projects and health care initiatives.
  • 10,000—The number of artisans whose lives that Turquoise Mountain aims to transform over the next decade.

Can NEI Solve the Problem of Malnutrition in Afghanistan?

mantoo foodAccording to research from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), malnutrition is a major problem in Afghanistan. Approximately one-third of the country’s population isn’t getting enough calories on a daily basis, and about 20% of Afghans aren’t getting enough protein. The figures for malnutrition in children are even more troubling: more than 40% of Afghan children under five years old are stunted (or smaller than the average for their age), which is one of the world’s highest rates of childhood stunting. In addition, 10% of Afghan children are acutely malnourished, and thousands of children die every year because they don’t have access to adequate food and nutrition.

Childhood malnutrition naturally has serious consequences for physical development, but it can also lead to problems with cognitive development and educational achievement. Without the nutrients needed for healthy brain development and functioning, many malnourished children struggle with learning issues throughout their lives, even into adulthood. This is a particular challenge for a country like Afghanistan, which is working hard to increase literacy rates and education levels as part of its post-conflict rebuilding process.

With child health experts calling for greater nutritional investment in Afghanistan, a number of NGOs are stepping in to help tackle malnutrition and the underlying causes of Afghanistan’s food insecurity. Nutrition & Education International (NEI) is one such example: a non-profit organization that is working to promote soybean cultivation and nourishment in Afghanistan in association with local government agencies, universities, and the WFP. Read on to learn more about NEI’s work and its history in Afghanistan.

What is NEI?

NEI logoNEI is a non-profit organization on a mission to eradicate malnutrition in Afghanistan with a surprising weapon: soybeans.

Containing nine essential amino acids, soybeans are a rich source of protein and other nutrients, making them excellent fighters against malnutrition, which is essentially synonymous with protein deficiency. In addition, soybeans are a cost-effective crop to grow, and so are relatively easy to incorporate into Afghanistan’s agricultural practices.

NEI’s primary objective is to help Afghanistan establish a self-sustaining soybean industry by developing a full soybean value chain. The idea is that by introducing seed multiplication, soybean cultivation and processing, and soy market development, NEI can help poor families improve both their nutrition and their economic circumstances. According to NEI’s president, Steven Kwon, a functioning soy economy is one of the most practical remedies to address Afghanistan’s ongoing struggle with chronic malnutrition.

A history of NEI in Afghanistan

2003—Steven Kwon makes his first visit to Afghanistan. Soon after, he develops the soy nutrition initiative and establishes Nutrition & Education International as a non-profit NGO.

2004—Six varieties of non-GMO soybeans are successfully cultivated and tested in Afghanistan’s Balkh province.

2005—Following the successful testing of NEI’s soy program in 12 different Afghan provinces, the government of Afghanistan adopts the program as a national project.

2006—For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, 1,000 tons of soybeans are produced through the efforts of more than 2,000 Afghan farmers across nine provinces. In addition, two soy milk processing facilities are established, and NEI begins its humanitarian soy milk distribution program, which delivers nutrition-rich soy milk to 3,000 high-risk families.

2007—Soybean production expands; more than 3,000 farmers across 15 provinces are now cultivating soybeans.

2008—Three more soy milk processing facilities are established, as is a containerized soy flour factory.

2009—Soybean production expands beyond agricultural operations to include home and community gardens, thus helping individual families and small communities supplement their protein intake independently. NEI’s soy milk distribution program is now reaching 5,000 families, and a newly initiated winter soy nutrition campaign provides 100 tons of soybeans and soy flour to 2,500 high-risk families in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

2010—NEI purchases and distributes 100 metric tons of soybean seeds to farmers in 21 provinces; by this time, Afghan farmers are producing enough soybeans to sustain their own families. Afghanistan’s first-ever soy flour factory is built in Kabul with a capacity of 300 metric tons. NEI also increases its efforts to create a soy market in the country by launching its business arm, Soybean Nutrition Services Afghanistan (SNSA), and concentrates on providing seed resources, training farmers, and further developing the market for soy. A grant from the government of Japan enables NEI to pursue these aims.

2011—Three more soy flour factories are built, and NEI receives a second grant for its soybean production project from the Japanese government.

2012—NEI enters into a partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme to promote soybean cultivation in 100 districts across 20 provinces. More than 6,000 new farmers are trained in soybean cultivation, and 2,000 metric tons of soybeans are produced.

2013—NEI celebrates a decade of work in Afghanistan, and commits to a further 10 years of developing Afghanistan’s soybean industry in order to eradicate malnutrition.

2014—Two more soy processing facilities are established. NEI receives a grant for its work from the Republic of Korea.

2015—NEI’s founder meets formally with the President of Afghanistan to discuss the future of Afghanistan’s soybean industry.

2016—Construction on a sterilized soy milk factory is completed. 17,000 new soybean farmers are trained in 31 provinces, and soybean production reaches a record high of 6,000 metric tons.