Spotlight on the SMILE Project from Concern Worldwide

concernworldwideA bare and rocky hillside in Afghanistan’s remote northeast is possibly the last place you would expect to see a thriving forest of fruit trees. But thanks to the support of the global charity Concern Worldwide and the efforts of a dedicated community, this is exactly what you’ll find in Kozur, a small village in the Rustaq district, close to the Tajikistan border. Read on to learn more about the unique project that is helping transform the lives of thousands of rural Afghans.

 

The challenge

The environment in which Kozur village is situated is harsh and hostile. The village sits in a flood plain and has repeatedly suffered losses of homes, land, and animals to frequent flash floods. Heavy snowfall is frequently a problem in the winter, as is lack of rainfall in the summer; when these environmental conditions are combined with the naturally poor soil fertility in the region, the result is an environment that makes it very difficult to grow good crops or raise healthy livestock. In addition, Kozur, like many other communities in the Rustaq district, was decimated by the 1998 earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 4,500 people.

As a result of all these factors, a cycle of poverty has taken hold in Kozur and has proved very difficult to break. The life of Hakim, a 60-year-old local volunteer with Concern Worldwide (whose name has been changed for security purposes), reveals the struggles that many Kozur villagers have had to contend with: with a wife and four children to support, Hakim spent many years working away from home, often as a laborer in the Darqad district’s rice fields, where he was paid in rice or sometimes cash. Although he has land in Kozur, he did not have enough income or agricultural knowledge to grow anything other than onions and potatoes. Often, he and his family would have to choose between selling the produce or eating it: they would go hungry if they sold the produce, but if they ate it, they would not have the money for firewood and other basic staples to survive the winter.

According to Hakim, what made all the difference to him and his family was the strong sense of community spirit in Kozur. During lean periods, neighbors would help each other as best they could with gifts of food or cash, particularly when there were families with children to be supported. And it is precisely these community values of generosity and cooperation that are now helping transform Kozur’s fortunes through Concern Worldwide’s SMILE project.

 

The project

Afghanistan children

Image courtesy Todd Huffman | Flickr

Funded by the European Union and implemented by Concern Worldwide and community volunteers like Hakim, the SMILE project—Sustainable Management for Improved Livelihoods and Environment—is aligned with some of Concern’s top priorities, including reducing poverty by increasing access to food and improving livelihoods by providing individuals and communities with the tools and training they need to change their own lives.

The main focus of the SMILE project has been the creation and maintenance of a community forest of almond, apricot, pistachio, and mulberry trees. Like Hakim, many villagers did not previously know how to utilize their land to get the most value from it; Concern’s solution was to provide the village with the training and tools needed to grow and market higher-value crops. To launch the SMILE project, Concern provided technical guidance, training sessions, saplings, alfalfa seeds, and cement, and constructed a number of check dams to protect the newly planted forest (later in the project, the Concern team also installed an extra reservoir to improve irrigation).

In their turn, the villagers prepared the land, planted the saplings, and excavated and helped build the reservoir and water pipelines. On an ongoing basis, they maintain the forest through regular pruning and inspections for disease and pests. Volunteers like Hakim, who have completed additional training in forest management techniques, act as stewards and keepers of the forest.

 

The outcomes

The Kozur community forest is a true community project in the best sense of the term. Everyone in the village works together to pick and prepare the produce during harvest time, and all profits from the forest go straight back to the community (rather than to individuals) for improvement projects like water systems and pumps. Alongside these community benefits, villagers are able to use the new skills and tools they have acquired through the project to enhance their own personal livelihoods. Hakim, for example, has transformed his former plots of onions and potatoes into a fruit tree nursery that provides him with saplings that he can sell at the market: the money he makes has allowed him to build a house and provide for his family’s educational and medical needs. And just as his neighbors helped him when times were difficult, Hakim now helps his neighbors by providing them with fruit tree cuttings, donating saplings to local schools and mosques, and conducting community training sessions.

How Is IOM Supporting Afghans Who Return to the Country?

Pushed out of their nation of origin for reasons that include war and extreme poverty, Afghans have increasingly been returning home in recent years. From 2012 to 2017, nearly 3.5 million natives of the country made their way back into one of 15 Afghan provinces from abroad, according to the International Organization for Migration. This total includes more than 398,000 people migrating back to Afghanistan from Iran.

With the Iranian economy worsening, 2018 has seen these numbers spike even more. From January 1 to June 9, over 320,000 members of the Afghan diaspora migrated from Iran, a rate nearly double of that seen during the same period in 2017. Unfortunately, whether these individuals have been deported or chosen to cross back into Afghanistan of their own accord, many lack sufficient financial resources and require protection and support.

 

Reaching Out to Afghan Migrants in Need

IOMlogoThe International Organization for Migration (IOM) recognizes the challenges faced by returning Afghan migrants and is engaging in ongoing efforts to aid these individuals. Founded in 1951, IOM has a long history of assisting in efforts that benefit migrants.

In its earliest years, IOM focused on helping European governments identify where to resettle the approximately 11 million people displaced by World War II. The organization has expanded its mandate over the ensuing decades. Today, it holds distinction as the world’s foremost migration agency and is active in more than 150 countries.

These countries include Afghanistan, where IOM has maintained a presence since 1992. Among the organization’s largest missions, IOM Afghanistan commits itself to benefiting migrants and society by facilitating orderly and humane migration. Since 2007, the mission has specifically concentrated on supporting Afghans relocating from Iran. Through a network of transit and screening facilities located on the border between the two countries, IOM provides case management and humanitarian assistance to individuals whose gender, age, and health, among other factors, make them highly vulnerable.

For some of these highly vulnerable individuals, the issues they face are as serious as potential impending death. IOM estimates, in fact, that a minimum of 30 percent of all Afghans migrating from Iran require life-saving humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, as of May of 2018, the agency stands equipped to help only about 7 percent of these individuals.

 

Italian Donation Augments IOM Afghanistan’s Border Services

Recognizing the need for enhanced migration services in Afghanistan, Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperated announced in May 2018 a donation of €1 million to IOM Afghanistan. The funding will help to pay for IOM’s humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan’s Nimroz and Herat provinces, both of which border Iran.

In Nimroz, the funding will specifically allow for the construction of a transit center. Through this facility, IOM will offer more effective registration and screening of migrants. In Herat, meanwhile, IOM health staff will undergo training that will enable them to provide psychosocial support to returning Afghans. The funding will further cover the cost of monitoring surveys used by IOM and its partners to shape humanitarian responses.

 

IOM Encourages Migration of Skilled Afghans from Iran

Of the 3 million Afghans living in Iran, many do not require humanitarian aid when relocating back home. In fact, they may have valuable qualifications that can potentially benefit their native country. Among these individuals is Foruzan Faghiri, a 29-year-old Afghan-born physicist who was profiled in June of 2018 by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Forced by war to flee to Iran when she was 3, Ms. Faghiri has gone on to find success in her adopted country. She invented an inexpensive, easy-to-use pollution monitor that has earned praise on both sides of the Afghanistan-Iran border. Yet, despite her accomplishments abroad, she still desires to return home to Afghanistan.

To help skilled individuals like Ms. Faghiri bring their expertise back to Afghanistan, IOM has created the Return of Qualified Afghans (RQA) program. Since its inception in 2001, the program has facilitated the homecoming of 1,665 members of the Afghan diaspora, including more than 600 Afghans who formerly resided in Iran.

These individuals, who have valuable qualifications in areas such as engineering, IT, and health care, return to Afghanistan with the intention of aiding in the recovery and development of their country of origin. This goal is shared by organizations like the Aga Khan Development Network.

 

RQA Program Celebrates Success, Earns Additional Funding

In 2017-18 alone, the RQA program enabled the return of 20 Afghans from Iran. To recognize this success, IOM held an event in Kabul in April of 2018.

At the event, participants in the RQA program shared their stories about relocating back to Afghanistan and being connected with positions at the country’s Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, Ministry of Energy and Water, and other agencies. Speakers reflected positively on their experience in the program and urged other members of the Afghan diaspora to participate.

Outside of celebrating the program and its participants, the event recognized the contributions of the government of Japan. Japan has funded the RQA program since 2008 and currently serves as the program’s sole sponsor. In remarks prepared for the event by Japan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, the East Asian nation announced that it will continue its support of the RQA program with a $1 million contribution in 2018-19.

Spotlight on the International Rescue Committee in Afghanistan

A global organization dedicated to responding to the world’s most challenging humanitarian crises, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been helping people rebuild their lives after conflict and natural disaster for more than 80 years. And while the IRC currently operates in more than 30 countries around the globe, it’s in Afghanistan that the organization’s efforts have been the most longstanding.

Read on to learn more about the IRC, its history in Afghanistan, and what the organization has planned for its future efforts in the country.

 

What is the International Rescue Committee?

IRC logoA non-governmental humanitarian aid, relief, and development organization, the IRC provides both emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees and others displaced or affected by war, persecution, and natural disaster. By focusing on key areas like health, safety, education, economic well-being, and decision-making power, the IRC works to help the world’s most vulnerable people survive and recover from crises and gain control of their futures.

 

How long has the IRC been working in Afghanistan?

Within weeks of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the IRC was on the ground helping support the waves of Afghan refugees flooding into neighboring countries. The organization has continued to provide Afghanistan with relief and development assistance ever since. Some key dates and highlights from the IRC’s more than 30 years in Afghanistan include:

1980 – John Whitehead, then the board president of the IRC, journeyed to the makeshift refugee camps springing up just beyond the borders of Afghanistan. The situation he witnessed, in which more than 5 million Afghans had fled their homeland only to encounter terrible living conditions outside it, proved to be the catalyst for the creation of more permanent IRC operations in the country.

1988 – This year saw the official establishment of IRC operations in Afghanistan, although by this time the IRC had already been operating an extensive relief program in Afghan refugee camps for some years. Mobile clinics and dispensary tents, vocational and self-help programs, and comprehensive educational programs were some of the IRC’s most important contributions to improving the lives of Afghans displaced by conflict.

1989 – Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, many aid agencies also left the country. The IRC was one of the few organizations to remain and to continue operating under the new regime. Working with a dedicated team of Afghan national staff members, the IRC helped with significant rebuilding efforts, including making repairs to roads and irrigation systems and establishing public health and sanitation facilities.

Early 2000s – Following yet another regime change at the start of the new millennium, millions of returning refugees and internally displaced Afghans began to make their way back to their homes. During this period, the IRC intensified its efforts to help Afghanistan rebuild and repair critical infrastructure.

2007 – Education has always been an important tool for the IRC to help people affected by crisis to regain control over their lives and build a better future for themselves. In Afghanistan in 2007, for example, the IRC trained more than 1,000 new teachers, and helped roughly 11,000 students enroll in 400 schools. In addition, nearly 2,000 people graduated from IRC-supported vocational programs.

 

What’s next for the IRC in Afghanistan?

Now that Afghanistan is beginning to establish and sustain modest but important gains, the IRC’s experience and expertise are more critical than ever. In 2017, the IRC published a strategic action plan for Afghanistan, outlining its program priorities through 2020 and detailing the key focus areas and actions that will help Afghanistan move into a new era of stability and prosperity. Particular desired outcomes of this plan include:

Education – Building on its extensive experience in coordinating community-based education for children, the IRC aims to ensure that Afghan children aged 6 to 14 have the opportunity to fully develop their literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional skills. Achieving this goal will involve training more teachers, supplying educational materials to classrooms, and partnering with the Ministry of Education to create an evidence-based assessment program to determine the quality of Afghan education services.

Health – Because inadequate sanitation and water supply access are leading causes of disease, the IRC plans to build safe and accessible water and sanitation facilities in the nine Afghan provinces in which the organization currently operates. Community-oriented hygiene awareness and disease prevention programs will also help curtail the spread of illness.

Economic well-being – All Afghans should have the opportunity to earn an income that is sufficient to meet basic needs, build assets, and save for the future. To this end, the IRC will continue to offer skills-based training and apprenticeship programs that prepare participants for skilled, high-demand jobs in Afghanistan’s new economy.

Power and decision-making – The IRC aims to ensure that Afghan citizens have the knowledge and power to influence the decisions that affect them. Community education programs around critical issues like property rights and land expropriation are a key component of this objective.