5 Charities Helping Make Afghanistan a Better Place to Be a Kid

Modern Afghanistan is not an easy place for a child to grow up. As is all too often the case, war hits children especially hard; reports from recent years estimate that more than 1 million children across Afghanistan have been left orphaned or abandoned as a result of decades of civil conflict.

However, many charitable organizations, both within Afghanistan and internationally, are working hard to build a better, brighter, and safer future for Afghanistan’s children. Read on for a look at five organizations that are putting Afghan kids first.

  1. The Aschiana Foundation

aschiana logoAn example of how productive partnerships can be between the international community and grassroots organizations on the ground in Afghanistan, the Aschiana Foundation is a US-based organization dedicated to supporting Afghanistan’s most vulnerable children. The Aschiana Foundation was established in 2004 by a group of people—including expatriates, diplomats, and military spouses—who had seen for themselves the incredible challenges facing the country’s young children, many of whom were working on the streets of Kabul in an attempt to eke out a living.

Inspired by the work of the local organization Aschiana, which was created in 1995 by Yousef Mohamed, an Afghan engineer, the founders of the Aschiana Foundation were determined to find an effective way to support his efforts to provide education, training, and opportunities to Afghan children excluded from the school system due to financial or other barriers. Today, the support that the Foundation provides to Aschiana in Afghanistan helps tens of thousands of Afghan children find refuge and escape from life on the street.

  1. Save the Children

save the children logoAs its name implies, Save the Children has been a major force in protecting and providing for Afghanistan’s children. At present, the organization’s activities are governed by its three major priorities. The first is to stand up for children’s rights: Save the Children works with local communities, religious leaders, government ministries, and other NGOs to build national child protection networks and provide social workers to support children whose rights are in danger of being violated. The second priority is the improvement of vital health services: Save the Children operates many mobile health clinics with the support of doctors, trained midwives, and community health workers, focusing particularly on reducing child deaths by identifying malnourished children and providing feeding centers where these children can receive life-saving treatment. The final priority, one shared by many other organizations, is education: Save the Children works with the Afghan government to create and implement community-based classes that facilitate access to education for those children who have been shut out of formal schooling.

  1. Afghan Connection

afghan connection logoThis UK-based charity was founded in 2002 by Dr. Sarah Fane, who had spent several years working in Afghanistan as a wartime doctor. Initially established as a medical charity focused on vaccination programs, Afghan Connection has evolved to become an important supporter of education projects in Afghanistan’s northeastern region; the charity’s goal is to concentrate on making the strongest possible impact on a single area.

To date, Afghan Connection has built 42 new schools in the region, serving many remote and rural communities where access to education has been extremely difficult. It has also funded more than 500 teacher training courses to help improve the quality of education that Afghan children receive. Sports programs, and cricket in particular, are another important activity for Afghan Connection; the organization works to build pitches, establish cricket camps, and train coaches so that as many children as possible can reap the benefits of participating in team sports.

  1. Child Soldiers International

child soldiers international logoIn countries impacted by war and violence, the use of child soldiers on all sides of the conflict is becoming an increasingly common practice, and Afghanistan is no exception. Child Soldiers International works to build awareness of child recruitment in Afghanistan by performing critical research and field work that keeps this pressing issue at the forefront of the international agenda. The organization also lobbies for practical changes in law and policy that can support the Afghan government and its partners in meeting the challenges of combating child recruitment.

  1. Afghan Mobile Mini-Circus for Children

Afghan MMCC logoAfghanistan’s children need access to critical services, such as education, but they also require fun and playtime. Afghan Mobile Mini-Circus for Children (MMCC) brings these two worlds together with its unique use of circus arts as a teaching tool. Dedicated to empowering young people and working with the philosophy that children are the ones who know the best way to communicate with other children, MMCC brings child-led educational performances and workshops to young people all across Afghanistan. Since 2002, the organization has reached nearly 3 million audience members in 25 Afghan provinces and has leveraged the joyous atmosphere of the circus to engage children and youth on key topics like health and hygiene, landmine awareness, and peace.

What You Need to Prepare Afghan Food at Home

While Afghanistan’s rich and flavorful cuisine is gradually becoming better known outside the country’s borders, it may still be some time before everyone is fortunate enough to have a delicious Afghan restaurant right around the corner from their home. However, if you’re a gourmand who doesn’t want to wait, don’t worry: many of Afghanistan’s tastiest dishes can be made at home with just a few extra additions to your regular shopping list. Read on for an overview of everything you’ll need to try your hand at making Afghan food at home.

  1. Herbs, spices, and flavorings

mintThe complex flavors of Afghan cuisine come from the liberal use of herbs, spices, and flavorings. These seasonings are often used in dishes that need to be cooked for long periods of time, allowing the flavors to blend and deepen. Some of the most important seasonings to have in your pantry include:

  • Cardamom—A relative of the ginger family, cardamom is available in green, brown, or black pods. Cardamom adds a distinctive flavor to rice and curries. If you don’t have a way to grind spices yourself at home, you can also find ground cardamom in the spice section of your grocery store.
  • Turmeric—Another member of the ginger family, turmeric is characterized by its deep, rich yellow color. Turmeric brings an earthy, peppery flavor to curry-style dishes.
  • Mint—One of the most popular herbs in Afghan cooking, dried mint is often added during cooking or sprinkled over the top of finished dishes as a garnish.
  • Rosewater—Distilled from rose petals, rosewater is commonly used to flavor many Middle Eastern dishes, especially desserts.

Other important herbs and spices that you probably already have on hand include cumin, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and chilies.

  1. Pantry staples

  • Rice—The centerpiece of almost every Afghan meal is rice. Afghan cooks are very particular about the type of rice that should be used depending on the dish being prepared. Fragrant and delicately flavored basmati rice, which is probably the least processed variety you can find, is an absolute must-have for your pantry. If you have the space, you’ll also want an additional long-grain variety, as well as a short-grain type.
  • Legumes—Dried legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and split peas are a very popular and versatile ingredient in Afghan cooking. They are often used to “fill out” meat dishes, as they are less expensive than fresh meat. In addition, they can be served fried and salted, as well as coated with sugar as a sweet accompaniment for tea.
  • Ghee—One of the most commonly used cooking fats in Afghan cuisine is ghee, or clarified butter. You can buy commercial ghee or you can make it yourself by simply melting a pound of unsalted butter over low heat in a saucepan and skimming away the milk solids as they separate. To ensure the ghee is as clear as possible, strain it through a cheesecloth before storing in a clean jar.
  • Besan—Also known as “gram flour,” it is made from ground chana dal, a type of small chickpea. It is often used to make traditional Afghan bread.
  1. Fresh ingredients

  • onionOnions—Some form of onion can be found in just about every savory Afghan dish. Most dishes rely on a cooked onion mixture known as piaz e surkh kada, in which onions are finely minced and then cooked in plenty of oil until they are a deep golden brown color. Some Afghan cooks make up big batches of piaz e surkh kada in advance so it’s ready to use whenever the cook needs it. Many recipes also call for leeks, scallions, or a type of onion called “gandana” that looks similar to a leek and can be found in specialty markets.
  • Yogurt—Afghan cuisine makes extensive use of thick, natural-style yogurt as a thickener for curries and stews, as a base for sauces and dips, and even as a drink. Plain-flavored Greek-style yogurt is a handy option to keep in your fridge.
  • Cilantro—Fresh cilantro—or coriander, as it’s also known—is used extensively in Afghan cooking, not only in cooked dishes, but also as a garnish or as a kind of chutney. It’s often referred to as “Afghan parsley”.
  1. Equipment

  • Sutak—Since rice is such an essential part of Afghan cuisine, it’s important to ensure that it’s properly cooked. A sutak is a thick cotton cover that’s placed either over a pot of just-cooked rice or between the pot and the lid during cooking. This helps to absorb excess steam and prevents the rice from sticking together or becoming gluey. One thick folded tea towel will work well as a substitute.
  • Seekh—Kebabs, a beloved Afghan dish often made with chunks of lamb, are cooked over a charcoal grill using seekhs—long flat skewers made of stainless steel.

 

What You Need to Know about Babur’s Gardens in the Heart of Kabul

Although Central Kabul may not be the first place where you would expect to see hundreds of springtime roses in bloom, that’s exactly what you’ll find at Bagh-e Babur, also known as Babur’s Gardens. The largest public green space in Kabul—with a history that stretches back more than five centuries—Babur’s Gardens are not only a beautiful and peaceful oasis, but one of the finest living examples of Afghanistan’s commitment to renewing and restoring its cultural heritage. Read on to learn more about this beloved Kabul landmark.

History

Babur History

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Babur, the founder of the eponymous gardens, was born in 1483. A descendent of Genghis Khan and the nomadic leader and conqueror Tamerlaine, Babur became the first Mughal emperor and the head of a dynasty that ruled much of South Asia for two centuries. The Mughal empire consolidated Islam and advanced the reach of Persian arts and culture in the region.

In 1504, Babur captured Kabul, which served as his capital for two decades. An avid gardener and nature enthusiast with a passion for flowers and landscape, Babur was personally involved in the design and creation of at least 10 gardens in the city during his time there. The site now known as Bagh-e Babur—one of the oldest surviving Mughal gardens—was previously the location of a monumental building dating back to the third century BC.

Babur died in 1530 in the Indian city of Agra. Prior to his death, he expressed a wish to be buried in Kabul. Around 1544, his widow finally transferred his body to that city, where he was interred in Babur’s Gardens. Historians and archaeologists speculate that the presence of remains of older tombs in the building on which these gardens were constructed may have inspired Babur’s decision to be buried there rather than at one of his many other gardens. As the home of Babur’s tomb, Bagh-e Babur became a symbolic and venerated site during the reign of the Mughals.

Spaces for physical and spiritual refreshment

Gardens hold a special place in Islamic culture. Echoing the ancient concept of paradise as a garden, Islamic gardens are designed as spaces for physical and spiritual refreshment. Key elements of such gardens include flowing water, shade, lush foliage, and perimeter walls. In addition, Islamic gardens follow specific principles in layout, design, and function.

Like other Islamic gardens, the 11-hectare Bagh-e Babur was originally laid out in the charbagh—or “four garden”—pattern: a classical arrangement that divides the enclosed space of the garden into clearly defined quarters through a series of rising terraces intersected by a central watercourse. The prominent central axis of the garden provided a multi-directional vista, and the trees, herbs, and flowers were all carefully chosen.

Decline and restoration

Gardens of Babur

Image by Wikipedia

After the Mughal dynasty lost control of Kabul, Babur’s Gardens fell into disrepair. Repeated alterations were carried out on the site. One of the largest and most disruptive building programs was implemented by Amir Abdur Rahman in the late 19th century. His structural interventions, which included new buildings and landscaping, significantly changed the visual concept and feel of the garden. However, the alterations did not last long, as King Nadir Shah removed the structures in the early 1930s. During this period, the gardens were open to the public complete with European-style teahouses and restaurants. It was this version of the gardens—which sustained heavy damage as a result of looting and vandalism during the long years of civil conflict—that was preserved until the early 2000s.

In 2002, with the support of the Aga Khan Development Network, a comprehensive restoration of Babur’s Gardens was launched. Over the next five years, the majority of the physical work was completed. Improvements included re-establishing the character of the water channels, planted terraces, and pavilions; creating a swimming pool and caravanserai complex; and replanting local species of trees and plants favored by the reigning Mughals when the garden was first built. The plants ranged from roses and pistachios to the distinctive purple-flowered Judas trees.

The future of the gardens

Today, Babur’s Gardens provide a safe, secure, and peaceful urban green space for Kabul’s residents. Since it reopened to visitors in 2008, Babur’s Gardens have attracted more than 3 million visitors who come to enjoy the gardens and the ticketed events and performances that take place there, such as festivals of Pashtun dancing and even Shakespeare performances. At present, the gardens are managed by the Bagh-e Babur Trust with participation from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture, the Kabul Municipality, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The idea is that the revenue from admissions to Babur’s Gardens will help the Bagh-e Babur Trust to achieve long-term financial stability and maintain the garden’s landscaping and monuments.

What You Need to Know about Afghanistan’s Amazing Minaret of Jam

Located in the remote and rugged province of Ghor in the west-central highlands of Afghanistan, the stunning Minaret of Jam is one of the country’s most important cultural treasures. But given its isolated location and the risks it currently faces, the monument is one that few people, Afghans or visitors, may ever have the opportunity to see up close. Read on to learn more about this architectural marvel, designated since 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What is the Minaret of Jam?

One of Afghanistan’s best-preserved examples of ancient architecture—and indeed the country’s first historic monument, according to some conservation experts—the breathtaking Minaret of Jam is the second-tallest brick minaret in the world. Built entirely of fired bricks, the structure resembles a fully extended telescope, with four staged columns of decreasing diameter sitting one inside the other. The minaret rests on an octagonal base roughly 9 meters in diameter, and rises to a total height of 65 meters (213 feet).

The outside of the monument is completely covered with highly detailed geometric designs in raised relief. A Kufic inscription inlaid in turquoise tiles adds a striking touch of color. Inside the minaret, a surprise awaits: a pair of staircases entwined in a double-helix pattern that echoes the form of a DNA molecule (a design that predates by hundreds of years the constructions that became popular in European towers during the Renaissance). This remarkable combination of beauty and practicality makes the Minaret of Jam one of the finest examples of both the artistic creativity and the structural engineering skill of its time.

How old is the monument?

Minaret of Jam

Image courtesy Afghanistan Matters | Flickr

The Minaret of Jam is all the more astonishing in view of the fact that it is more than 800 years old. The monument was built in 1194 by Ghurid Sultan Ghiyas-od-din (1153-1203). Today, the minaret is the only remaining monument from the Ghurids, a civilization that dominated the region during the 12th century, ruling an empire that extended from Bengal to Iran. The capital of the Ghurid dynasty was the legendary city of Firozkoh, also called the Turquoise Mountain, which was described as the world’s most splendid city before it was destroyed by a descendant of Genghis Khan. The present-day site of Firozkoh has never been located, but some experts speculate that it may have been in the region around the minaret. Other remains in the area include vestiges of towers and castles from Ghurid settlements east of the minaret and on the banks of the Hari-rud River, and a group of 11th- and 12th-century stones with Hebrew inscriptions located on the Kushkak hill.

The Minaret of Jam was vital to the dissemination of innovative Islamic architecture and ornamentation, and it played a very important role in the development of art and architecture in Central Asia during the period following its construction. The Qutb Minar minaret, a red sandstone tower built just south of Delhi in the early 1300s, is a clear example of the Minaret of Jam’s influence.

According to some accounts, the minaret was forgotten about until its long shadow was spotted by a British aircraft flying over the Hari River gorge in the late 1950s. Archeologists first surveyed and recorded the site in 1957, and the minaret later enjoyed a period of time as a popular destination for intrepid international tourists, including British writers Peter Levi and Bruce Chatwin.

What risks is the monument facing?

In addition to illicit excavations and other potential conflict-related damage, the Minaret of Jam faces a number of serious environmental threats. Given its proximity to the Hari and Jam rivers, erosion and flooding remain constant dangers, as do the earthquakes that strike the region fairly frequently.

In 2013, the Minaret of Jam was placed on the list of “World Heritage Sites in Danger,” and reports from 2014 stated that the minaret was in serious danger of collapsing. For many years, the monument has been precariously tilting at an angle of about 3.47 degrees. For some context, the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa once tilted at an angle of 5.5 degrees, which was later reduced to 3.99 degrees after $25 million worth of emergency work. However, although the tilt of the Minaret of Jam is not as severe as that of its Italian cousin, the structure is 30 feet taller than the Tower of Pisa, built of far less sturdy material (fired bricks) than Pisa’s quarried stone, and positioned on a much less stable foundation. The top of the minaret is currently leaning more than 10 feet from vertical.

Despite concern from cultural preservation groups within and beyond Afghanistan, the future of the Minaret of Jam is not altogether certain. UNESCO has carried out some basic stabilization work over the years, including the construction of a new supporting wall, but the location and political climate of the area make it difficult to conduct the full extent of work necessary to preserve the minaret and the surrounding site. Activists hope that more donors will be found to boost conservation efforts by UNESCO and the government and ensure that this important reminder of Afghanistan’s cultural legacy is preserved for many future generations.

Spotlight on The Asia Foundation – Supporting Education for Afghans

As part of its mission to improve lives across the diverse regions of a dynamic and rapidly developing Asia, The Asia Foundation works hard to improve the quality of local education and expand access to educational opportunities in all areas where it operates. In Afghanistan, The Asia Foundation works closely with local NGO partners, as well as all levels of the formal education system, to strengthen all areas of Afghanistan’s education system, including student enrolment and achievement, teaching quality, curriculum development, and school infrastructure.

The educational programs supported by The Asia Foundation—all of which are carefully aligned with the strategies and priorities of Afghanistan’s ministries of Education and Higher Education—focus on boosting primary school literacy, improving teacher training, facilitating civil society and government agency participation in the educational sector, as well as developing employment-oriented educational initiatives. Read on to learn more about some of The Asia Foundation’s most recent work in the world of Afghan education.

Programs to enhance numeracy and literacy skills

school childrenBooks for Asia—Established nearly 15 years ago, the foundation’s Books for Asia program has delivered millions of books and educational materials to provincial schools, universities, public libraries, NGOs, and government ministries in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. One of the Books for Asia program’s biggest achievements in Afghanistan has been the distribution of a special collection of traditional Afghan folktales to schools across the country. Published by Hoopee Books, the collection was written in English, Pashto, and Dari. Since 2012, more than 1.2 million of these books have been donated to nearly 600 schools.

Primary school programs—Children who learn literacy and numeracy skills at a young age are much more likely to go on to pursue higher education. This is the reason why The Asia Foundation supports a number of local organizations, such as the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU) and the IT company Liwal, Ltd., in building a strong culture of reading for primary school children in Afghanistan. Through initiatives such as increased library access and the publication of easy-to-read books, these partners are working to make reading easy and fun for young Afghan students, as well as their parents and adult family members. Liwal, Ltd. is also developing an innovative new mobile app for primary school literacy in collaboration with The Asia Foundation. The app, which will initially be available to 2,000 Kabul children from grades one to three, will help them to read books in Dari and Pashto.

Libraries—The Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU), the only library in Afghanistan to house a comprehensive collection of research materials, has been visited by over 61,000 users since 2015. In addition to providing technical support and fiduciary oversight to ACKU, The Asia Foundation supports the Center’s Afghanistan Box Library Extension program (ABLE). Created in an effort to help provide remote communities with much-needed educational materials, ABLE creates new “box libraries” (which are basically conveniently located depositories of books) in isolated areas, and expands the collections of existing libraries. In the past year alone, 17 new box libraries have been created and more than 20,000 books and learning materials have been sent to libraries.

Programs for curriculum development

Given the significant percentage of students who do not pass the math and science sections of Afghanistan’s national public university entrance exam, known as the Kankor exam, it is clear that the math and science curriculum in Afghanistan’s public school system is in need of improvement. To this end, The Asia Foundation has formed a close partnership with the General Directorate of Science and Education Technology, the Ministry of Education department that oversees both curriculum development and teacher training.

Together with the Directorate, The Asia Foundation is supporting the training of 900 math and science teachers, as well as 65 lab technicians, in Badakhshan, Kandahar, and Khost. The goal is not only to create a more relevant and comprehensive curriculum, but to ensure that the teachers themselves are more comfortable with the material and thus better able to support their students. Up-to-date equipment can also make a big difference in students’ learning experience. The Asia Foundation has helped to distribute 300 pieces of laboratory equipment to 54 of those schools involved in the curriculum development program.

Programs for organizational capacity building

While Afghan-led programming makes the most sense for an effective Afghan school system, many educational organizations that would normally take the lead in this area lack the capacity, resources, or organizational governance to do so. To help address this discrepancy, The Asia Foundation conducts an organizational capacity development assessment—a participatory tool that provides a complete overview of an organization—for each of its local education partners in order to evaluate organizational stability and sustainability. When deficiencies or challenges are identified, the foundation provides training sessions to help the organization bridge the gap. Sessions can cover topics such as human resources, financial sustainability, strategic planning, and finance and administration. The overall goal is to help local organizations build their own effective governance structures and reduce dependence on funding from international donors.