Spotlight on 3 Amazing Organizations That Are Led By Young People

Did you know that Afghanistan is home to one of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing populations? According to the United Nations Population Fund, nearly two-thirds of all Afghans—about 64%, or around 22 million people—are under 25 years of age. And although this young cohort has a difficult legacy of conflict and instability to contend with, they are already showing an incredible determination to build a better life for themselves, their families, and their country. Read on for a look at three inspiring youth-led organizations in Afghanistan that are taking the future into their own hands.

Afghans for Progressive Thinking

As Afghanistan’s largest youth-led professional organization, Afghans for Progressive Thinking (APT) works to promote and foster a culture of openness, tolerance, and respect among Afghan young people, particularly college and university students.

APT was founded in 2010 by a political science university graduate who was certain that many other Afghan youth shared his vision of a peaceful and progressive Afghan society. He believed that they simply needed a structure within which they could work toward that vision. APT is the result. It’s an organization based on two social theories of change, critical thinking theory and contact theory, which it uses as touchstones in its work of disrupting existing systems, opening channels of communication, and building understanding of and respect for diversity. Since it was founded, APT has worked with more than 20,000 university students from more than 35 Afghan universities.

Today, APT’s work encompasses a diverse array of activities, programs, and initiatives. These include:

UN youth representative—APT was an instrumental force in helping to select Afghanistan’s first ever youth representative to the United Nations in 2018. With support from the Netherlands Embassy in Kabul, APT worked with a number of Afghan government ministries and other organizations to develop a candidate selection program for youth delegates and to attract applicants. After a multi-stage process, 28-year-old Ramiz Bakhtiar was chosen as Afghanistan’s youth representative to the UN following a live debate at the Bayat Media Center in Kabul.

Leadership development—APT organizes a number of annual leadership development courses designed to help young students prepare to exercise leadership in their own communities and become effective influencers in Afghan society. Held in both English and Dari, these courses are taught by professional experts from Afghanistan and abroad.

Young Peace Builders Award—This award is given annually to three or four Afghan youth who have made significant contributions to promoting tolerance and peacebuilding in Afghanistan. The inspiration for this award comes from the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace, and Security, which recognizes the positive role that youth can play in helping bring peace and security to their home countries.

Youth 4 Change and Development

Youth 4 Change and Development (YCDO) is a non-profit NGO, led entirely by Afghan youth, that aims to create a culture of mutual cooperation and understanding among all the different actors working in the field of youth welfare in Afghanistan, including youth voluntary agencies, youth groups and clubs, and individuals. Founded in response to the disenfranchisement and neglect experienced by many Afghan youth, YCDO strongly believes that youth empowerment and capacity building is an essential part of ensuring Afghanistan’s ongoing development, as well as its long-term stability and prosperity.

As part of its mission to inspire Afghan youth to create positive change within their communities, YCDO organizes a variety of programs and events, including:

The Social Good Summit—In late 2017, YCDO partnered with the United Nations Development Program to organize a summit on the theme of Afghanistan’s future and creative strategies for attaining the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The summit brought together hundreds of participants from civil society organizations, government, the private sector, and youth groups and university organizations.

The Afghanistan National Youth Assembly—Initiated by YCDO in 2017 and led by a team of committed young Afghans, the Afghanistan National Youth Assembly is the country’s first ever platform for youths to make their voices heard, share their ideas, and contribute to a strong foundation for positive change and development in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization

From a movement of young activists in a single province, Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization (ANGO) has grown to become a network of passionate youth change agents all across the country. Based in Kabul, this independent NGO works at the grassroots level to inspire and support Afghan youth as they take an active role in leading Afghanistan towards a peaceful and progressive future.

To accomplish its mission of mobilizing and empowering youth, ANGO creates programs that are specially tailored to the unique needs of young people. In order to achieve a long-term, lasting impact, ANGO allows these programs to develop as a process, with a particular focus on sustainability beyond individual project cycles. At present, the organization’s activities and offerings are geared towards four core program areas: civic engagement and advocacy, citizen journalism, social inclusion, and capacity building.

Spotlight on the Chihilsitoon Garden Restoration Project

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), one of the affiliate agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, has a long history of supporting and working on cultural restoration and rehabilitation projects in some of Afghanistan’s most important cities. In fall 2018, AKTC celebrated the completion of its most ambitious project yet: the restoration of Chihilsitoon Garden, the largest historic public garden in Kabul. Read on for a closer look at this exceptional rehabilitation project.

What is Chihilsitoon Garden?

The historic Chihilsitoon Garden and Palace occupy a 12.5-hectare site in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Originally created as a royal garden in the 19th century, the park became state property in the early 20th century. During this part of its history, Chihilsitoon Garden welcomed visiting international dignitaries such as US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Chihilsitoon Garden was severely damaged and looted during periods of unrest in Afghanistan, and the neglected site was left in disrepair for more than two decades.

The goal of the Chihilsitoon Garden rehabilitation project was to restore this once-beautiful site to its former glory and, in so doing, provide Kabul’s approximately 4.5 million residents with more space for recreational and communal activities, add much-needed green space to the city to help improve its air quality and climate, and provide the local population with jobs and the opportunity to acquire new skills. Now that the restoration is complete, the garden will be managed by the recently formed, independent Kabul Historic Gardens Trust (a new iteration of the Bagh-e Babur Trust, which has been sustainably operating the historic site of Babur’s Gardens for over 10 years).

What work was carried out during the Chihilsitoon Garden restoration?

The Chihilsitoon Garden restoration involved extensive rehabilitation work on virtually all aspects of the site. Particular projects included:

Extensive landscaping of outdoor space—The heart of the restored Chihilsitoon Garden site is a historic formal axial garden (a type of symmetrical design commonly used in traditional Islamic gardens), which is surrounded by areas of dense landscape and open lawns. Radiating outwards from this garden is a network of paths and trails that link and encompass a variety of spatial experiences, including group picnic areas; an outdoor amphitheater; and the historic formal promenade, which features the garden’s now-restored, fully functional original marble fountains. As part of this extensive landscaping work, more than 5,000 new trees were planted throughout the site.

The creation of new buildings and amenities for public use—One of the main functions of the restored Chihilsitoon Garden is to serve as a multi-purpose gathering place for communal events of all kinds. To this end, a number of new public buildings were constructed throughout the park, including an exhibition hall; a 300-seat auditorium; buildings for administration, maintenance, and visitor management; and a multi-purpose facility created inside the reconstructed historic Chihilsitoon Palace. To complement the garden’s historical legacy, these contemporary buildings were designed in keeping with traditional vernacular style and constructed using local building methods and materials. (Interestingly, the main building material used was rammed earth: highly suitable for the region’s climatic and ecological environment, rammed earth has been used for construction in Afghanistan for two millennia. In Chihilsitoon Garden, the newly constructed rammed earth buildings were reinforced with bamboo trees and steel rebar to improve earthquake resistance.)

The creation of sites and facilities for sports activities—Chihilsitoon Garden is also envisioned as the home of a variety of sports and outdoor recreation activities. A distinct zone in the restored park contains cricket batting areas, outdoor volleyball courts, and two mini football fields. A building with indoor changing facilities and showers was also constructed to improve the park’s capacity to host competitive sports matches.

Revenue-generating amenities—Part of the Chihilsitoon Garden restoration project was to build in sources of income generation that could eventually help the park to become financially self-sustaining. For example, the garden now includes retail units, food kiosks, and restaurants that can be operated or rented out to generate ongoing revenue. The garden is also home to a commercial horticulture nursery, which can generate revenue in addition to maintaining the stock of trees and plants within the garden.

Utility upgrades—Careful consideration was given to the question of utilities in the garden during the restoration. While provisions have been made for on-site utilities, the garden has been designed to necessitate limited use of water and electricity due to features like septic systems that filter wastewater through subsurface leach fields.

What other partners supported the Chihilsitoon Garden restoration?

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture worked closely with many partners and supporters to complete the restoration of Chihilsitoon Garden and Palace. These include Kabul Municipality, the Afghan Ministries of Culture and Urban Development, and many local communities in Kabul. Funding for the project was provided by the German Federal Foreign Office through the KfW Development Bank.

Spotlight on the Art of Traditional Afghan Construction

Buildings in Afghanistan have been constructed using traditional methods for many centuries. Developed in response to Afghanistan’s unique building challenges—including extreme climate and weather conditions, frequent earthquakes, and varying availability of natural resources—these traditional techniques have withstood the test of time. Except for the incorporation of a few modern adaptations like plumbing and electricity, many Afghan buildings today are constructed in the same way that they have been for hundreds of years.

One excellent recent example of the use of traditional building methods on a large scale is the restoration of Kabul’s historic Murad Khani neighborhood by the nonprofit organization Turquoise Mountain. To bring the neglected buildings of this area back to their former glory, hundreds of artisans and community members used traditional construction techniques to restore and refurbish—and in some cases reconstruct— homes and other structures more than two centuries old.

The new Preserving Afghan Heritage platform, now available on Google Arts & Culture, offers visitors an absorbing look at the Murad Khani restoration, including a fascinating online exhibit on the traditional methods used during the project. As described in the exhibit, the steps involved in traditional Afghan building include the following:

The foundation

Creating a strong foundation is the first step in the traditional building process. Foundations, which are often dug out by hand, must be able to support the planned building. This means that taller buildings will require deeper foundations. Once the excavation is complete, the pit is filled in with stone and rubble, and then topped with another layer of stone. Roughly 40-60 centimeters high, this final layer ensures that the earth walls are elevated above ground level, which helps to protect them against the weakening effects of rain and snow.

The exterior walls

The main skeleton of the building is constructed using a technique known as senj, in which bricks are placed inside a timber frame. The timber skeleton is constructed first: vertical wooden poles are placed around the perimeter of the building about 60-70 centimeters apart and are then secured to the horizontal wooden beams of the floor and ceiling. Next, the spaces between the poles are filled with bricks. With the senj technique, the bricks are laid diagonally between the poles; after seven to 10 layers have been completed, the bricks are then laid in the opposite diagonal direction. These alternating directional layers help strengthen the walls of the building and improve its resistance to earthquakes.

Image by Jim Kelly | Flickr

The roof

To increase the stability of the roof, builders place layers of woven bamboo and willow branches onto the roof beams and secure them in place. Ghora gel, a mud mixture, is then applied to the branches to stabilize them and seal the roof. Note that the roofs and ceilings of traditional Afghan buildings are low to help keep interior rooms warmer during the cold winter months.

The interior walls

In a traditional Afghan building, the interior walls are built with the same senj technique used for the exterior walls. Vertical poles are placed to define the perimeter of the rooms and are then filled with diagonal layers of bricks.

Interior finishes

Once the electrical wiring has been installed, the interior walls are covered with a plaster made from mud, straw, and water. This plaster is left for a day to dry, after which the seemgel is added. Seemgel is a type of interior finish composed of screened mud, water, and lokh (a traditional Afghan construction material made of a mixture of clay and the downy fluff of reeds). Seemgel is applied to the interior walls in layers, with a drying time of two days required between layers. It is mainly used for buildings where the intention is to decorate the interior walls.

Windows and doors

Because it was challenging in the past to construct fixed windows with hinges, many traditional Afghan buildings use patayi screens instead. These are horizontal windows stacked on top of each other, which can be raised separately in order to control and direct air circulation in the room. In the summer, for example, the patayi screens are typically raised to maximize airflow and keep the interior cool. As for the door frames, these are deliberately kept very low so that visitors must bow when they enter, thereby showing respect for the house’s owners.

Decorative touches

Depending on the means of the owners, there are many different decorative touches that can adorn the finished interiors of traditional Afghan buildings. For example, the ceiling may be covered with carved wooden panels fixed directly to the roof beams; not just visually appealing, this has the practical benefit of preventing dust or dirt from the roof from falling into the rooms. It’s also common to set hand-framed, plaster niches into the interior walls so that ornaments and pictures may be displayed. Sensibly, there are usually two different heights of niches—the higher ones, out of the reach of children, are where more fragile items are kept.