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.

What You Need to Know about Afghan Academy International

A number of organizations are working in Afghanistan to build a better, safer, and more prosperous future for the country and its residents. At the same time, it’s important not to overlook the small number of equally dedicated organizations that are working in other parts of the world to support members of the Afghan diaspora who, for various reasons, no longer live in their home country. Based in the UK, Afghan Academy International is just such an organization. Read on to learn more about how this important association has been helping Afghan expatriates for more than 30 years.

 

What Is Afghan Academy International?

afghanacademyinternationalAfghan Academy International is an independent, non-political, and non-tribal charitable organization that aims to support Afghans living in the UK and abroad. The Academy was founded in the early 1980s in response to the waves of Afghan refugees who arrived in the UK as a result of political unrest at home. The newcomers desperately needed support: first, with all the practical considerations involved in establishing new lives in an unfamiliar country and language; and later, to maintain connections with their culture and heritage.

Over the years, the Academy has become a vital organization that helps Afghans residing in the UK to achieve a better standard of living. In addition, it aims to fulfill a broader vision of promoting and preserving Afghan identity and heritage, serving as an ambassador of Afghan culture, and showing the UK and the world a different picture of Afghans and Afghanistan than the one that is so often represented. An important part of the Academy’s mission and activities is to promote key shared values such as peace, tolerance, respect, co-existence, freedom of speech and expression, and mutual understanding.

 

Who Runs Afghan Academy International?

Since its inception, Afghan Academy International has been an entirely volunteer-run organization. The organization is managed on a day-to-day basis by a board of trustees, board of directors, and an academic board of advisors. Over the years, many of the most influential Afghan professionals, scholars, and artists living in the UK have joined or supported the Academy. The organization is always looking for more volunteers and contributors. You can learn more about becoming involved with the Academy on its website.

 

What Initiatives Does Afghan Academy International Oversee?

The Academy oversees a broad range of activities—services, projects, and events—for expatriate Afghans throughout the UK.

 

Services

The Academy’s services mainly target Afghans who have recently arrived in the UK and those in need of extra support to integrate into their new communities. Services include:

Nowruz

Image by alisamii | Flickr

24/7 Emergency Helpline—Geared primarily toward Afghan youth and families, but available to anyone in need (including other agencies requiring additional support or services), the 24/7 Emergency Helpline ensures that no one has to deal with a crisis alone.

Advice, information, and counseling—Setting up a new life in a new country can be challenging. The Academy provides advice, information, and counseling sessions to new Afghan arrivals to the UK on all the practical aspects of how to get started.

Senior care—Senior citizens are at serious risk of social isolation. To help prevent this, the Academy offers a variety of services to ensure that these at-risk groups are connected and supported.

Afghan language services—In addition to providing class-based and one-on-one language support classes in both Dari and Pashto to Afghans learning English, the Academy offers interpretation and translation services to communities, businesses, and other institutions dealing with Dari and Pashto speakers.

Country information and expert reports—The Academy’s team of experts and academics works to prepare reports on Afghanistan and related issues for UK clients.

 

Projects

Afghan Academy International’s projects are primarily geared toward promoting and preserving Afghan culture and heritage, as well as helping expatriate Afghans to stay connected to their cultural identity. These projects include:

Afghan Art, Film & Media Foundation—Launched in 2011, this project serves as a platform in support of Afghan art and cinema worldwide. The foundation organizes exhibitions and festivals of Afghan art and film, and it helps emerging Afghan artists connect with scholarships and training opportunities.

Afghan Council of Britain—Established by the Academy in late 2013, this project aims to create more effective communication and cooperation among the range of Afghan community organizations working in the UK. The broad mission of the council is to ensure that the Afghan community as a whole is better served by a network of organizations working efficiently together.

Afghan TV channel—Afghan Television London, the Academy’s independent TV channel, broadcasts educational and cultural programs to Afghanistan and Afghan viewers around the world.

 

Events

The Academy organizes and publicizes events throughout the UK that are of interest and benefit to expatriate Afghans, as well as to other community members with an interest in Afghan culture. Past events have included an annual celebration of Afghan arts, culture, and storytelling; community events in celebration of Nowruz, or New Year; and a discussion of Afghan music held at the British Museum.

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.