Tribecan helps Afghan city

By Michael T. Luongo

JALALABAD — Unlike Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, the city of Jalalabad near the Pakistani border is green and full of gardens, birds chirping among the trees, its outskirts surrounded by rich fields of wheat. Most of the buildings remain unscathed by the war, and the shops are full of products brought in on caravans of trucks driven through treacherous mountain passes. Yet just like Kabul, the city has its needs and is home to scores of women widowed and children orphaned by decades of war.

The New York City based Afghan-American Peace Corps chose this city for its cow project, a plan to bring cows, goats and chickens to needy Afghan women and children living in the villages surrounding the city.

Tribeca resident Baktash Zaher Khadem, 29, chairperson of the A.A.P.C., and his mother, Zeba Khadem, 51, a Voice of America international broadcaster with the Afghanistan division in Washington D.C., spent a week in Jalalabad carrying out the plan. Groundwork for the project began in December of 2002 when Baktash visited the country scouting out ideas for relief projects.

The location of the project was also personal. Jalalabad was the city where Zeba grew up and fled with Baktash in 1980 when he was just a child, shortly after the Russians had invaded the country. The trip was also the first time that Zeba has returned to Afghanistan. The two landed together on Mother’s Day in Kabul before making the three-and-a-half-hour drive east to Jalalabad. But even after so many years, Zeba seemed to be at home and Baktash commented, “It’s really nice to come back here because she seems to know everyone here and we’re able to get things done.” Rather than finding the return to the homeland to be a sentimental experience for his mother, Baktash found it energized her to do more for the country. He said, “I was expecting her to be more emotional. She’s not. She’s been more productive than emotional.”

When asked what she treasured most about being back home, Zeba commented, “I even miss the dust.” Zeba was also accompanied by her brother Roshan Khadem, who now lives in Canada. It was also his first visit back since fleeing the country.

Haji Deen Moham-med, the governor of Nangarhar Province, where Jalalabad is the capital, assisted with the project, providing housing and transportation for the A.A.P.C. Animals were donated in two villages on Jalalabad’s outskirts, which are made largely of war refugees who have returned from Pakistan to live in United Nations-funded housing, and an olive oil factory with 35 female employees, many of them war widows.

One of the villages is Najmuljahan, a complex of adobe houses and walls that looked like a step into biblical times. The mayor of the town, Abdul Haliq, had originally planned to decide which of the women in the village would receive assistance. He explained that, “with one cow, a family of six or seven is provided for.” In the end, because there were so many women who needed assistance, a lottery system was used to determine who would receive a cow or a goat. In all, 25 cows, 17 goats, 162 hens, 154 roosters and 288 chicks were donated through the project.

A village house with a large enclosed field was used to store the animals, and the widows came to the donation site, some clothed in the blue burqas most Afghan women are still required to wear. Golmina, one of the village widows who received a cow said, “I will feed her and milk her, and I will say God bless you.” Her husband had been killed by the Taliban. She has two sons and 4 grandchildren who live with her.

The olive oil factory, an enormous structure in need of modernization, was built by the Russians just after the invasion. It was once one of the largest processing plants of its type in all of Asia, but the export market for the product after years of war is only just rebuilding. Raisa Wazirgull, the administrative officer of the factory, had originally planned to draw up a list of women who would be eligible for receiving a cow. As in the villages, the need was so great that a lottery system had to be used, and seven cows were distributed. Ziago Aziz, one of the factory workers, was happy for the plan, explaining, “Everybody’s coming and visiting and nobody’s helping us. People get tours and go.”

Though there were not enough animals for all the women, each received clothing and bags of makeup donated to the A.A.P.C. by friends in New York.

The principle behind donating the animals is that women can use them to provide milk or eggs for their families, or sell these food products to the community for other needs. The animals become a form of micro-enterprise in a society where women have few opportunities for work outside the home. Roughly $35,000 in funding had been raised before the purchase of the animals, which came from both local markets and Pakistan and were trucked over the border. Maurice Kanbar, the owner of Skyy Vodka and the president of the Jewish Endowment Fund, donated $25,000. Baktash said, “We want to let these women know Jews from New York want to help. It’s about people helping people.” Additional funds came from various private donors.

Other New Yorkers involved in the project included Judy Lotas, owner of LPNY advertising agency. After Sept. 11, she was seeking out ways to help Afghanistan and met Baktash in 2002 at an Afghan Film Festival. Lotas donated her company’s services to produce brochures and other promotional material for the project. Through her connections, she also assisted with private fundraising.

While she’s happy that the cow project was a success, Lotas said, “I am just overwhelmed by the problems. We could give away every single animal here and not make a dent.” After completing the project, she continued to meet with other organizations and government agencies in Kabul to see what other help she might be able to give in the future. She was on her second visit to the country and was assisted by her friend Fern Halyard who was visiting Afghanistan for the first time.

The Afghan American Peace Corps was formed on Dec. 25, 1999, which marked the 20th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The next planned project for the A.A.P.C. is donating computers to the University of Kabul.

Many of A.A.P.C.’s members are independent filmmakers, and Baktash recorded the events related to the animal distribution towards a possible documentary. He was aided by fellow New Yorker and filmmaker, Ingrid Breyer, who was also working on projects in Afghanistan. Baktash is particularly well known among many Afghan-Americans as the star of “FireDancer,” a movie produced before 9/11 about Afghan-Americans living in New York City. The destruction of the Twin Towers and the murder of the film’s director, Jawed Wassel, delayed the release of the film. The movie finally premiered at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival and will begin its commercial run on June 4 at the Quad Cinemas on East 13th St. The group’s Web site, www.afghanamericanpeacecorps.org, is expected to go up within the next two weeks and phone messages can be left at 646-752-6586.

A woman wearing a burqa holds a chicken she received from Baktash Zaher Khadem’s group, the Afghan-American Peace Corps.

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