When she was 24 years old, in 1979, Fahima Vorgetts left Afghanistan. By reputation, she had been outspoken, even rebellious, in her opposition to injustice and oppression; and family and friends, concerned for her safety, had urged her to go abroad. Twenty-three years later, returning for the first time to her homeland, she barely recognized war-torn streets in urban areas where she had once lived. She saw and felt the anguish of villagers who couldn’t feed or shelter their families, and no less able to accept such unjust suffering than she’d been half her life before, Fahima decided to make it her task to help alleviate the abysmal conditions faced by ordinary Afghans living at or below the poverty line - by helping to build independent women’s enterprises wherever she could. She trusted in the old adage that if a person is hungry it’s an even greater gift to teach the person how to fish than to only give the person fish.
Last week, our small delegation here in Kabul traveled around the city with her to visit several clinics and “shuras,” or women’s councils that she has opened.
The first clinic we visited has been here since 2006. Two women, a doctor and a midwife, told us that they are part of a staff who work in three shifts to keep the clinic open “24-7.” Not one of their patients has died while being treated at the clinic.
Next we visited two villages, one Pashtun and the other Tajik, on the outskirts of Kabul.
“Why did you pick this village?” asked Jake Donaldson, an M.D. from Ventura, CA who joined us here in Kabul about a week ago. “I didn’t pick them,” Fahima exclaimed. “They picked me.”
A year previously, the villagers had asked her to build a clinic and a literacy center. She had told them that if they would agree to organize a women’s cooperative and pool their resources to hire teachers, midwives and nurses, she herself would build the physical building and help with supplies.
In each village, we visited a newly constructed building which will house a clinic, a women’s cooperative for jewelry-making, tailoring, and canning, a set of literacy classes for children and adults, and even a public shower which families can sign up to use. A young teacher invited us to step inside his classroom where about fifty children, girls and boys, were learning their alphabet in the first week of a literacy class. Several villagers proudly showed us the well they had dug, powered by a generator. The well will help them irrigate their land as well as supply clean drinking water for the village.
Before we left, a male village elder described to Fahima how valuable her work has been for his village. Fahima seemed to blush a bit as she gratefully acknowledged his compliment.
Such appreciative words, along with the children’s eager expressions, seem to be the main compensation for her tireless work. “I and the board members of The Afghan Women’s Fund are 100% volunteers,” Fahima assures me. “Our board members are people of tremendous integrity.”
On the day before our tour, Fahima had come to the Afghan Peace Volunteer home to speak to the seamstresses who run a sewing cooperative here and encourage them to hold on at all costs to their dignity. She urged them never to prefer handouts to hard work in self-sustaining projects. Fahima had helped the seamstresses begin their cooperative effort at the Volunteer house when she purchased sewing machines for them a little over a year ago.
“Not all of the projects I’ve tried to start have worked out,” said Fahima. “Sometimes people are hampered by conservative values and some families don’t want to allow women to leave their homes. Most often, it is war or the security situation that prevents success.”
She firmly believes that war will never solve problems in her country - or anywhere else, for that matter.
Fahima is outspoken, even blunt, as she speaks about warlords and war profiteers. She has good reason to be bitter over the cruelties inflicted on ordinary Afghans by all those interested in filling their own pockets and expanding control of Afghanistan’s resources. She advises the Afghan Peace Volunteers with the voice and love of a mother. “The world is gripped by a class war in which the 1% elite, irrespective of nationality or ethnicity and including the Afghan and U.S./NATO elite, have been ganging up to control, divide, oppress and profit from us, the ordinary 99%. Resist these ‘dark times’, resist war and weapons, educate yourselves, and work together in friendship.”
Fahima’s spirit of youthful rebellion clearly hasn’t been snuffed out by age or experience. Her practical compassion is like a compass for all of us who learn about her work.
For more about the Afghan Women Fund, go to www.Afghanwomensfund.org