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Ian Pounds with AFCECO Children

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Ian Pounds

In 2009, Ian Pounds spent five months living and working as a volunteer in Mehan Orphanage in Kabul. It is an experience which affected him deeply. Those of us who followed his weekly journal were moved, educated and inspired. We came away with a much richer understanding of the workings of the orphanages and the world of our sponsored children.

Now, Ian is back in Afghanistan, once again volunteering with AFCECO at the Kabul orphanages. He will continue his journal and we will feature his posts here on Hope for Afghan Children.

I hope you will join those of us who already make it a habit to sit down with a cup of tea or coffee each weekend while we read Ian’s latest installment.

Posted by on in Volunteers

Earlier this summer I met a twenty-six year old volunteer from Italy who had come to work for an NGO in Kabul. She left me with a parting gift today, a Penguin edition of Swift’s satire, Gulliver’s Travels. Simultaneously I happened to read a senior thesis written by a student from a prestigious New England college who had interviewed me last winter when I was touring America giving talks and raising money for AFCECO. As far as I can tell both women had had bad experiences volunteering abroad, involving a falling out with the host organization, cultural clashes, confused feelings of shame while being indignant over what they saw as unjustifiable misrepresentation and mishandling by the NGO, as well as a lack of guidance. I may be jumping to conclusions, but the book seems to me a thinly veiled comment by the Italian on the act of volunteering in a foreign culture. As for the thesis paper, it can best be described as Gulliver’s Travels without the analogous myth. Subjectively, I initially took both as a personal affront. There is little wiggle room to interpret the novel; I jumped to the conclusion that I was being compared to Gulliver. As for the thesis, my interview, which contradicts everything in the writer’s text, was completely excluded even though the author utilized the event to beef up her data, not the least of which was to include the word “Afghanistan”. After I calmed down I realized of course they both have a valid point. It is true that the volunteer experience is widely exaggerated. It has been institutionalized by outfits such as the Peace Corps and United Nations and has been commercialized by multiple “service vacation” companies. In these instances a volunteer more often than not reports being a part of the problem rather than any solution. With the small NGOs the problems come with a lack of clarity and organizational support for volunteers, often thrusting them into situations they are unqualified to handle, setting them up for failure, or worse leaving them dangling without any clear job to do. In both situations the volunteer is filled with feelings of inadequacy or anger, sometimes both because of being pushed as well as useless. Like Gulliver, the volunteer who once was idealistic, adventurous, the pride of family and community ends up a bit pompous and smug and certainly sarcastic concerning the ability of one person to change what is bad into good.

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Road to jalalabadWinding along the edge of a cliff that plummets a thousand feet, I gave a silent prayer of thanks to the Chinese company that built the road from Kabul to Jalalabad, for doing the impossible and doing it well. I also prayed that now was not the time for one of the frequent rockslides to whisk away hapless travelers. Jamshid pushed an old cassette tape into the dashboard. “I used to listen to this a long time ago,” he said, “when I was in school in the refugee camp.” This is all that I knew ahead of my first road trip in Afghanistan: we would go to Jalalabad, which is at the foot of Taliban country, to visit our two orphanages there. It would take about 2 ½ hours to get there, and it would be 102 degrees and humid once we did. As recently as a year ago Afghan ministers postulated that Osama bin Laden was hiding in the mountains in Kunar Province to the north of the city. Many of the outposts of NATO soldiers had left the more remote east in favor of operations in the south. The area is predominantly Pashto country, where fierce villagers dug in against the Soviets and confounded them for many years. To get to this region you must cut through an almost impenetrable mountain range. That is all I knew.

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I have completed the curriculum for the rest of the year. If you sponsor an older child in Kabul, she or he is going to enjoy a very demanding but I hope fun second semester to the school year. I am going with the topical approach to teaching English. Why not learn something while we learn the language? When I was in first grade, everything was divided into colors.

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On the morning of January 9th, 2001, two men forcibly entered a small mud-bricked home near the village of Yakawlang, Afghanistan only to find a black haired, black eyed, freckle-faced, five-year old Hazara girl alone in the room stoking a heater. The girl looked at the men’s faces, then at their Kalashnikov rifles that already dripped beads of melting frost onto the floor. “Where is your father?” one of them asked, without introduction.

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“To live in the hearts we leave behind is to never die.”

This is a quote attached anonymously to a video commemorating the life of Carl Sagan. The video was brought to my attention this morning by a man who sponsors a child at Sitara I. Sometimes I just like Nasruddin Hodha the foolish Mullah of Persian folklore, arrive on Friday with a blank mind. Seeing where that quote takes my thoughts, I trust somehow this page will be filled.

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