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Living with Warmth and Dignity in Afghanistan

27 November 2012 No Comment

Samia with Duvets, Afghanistan.

Kathy Kelly
Afghanistan

“Faribah and 25 other seamstresses have now created more than 350 duvets. They are eagerly helping their families and others to live with warmth and dignity.”

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January of 2012 was a deadly month, in Afghanistan. The United Nations notes that, in camps around Kabul, as many as 35,000 refugees from the fighting had only tents and mud huts to protect them from the cold. In those camps alone, 26 Afghan children froze to death.

On top of Afghanistan’s ongoing burdens of destitution and war, of course, temperatures are now dropping again. In October, 2012, I was with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, listening to Afghan seamstresses pour out their thoughts about the impending winter and what they and their families will require in order to cope with it. Blankets to cover doorways; warm clothing; large, heavy coverlets called duvets.

“Every woman in Afghanistan knows how to make these items,” one woman, Faribah, assured me. “But it’s expensive.”

It was a meeting of the seamstress’ collective that the Afghan Peace Volunteers are working to set up in Kabul, helping struggling women earn a living outside the control of exploitative middlemen. The Volunteers’ Dr. Hakim and I suggested that the seamstresses could sidestep the markets and instead invite donors from abroad to help put a desperately needed warm coverlet, a duvet, into an impoverished family’s dwelling. Together we estimated that it would cost $20 to make each coverlet and also afford the seamstresses a modest income, $2 per duvet, $4 per day in return for their labor.

The women’s responses were both eager and practical. Over the next several days, a steady buzz of voices accompanied the whirr of hand-operated sewing machines: “The Duvet Project” was taking shape.

The day before I left Kabul, the women met to finalize plans. They agreed that the materials for making the duvets will be stored at the Afghan Peace Volunteer home.  Each morning, women can pick up wool and cloth there and spend the day making two duvets in their home.  The next day, they return with the finished duvets, receive payment, and pick up their next allotment of supplies.  The Afghan Peace Volunteers will store the finished duvets and distribute them, as gifts, to those in need.

Ali and Abdulhai with synthetic wool, Afghanistan.

From past experience of displacement, several of the women understand the misery and hardship faced by families living in abandoned lots and constructing makeshift dwellings from mud, poles, plywood, plastic sheeting and cardboard. These tents and shacks offer little protection from the bitter cold winter weather. Amnesty International’s 2012 report, “Fleeing War, Finding Misery,” describes the plight of displaced families that have fled their homes or villages because of conflict. “Those who are displaced must deal with the daunting challenges of finding new homes and providing for themselves and their families at the same time that they are struggling to cope with trauma induced by the events that led them to flee.” They face “unrelenting misery,” the report states, living in close, unhygienic quarters, sleeping without bedding under torn plastic sheeting, and having scarce access to water.

With an estimated 400 Afghan people displaced every day by a U.S.-initiated war, the desire for warm blankets and warm clothing will certainly be greater than the supply.

Faribah tried to help us understand the barriers that she and other women seamstresses face in fending for their families. Like most of the women sitting in a circle on the floor, Faribah had not been allowed to leave her house before she began coming to the seamstress workshop.

“Kathy, I know that in your country it is very different,” Faribah said. “People have freedom of movement and it is not difficult to move in the streets. We have feelings and sentiments and we all want to be free, to have dignity, whether male or female, but our society does not permit us to be free not only because of social traditions but also because of war. Kabul has become a frightening place. It’s natural for our families not to trust that we can go out. There are strangers in the city, including foreigners from neighboring countries. We cannot trust anyone, even our own people, who are poor and need money and will do anything to get money, – and ladies especially have been confined to their homes, partially to protect them from harm outside. That makes it difficult for us because we do want to provide for our families.”

Faribah and 25 other seamstresses have now created more than 350 duvets.  They are eagerly helping their families and others to live with warmth and dignity.

Contributions to “The Duvet Project” will enable them to continue supplying needy people with warm coverlets. To learn more about the APVs, visit 2millionfriends.org  and ourjourneytosmile.com. The website for Voices for Creative Nonviolence is vcnv.org.

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