Orphans exist all over the world, in varying conditions, and in some cases, states of neglect. These children housed in orphanages will someday be adults, free to be who they have become, but with much less range of options than most of us. Meanwhile, there they are, in obscure places around the world.
I want, in some way, to let these orphans know they are not forgotten.
Here is an article that appeared, The International Herald Tribune, January 2, 2012, and The New York Times, December 31, 2012, about a man who wants to change the way things are — corrupt, brutal, and deprived — in Afghan’s orphanages.
Orphans’ Defender Jostles With Afghan Corruption
Sayyid Abdullah Hashemi, director of Afghanistan’s orphanages, at a class for orphans in Kabul (Bryan Denton for The New York Times).
By ROD NORDLAND
Published: December 31, 2011
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Sayyid Abdullah Hashemi has greatly improved conditions at the Tahya-e-Maskan Orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The New York Times
Mr. Hashemi recently visited orphanages in four provinces.
It would be hard to find a more wretched place to go to work on that goal than at the National Directorate of Orphanages in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and the Disabled, where Mr. Hashemi became the director seven months ago. He wasted little time shaking things up at an agency that had become infamous for orphanages where caregivers stole food out of children’s mouths and mattresses from under their bodies.
Whether he was motivated by altruism, ambition or some mix of the two may matter little given the importance of his work. But how Mr. Hashemi fares over the long term may be an important sign of whether a reform ethic stands any chance against the corruption so deeply embedded here.
First, Mr. Hashemi focused his energy on the two major government-run orphanages in Kabul, nightmarishly run-down places with dismal reputations. One, the Tahya-e-Maskan Orphanage, was notable for having poisoned its children en masse, serving them milk so far past its expiration date that it nearly killed several of them.
Now, the Tahya-e-Maskan Orphanage is a tidy and obviously well-maintained place. It offers computer science and English classes, with 36 graduates sitting for university entrance exams this year and 44 children on scholarships for study abroad.
“In the 12 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a director like him,” said Wahidullah Hamid, an orphan who at age 17 speaks English so well that Mr. Hashemi hired him as an English teacher as soon as he graduated from the orphanage’s high school.
Mr. Hashemi is a lean, short man, wiry and restless, with a dark beard that makes him look older than his 29 years. He has a sense of self-esteem that seems to come easily to many called Sayyid, a name that identifies its bearer as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s family. It is not difficult to read his confidence as arrogance, and his detractors do, accusing him of high-handedness and being driven by personal ambition.
Whatever the source of his confidence, it is mixed with a large measure of righteous indignation. He is an orphan himself; his father was killed fighting the Soviets during the occupation in the 1980s.
“I understand what orphans are suffering,” he said.
His early efforts drew the attention of a venerable Afghan charity, Parsa. Best known for its physical rehabilitation work with the war wounded, Parsa has for the past six years also been running an orphanages program. Unlike most charities in that field, which tend to focus on private, foreign-managed orphanages, “we wanted to work within the government system,” said the group’s executive director, Marnie Gustavson. It proved to be six years of “beating our heads against a wall,” she said.
Then came Mr. Hashemi, whom she described as “someone we could believe in.”
For years, Parsa had been buying items like blankets and warm clothing and delivering them to government orphanages, only to have the management sell them on the open market as soon as the aid workers left town.
Parsa offered to raise some money if Mr. Hashemi would make sure it was spent honestly at some of the 33 orphanages in the provinces, many of them quite remote. In turn, Mr. Hashemi decided to do something that Ms. Gustavson called unprecedented: he actually traveled beyond the capital to visit the orphanages for which his directorate is responsible.
Early in December, Mr. Hashemi turned up unannounced at the orphanage in Faizabad, in the remote northeastern province of Badakhshan, at supper time. There, 150 boys lived in a rental house, sharing 10 rooms and sleeping on boards. That was bad enough, but it was their food that really got his attention.
“We send them 75 Afghanis a day per child, and it’s not enough; but if spent properly, it is at least enough for adequate, decent quality food,” Mr. Hashemi said. That is about $1.50 a day, enough to make sure, for example, that each child gets a ration of at least seven ounces of beans, he said.
But when he arrived, he found the children eating a thin soup that contained maybe an ounce of beans for each of them, plus half a piece of bread. It was clear that even the paltry daily stipend was being siphoned off by the adults at the orphanage.
“The children were emaciated; some of them had hair falling out from malnutrition, skin diseases,” Mr. Hashemi said.
What happened next is a matter of some dispute, though it is certainly an example of how complex making real change here can be.
Mr. Hashemi recounts it simply: “It is our duty not to take the food from our orphans, so I threw a bowl of food in the director’s face and fired him and the cook.”
Parsa’s national director, Yasin Farid, who was present, confirmed that account. But the orphanage’s director, Sayyid Abdul Wahab, remembered it differently during a telephone interview. “We had a quarrel, but it was not very serious,” Mr. Wahab said. “He had a bowl with him, but he did not throw it at me intentionally. He just spilled it at me.”
Mr. Wahab also insisted that he still had his job. “I’m not aware of being dismissed or fired,” he said.
Or as he put it to Mr. Hashemi at the time, according to the accounts of witnesses, “ ‘You can’t fire me, I have too many friends in the police, and my relative is the governor.’ ”
That governor, Shah Wali Adeeb, of Badakhshan Province, is well connected with the influential Jamiat-e-Islami party of the Northern Alliance.
One official familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the matter, said that Mr. Hashemi had to accept that he did not have the power to remove Mr. Wahab. “When he found out that the director had political support, he changed his tactics,” the official said.
Mr. Hashemi’s response was to make sure the children were fed, buying them food before he left. Then he left them money for extra food and firewood, and arranged a way for them to contact him regularly to report on how it was being spent and how they were being treated.
He did the same at each of the four orphanages he visited in Badakhshan, Takhar, Parwan and Kunduz Provinces. At the orphanage in Takhar Province, he visited on a Friday, the normal day off, and found no staff members looking after 40 boys younger than 10, he said. They had a 13 pound sack of potatoes, their only food for the day, which they had to prepare themselves.
Later, the director threatened to expel the children from the orphanage if they did not swear to Mr. Hashemi that they had had a big breakfast of eggs and milk that day, which they duly did. Mr. Hashemi’s videographer, however, surreptitiously recorded the entire encounter.
In Parwan, Mr. Hashemi barged into the orphanage at 1 a.m. and inspected the beds. “Sheets are supposed to be washed and changed every two weeks,” he said. “These had not been washed for three years and smelled like it.”
He returned to Kabul, having left a trail of firings in his wake, but he repeatedly ran into the same political problems he had experienced at the first orphanage. It soon became apparent that most of the directors he had dismissed were still holding on to their jobs. It is a measure of how weak Afghanistan’s central government is: while Kabul appropriates the orphanage funds, the money is disbursed through the local governors’ offices, so it is the governors who control the jobs.
“For me, they are fired,” Mr. Hashemi said. “If they still insist on coming to work, I will have to talk to the minister about doing something.”
There are still 29 orphanages he has yet to inspect. “These ones I visited were in the secure areas,” he said. “Imagine what they’re like in insecure areas.”