Compounding Crises: Corona in Conflict Zones

Sakena Yacoobi, CEO of the Afghan Institute of Learning, working with youth. (Photo: AIL)
Editors’ Introduction.  Previous articles in our Corona Connections series have focused mainly on the injustices and dysfunction of global structures that have been made undeniably evident by the pandemic. In this article, we call the attention of peace educators to the fact COVID has made many of those injustices more severe.

 “This pandemic has had a tremendous negative impact on what was already a dire situation.”  – Sakena Yacoobi, CEO, Afghan Institute of Learning

A long-time active member of the IIPE/GCPE networks, Sakena Yacoobi began her work educating Afghan women in the camps where they had sought refuge from the Taliban. In the years since bringing the work into Afghanistan, through the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), she has created a nationwide program of learning and services that have transformed the lives of thousands. Even through the violence of civil strife, the work continued, and still does.

However, as can be seen from her letter to donors (reproduced below, the original letter can be found here), that work has been profoundly affected by COVID-19.  AIL’s work has been significantly altered to provide services required by the pandemic, but not provided by government. The situation that Sakena and AIL face is replicated for civil society organizations the world over; wherever, as one network member recently wrote, “the government is paralyzed.” The fifth paragraph of the letter, from which the above quote is taken, summarizes the situation, not only in Afghanistan, but in other nations where civil disorder and inept, irresponsible governments are failing their people. Throughout the world, civil society, as is AIL, strives, with insufficient resources, confronted by multiple obstacles on all sides, to take on the responsibility of supporting people where governments fail.

AIL is a vivid case in point of the need for citizens’ responsibility for their own respective societies, and for the education to enable them to take it on. Therein lies the best hope of the world community’s achieving a new normal in which the structural injustices and dysfunctions of the pre-pandemic normal have been overcome. As peace educators, we, no matter what the situations of our own respective nations, are committed to the fulfillment of that need. Whether enduring one of these Corona compounded critical situations or not, we are in solidarity with those like Sakena who are in that situation, and will do our own education work in that spirit and perspective.

-BAR, 8/4/20

Letter from Sakena Yacoobi
CEO, Afghan Institute of Learning

I hope this letter reaches both you and your loved ones safe and in good health. I realize it has been a long time since I have communicated directly with you as I am usually constantly on the go. My schedule used to be a constant swirl of traveling to or engaging in seminars, peace conferences, speaking events, and global workshops. In fact, just a month or so ago, I was traveling to the United States from Afghanistan for a meeting. However, like the rest of the world, I ended up grounded and have been stuck here unable to return to Afghanistan due to the global pandemic we are all experiencing.

As I sit here in my apartment and reflect on all of my time spent promoting and speaking to thousands of people on behalf of AIL and the Afghan people, I cannot help but feel that I have missed out on connecting with my donors on a personal level as much as I would have liked. I know that you have invested in this program both emotionally and financially, and I truly consider you to be a partner in our efforts to aid the people of Afghanistan.

As a partner, I want you to know that Afghanistan is still dealing with constant conflict. However, AIL continues to shine and is rapidly spreading its light to every province within the country. The AIL community is dedicated and passionate about improving the lives of the Afghan people through education. We are especially focused on the empowerment of women and girls to help shape a better future for Afghanistan and are very pleased with the outcome of our efforts. With the help of AIL and your support, women are changing their lives. They are finally getting the opportunity to pursue higher education, get more sustainable jobs that pay good salaries, and are helping to shape policy that will ultimately aid in rebuilding the country.

Even with all of the progress AIL has made throughout the years, we still have a long journey ahead of us, one that requires us to invest a lot of time and effort in… During this pandemic COVID-19 is striking every nation and is crippling economies. As you can imagine, third world countries, like Afghanistan, have been hit the hardest.

This pandemic has had a tremendous negative impact on what was already a dire situation in Afghanistan. Not only is Afghanistan dealing with civil unrest and war within the country, we are now losing more and more lives to the virus. Security remains to be one of the biggest issues as poverty all over Afghanistan increases. With the country locked down, thousands of people who were once line workers, now no longer have the means to work and provide food for their families. Migrant workers are pouring into the country from both the Iran and Pakistan borders by the thousands. This is only making the situation worse as many of these people are refugees and are carrying the virus. They have nowhere to go to get assistance.

At AIL we have found ourselves in a position where the people of Afghanistan are looking to us and counting on us. Over the years, we have developed a reputation of providing quality service to everyone without discrimination. Although the government has ordered all the schools and programs to be shut down, AIL recognizes that people are still in great need. We knew action needed to be taken to help in the fight against COVID-19 and so we hit the ground running. First, in order to help stop the spread of the virus, we prevented both teachers and students from physically attending our programs and doubled the number of shifts at our 6 medical clinics. Next, we started distributing all kinds of food for those most in need – especially women, children, and the elderly. Then, we shifted our focus to re-establishing our centers as production facilities that are currently producing facemasks, face shields, and protective gowns.

AIL has and continues to distribute thousands of units of personal protective equipment to different clinics, hospitals, government offices, and the general public. The costs of these items are so high that people would not be able to afford to buy them even if they were available in the country. AIL is also using its own radio station, Radio Meraj, to publicly broadcast the importance of social distancing, hand washing, and wearing facemasks to as many people as possible. It also broadcasts food distribution messages and information on how to keep areas clean and sanitized.

Because of COVID-19, a lot of donors are not responding or are hesitant because they think that our programs are closed. But I am telling you now, our program is running double shifts, all of the AIL administrative staff members are out there working the frontlines, risking their lives and personal health everyday. Throughout all of this, even though our classroom doors are closed, we have not given up on our mission to bring education to the women and children of Afghanistan.  AIL is continuously updating and preparing distance education materials for our children who have some accessibility to smartphones or computers. But the reality remains that 85% of our students are missing out on their education due to the shutdown. To accommodate this, we have created take-home packets that are available for students to pick up and work on from home. In addition, we have established a hotline for teachers to respond to students if and/or when their parents cannot help them with their homework.

Sadly, we are receiving more and more reports of violence against women and children at home because of the shutdown and additional time spent together under one roof. In response to this, AIL has setup counselling to help parents and children cope with these situations that the shutdown has amplified. We are also using social media as a means to provide information on how to be patient, share resources, and practice social distancing.

We were not prepared for this pandemic. None of us were. Sadly, a lot of people are not taking this virus serious enough and as a result, thousands and thousands are becoming infected. The number of cases continues to rise and the government is not doing enough to assist. It is because of this, that it is so important for AIL to continue to provide direct relief and awareness of this virus to the Afghan people.

I know many are suffering, but a country like Afghanistan was by no means ready to handle this. You have proven to be a gracious partner for many years and we will never forget your generosity. The support and compassion of our donors is the backbone of our organization and is paramount in helping us complete our mission, especially during times like these. Both AIL and I would sincerely appreciate it, as you have supported us in the past, if you would reconsider funding our efforts during this time of crisis. If your current situation does not allow you to support us as you have in previous years, any amount will still be a tremendous help and deeply appreciated by the Afghan community. If we continue to run at our current capacity, without additional support, we will be forced to halt the relief efforts and programs that we are working so hard to keep up and running.

On behalf of the women and children of Afghanistan, I want to thank you for all of your kindness, empathy, and compassion. As Rumi says, “The more you give, the more you receive blessings from God”. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for your time, and I will continue to pray for the health and happiness of you and your loved ones. May Allah always bless you with his mercy.

Sincerely,

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi
CEO
Creating Hope International
Afghan Institute of Learning

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