The world seems complex, chaotic, and dangerous in this moment. And yet, over the past few decades we have made greater progress in alleviating poverty and suffering than during any other time in the history of the world.
The paradox --
Over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time. -World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim
Globally, the forcibly displaced population increased in 2017 by 2.9 million. By the end of the year, 68.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, or generalized violence. As a result, the world’s forcibly displaced population remained yet again at a record high.” -UNHCR Global Trends
We should be inspired and encouraged by how a world-wide focus on poverty alleviation could have such an astounding effect on the lives of people. There has never been, in all of history, greater progress toward a more equitable world. That progress, however, comes at the same time we are seeing the record-setting forced displacement of many of those same people whose lives showed such great promise. Of the 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world, 40 million are languishing in the shadows of displacement camps within the borders of their own countries — far from the eyes of the world. We have proven, however, that our capacity to solve big problems is only limited by our resolve to unify and focus our efforts.
Political polarization and non-stop media coverage can numb us to the suffering of the rest of the world. We can easily be overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness in the face of such large numbers. We may have a tendency to recoil, to pull back — a luxury afforded many of us through the accident of birth. We can divorce ourselves from the realities of the world as easily as changing a television channel. This can certainly save us from the mental anguish required of engaged and compassionate people in a world rife with inequity, suffering, and palpable misery. The world’s vast social and humanitarian problems, even if we choose to ignore them, still have a way of washing up on our shores — bigger and more complicated with time.
Today, we have a better understanding of best practices for improving the lives of people. Solutions are readily available, if we have the curiosity and concern to seek them out. One of the incontrovertible conclusions is that the fastest way to peace and stability is both the education of girls and women and their equitable inclusion in the economy. A Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace and Security report found that “women face the most severe economic exclusion in fragile and conflict-affected countries — precisely the nations that critically need their participation.” According to Save the Children’s Caroline Miles, “For every school year a girl completes, her actual income will go up between 10–20%.” Two data points illustrate the challenge in Afghanistan: 1) an estimated 3.7 million children are out-of-school — 60% of them are girls; and 2) 17 percent of Afghan women are in what is considered paid work, contrasted with 80 percent of men.
Common sense and an urgency to put effort and finite resources where they can make the greatest impact in Afghanistan point to providing women with marketable skills and education for their children — especially, but not exclusively, daughters. Decades of violence, war, and insecurity in Afghanistan have created a large number of internally displaced persons — most of whom are women and children. Displacement camps, where Afghans end up after fleeing violence and other untenable situations in their home villages, are places with few opportunities and very little hope of escaping the constraints of their new lives far from all that is familiar. This vulnerable population of women and children is a place where the greatest impact can be made in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Karadah Project and Women Education for Better Tomorrow Organization are focusing their efforts on the women in five displacement camps outside Herat, Afghanistan. In a world of inequities, these displaced and poor moms survive. This capacity to persist in some of the most austere of environments is a super power. Day after day they rise with the sun, do what is necessary to support and raise their children, and retire with the setting of the sun. Those are super powers worth nurturing. What might happen if these moms were given a chance to learn a new skill? What promise might be fulfilled if they received mentoring and opportunities to start small businesses? What would be the result of someone investing time in teaching them to read? How might things be different if their children, already academically disadvantaged, received early education intervention through a kindergarten? What would be the generational impact of helping one mother?
Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.” This may be small consolation when the needs seem so overwhelming, except for the one person whose needs are met.
Consider the impact of our vocational skills program in the lives of the one:
These skills enable us to stay and work at home where we can care for our children. Before the program, we worked in the houses as cleaners and earned very little money. After joining these classes, we can now help our children and save. Thank you for bringing a change in my life!
If their husbands are jobless, these women can support their families. Step by step the society can improve. I am an example of an Afghan woman who works. I am a widow and I have seven children. If I don’t work, who will support my family? My children go to school now because of my income.
After attending these classes and spending time with the other women and teachers, I noticed psychological improvement. I can share my problems with the other women and get some help from them…These classes help me to feel strong by being able to work. These classes have empowered me.
I learned many things from the carpet weaving classes. I now know how to weave the carpet and it helps me to not have to leave my children to go clean homes. I am coming to these classes to learn skills so that I can help my family.
Perhaps our small efforts, combined with the cumulative efforts of others, will change the world.
LTC (retired) Rick Burns is founder and president of Karadah Project International, an Iowa nonprofit corporation focused on Afghanistan and Iraq.
On April 27, 2019, a gunman entered the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, California and opened fire on innocent worshipers. In the chaotic few minutes it took for one person to dramatically change the lives of the hundred people worshipping on that day, Lori Gilbert-Kaye stepped in front of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein — saving his life and losing hers.
Rabbi Goldstein’s words, spoken in the aftermath of the tragedy have stayed with me.
I do not know why God spared my life in my Poway synagogue. All I can do is make this borrowed time matter.
The simple words he used to make sense of the calamity — make this borrowed time matter — carry with them an urgency and insistent willfulness to make something positive come from the ashes of tragedy. Rabbi Goldstein defiantly waved his bandaged hands, forever reminders of the day, and shouted, “terrorism like this will not take us down.”
In reflective moments I find myself expressing similar defiance: “poverty and inequality like this will not take us down.” Suffering in the world, particularly in insecure and conflict-ridden corners, should make us uncomfortable; not in a self-deprecating or disparaging way that inhibits action, but in a way that motivates and inspires us to do something to make the world a better place.
There are reasons to be inspired. Everyday I work with men and women who are creating order from chaos. Our Afghan partners are doing extraordinary work with poor and displaced women. They are changing the lives of hundreds of Afghan moms and their children. These incredible people lead organizations that are truly making their borrowed time matter.
Shindand Women Social Foundation (SWSF) is led by Dr. Safiullah Haidari and his family. Their continued support of women in rural Shindand District, many of whom are widows, has been both compassionate and heroic. Their family has endured death threats and the loss of family members to the brutality of those who prefer power and control over bringing relief to others. For most of us, doing good is respected and congratulated. For others, doing good is a truly heroic act. For them, to continue to do good requires a saintly level of courage and compassion.
Together, SWSF and Karadah Project have provided life-sustaining goats and hens to widows and poor women, offering them better nutrition, increased revenue, and hope for a better life. With the help of the Unique Zan Foundation, we built a wall around a rural medical clinic that we hope will encourage more women and children to seek better health care within its protection. We are also looking to improve the education and opportunities for children in Shindand District.
Women Education for Better Tomorrow Organization (WEBTO) is a women-founded nonprofit focused on other women who are languishing in austere and hopeless displacement camps. Imagine all that is familiar has been left behind and all that is in front of you is unfamiliar, unfriendly, and unwelcoming. Think of how you might feel if a group of women came to you and said we want to help you. We’ll give you marketable skills, teach you how to read and write, provide you with food for your family while you train, negotiate contracts so you can earn as you learn, mentor you, and provide you with a space where you can see hope.
WEBTO’s director, Fatima Qattali, and other members of WEBTO are changing the lives of hundreds of women through our Vocational Skills Program and livestock distributions. We have not stopped there, however. While we are supporting the immediate needs of displaced women, we are looking to the future through a kindergarten for their children.
Today, a record number of people have been forced to flee from persecution, conflict, and violence, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. About 40 million of the over 68.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world still live in their own countries. Far from the media coverage are millions who languish anonymously in internally displaced persons camps. These camps, meant to be temporary, quickly become permanent places of hopelessness — filled mostly with women and children.
In a world of inequities, displaced and poor moms survive. This capacity to persist in some of the most austere environments is a super power. Day after day they rise with the sun, do what is necessary to support and raise their children, and retire with the setting of the sun. Those are super powers worth nurturing.
What might happen if these moms were given a chance to learn a new skill? What promise might be fulfilled if they received mentoring and opportunities to start small businesses? What would be the result of someone investing time in teaching them to read? How might things be different if their children, already academically disadvantaged, received early education intervention through a kindergarten? What would be the generational impact of helping one mother?
This is how we are making this borrowed time matter. If you would like to help, click below:
Unleashing Afghan Mom Super Powers
LTC (retired) Rick Burns is founder and president of Karadah Project International, an Iowa nonprofit corporation focused on Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We are at a watershed, where success in managing forced displacement globally requires a new and far more comprehensive approach so that countries and communities aren’t left dealing with this alone.”
Those of us blessed to live in places of relative security and prosperity are the exception in a world of great complexity and inequity. The great blessing of that prosperity is that we can insulate ourselves from the suffering of others. In equal measure, the curse of our prosperity is that we do not have to experience the suffering of others, if we choose not to. This is not to say that we should walk around with a cloud of guilt hanging over us. The suffering of others should, however, trouble our souls. We should be uncomfortable with the great inequities in the world and find ways within our means to make the world a better place.
Through the nonprofit I founded, I’m focused on Iraq and Afghanistan where I served as a US Army soldier. My experiences there brought me in contact with people who are my life-time friends and heroes. I met Yasmin who once showed me a bullet that someone had left with a note that threatened her with death if she continued to serve on a local Baghdad council. She laughed and continues to serve these many years later. I met Mohammed Alrubyae who, formerly as the District Council Chairman and currently as a member of the Baghdad Provincial Council, brings local Muslim leaders together in a Baghdad Christian Church once a year where they sing the Iraqi national anthem with their Christian neighbors.
There are others whose epic humanitarian efforts are both humbling and inspiring. Hala Alsaraf, who could live a comfortable life in Baghdad, chooses to spend both her money and her time in seeking out those in greatest need, without consideration of religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation. Safi Haidari who, in spite of losing a brother and a cousin to murder and threats to his own life, continues to fight for the well-being of poor women in rural Afghan communities. Fatima Qatalli, a former refugee in Iran under the Taliban regime, and her women colleagues founded a nonprofit to support poor and disadvantaged Afghan women and children in displaced persons camps around their city.
One of the most poignant moments of my life happened in 2010 while I served in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I met as part of a larger group with leaders from a local nomadic tribe that, for a variety of reasons, had settled into a squatters’ camp outside of town. The meeting had something to do with providing support to the community; the details of the meeting are less important than the lesson. I am confident that if we had been able to provide support, it would have been too little for even the immediate needs of the people. As I looked into the eyes of the leader of the bedraggled group, I felt deeply the debilitating effects of poverty and illiteracy in a way I had never experienced before. He stood erect and proud, but there was a sullen resignation and surrendering to the realities of his plight in his eyes. His weather-worn face haunts me still and inspires a sense of urgency in my efforts.
Today, a record number of people have been forced to flee from persecution, conflict, and violence, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. About 40 million of the over 60 million displaced people in the world still live in their own countries. Far away from the media coverage of the refugees crossing international borders are millions who languish anonymously in internally displaced persons camps. These camps, meant to be temporary, quickly become permanent places of hopelessness — filled mostly with women and children.
In a world of inequities, displaced and poor moms survive. This capacity to persist in some of the most austere of environments is a super power. Day after day they rise with the sun, do what is necessary to support and raise their children, and retire with the setting of the sun. Those are super powers worth nurturing. What might happen if these moms were given a chance to learn a new skill? What promise might be fulfilled if they received mentoring and opportunities to start small businesses? What would be the result of someone investing time in teaching them to read? How might things be different if their children, already academically disadvantaged, received early education intervention through a kindergarten? What would be the generational impact of helping one mother?
I am excited about the beginning of a new year. Karadah Project is kicking off the year with a six month vocational training program for 300 displaced Afghan women. These women will receive training in marketable skills, business and literacy instruction, food support, introduction to gender equity resources, and ongoing mentoring. In addition, we’re adding early education intervention through a kindergarten for displaced and poor Afghan children. We’ll expand our agricultural projects that provide families with increased income and better nutrition. We’ll also continue partnership programs with Rotary International, Sister Cities International, and other local and international organizations. We hope to change the world, at least in a small corner of it.
LTC (retired) Rick Burns founded Karadah Project to support peace, stability, and humanitarian efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan after Army deployments to those countries. With our dedicated partners, we are helping displaced and disadvantaged women move themselves and their families out of poverty.
Karadah Project International
The Karadah Project International is an Iowa 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation committed to building sustainable and long-term solutions in partnership with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.