Shamsia Razaqi

The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck recently spoke with Shamsia Razaqi, co-founder and president of Omeid International, which through the Amin Institute offers a sanctuary in Kabul for Afghanistan’s children of war.

Zachary Keck
Shamsia Razaqi
Shamsia Razaqi

“We travelled to Afghanistan in the days after 9/11 and were terribly affected by the scars of war and its severe aftermath. What we witnessed was poverty and destruction so extreme, that we were haunted by what we had encountered.”

Thank you for sitting down with us. As President of Omeid International, you were an integral part in starting the Amin Institute in Kabul. Can you give our readers a little background on the project?

Omeid International started when my partner and I travelled to Afghanistan in the days after 9/11 and were terribly affected by the scars of war and its severe aftermath. What we witnessed was poverty and destruction so extreme, that we were haunted by what we had encountered. Soon after returning we decided that we had to do something to help, no matter how small or humble our project may have been, we were certain that we had to try. As a result Mariam Razaq, Mojgan Parwes and I founded Omeid International as human rights based charity that would aid in the recovery and reconstruction of post-war Afghanistan.

From the outside, Afghanistan often seems to be beset with endless challenges. What made you decide to build an orphanage? Why do you believe this particular issue is so crucial?  

The challenges in Afghanistan are infinite, but based on our experience on the ground we felt that the most deprived and endangered group were the orphans of war, which at that time numbered in the millions. We felt that adults, or even teenagers for that matter, could find ways to fend for themselves, but children, devoid of family, security and hope would create challenges for the next generation.

In other words, even if the country were to be rebuilt in terms of infrastructure and other superficial means, there would still be this lost generation of orphans without education, without a future and exposed daily to countless problems plaguing post-war Afghanistan, like human trafficking, the opium trade and of course the ongoing insurgency. So in order to aid in the development of the country, we felt it most critical to aid in the development of its most innocent and at risk citizens.

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Although the Institute is located in Kabul, which has witnessed slightly less violence than other parts of the country, I imagine security must be a top priority for Omeid International. Have you had any issues with ensuring the safety of the children living there? Were there any precautionary measures you found necessary when opening the Amin Institute?

Security was a primary concern from day one. In fact, there were many points at which we felt our project may never succeed because of ongoing violence, but we pushed through and adapted to the environment and took things one day at a time. Our very first precautionary measure was to take the loyalty and backing of our local elder, who you could say was the local chief or advisor.

Western NGOs have a very bad reputation there because many times their aid is tied to missionary work or other such things, so from the start there was an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. So we had to give our word to our area’s chief that our work was purely for the good of the kids and neighborhood itself.

We employed local people and allowed them to look into our program from time to time in order to build trust and support from our area. This was pivotal in our early days, because with the local communities support not only could we operate freely but we had their protection as well. In addition to this we hired 24 hour security, and limited the children’s interactions outside of the house until we were familiar with everyone and everything in Kabul.

Now security has become very commonplace for us, we know to avoid certain neighborhoods or roads that are common targets for suicide bombings, for example, or our neighbors will inform us to keep the kids in doors if there is any street level danger.

It may sound daunting but this is the reality of everyday life in Afghanistan and we had to learn to accept and adapt in order to survive and, by the grace of God, we have not had any problems since we started in 2009.

In the Western world, a lot of discussion (though perhaps not enough) is given to the progress made in the education of girls in Afghanistan over the last decade. One thing that struck me about the Amin Institute was that it houses only boys. Was this a conscious decision and if so why? Was it possible to house both boys and girls or did facilities not allow for that?

This subject is one which pains me deeply. I have no greater hope in my life, but to include girls in our program. It was our intention to house both girls and boys, but because our means were terribly limited we rented a house that was not thought to be large enough to house boys and girls together. Taking the advice and support of the local elders, we also had to make concessions.

Housing boys and girls, who would soon reach puberty together, would have created problems in the house and offended local standards, which was a risk we could not afford to take so early on. We certainly intend to expand our program to include girls, but until now our finances have not allowed for us to do so…who knows, all it takes is one big-hearted person to make it happen. We are hopeful for that.

A lot of people are looking ahead to 2014 when Afghanistan will hold a presidential election and the foreign “combat” troops will be leaving the country. Having spent a lot of time in the country, what is your personal view on how Afghanistan’s future will unfold and how do you think the Amin Institute will be affected?

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God willing, the Amin Institute will remain unaffected as it has so far with all of the turmoil and instability. In terms of the troop withdrawal, I worry that until today we have failed to instill a sense of nationalism or unity amongst the people of Afghanistan. The national Army and police, we know are weak at best and easily susceptible to infiltration and mutiny.

I believe that is because the Afghan identity is still deeply fragmented and broken by the years of horrific civil war, where in any given neighborhood, one side of the street was one ethnic militia and the other side some other group – the brutality and horrors of that war I have heard firsthand by the people who survived it and I believe those wounds are still fresh.

Every time I am there I notice that people differentiate between one another- they do not take people by name, but rather refer to them as, “that Uzbek or that Tajik etc.” This, coupled with a power vacuum, the pressing Taliban lust for control and the ongoing Al-Qaeda presence, creates an environment that I fear is ripe for another civil war.

Yet, as my project Omeid is founded on the principle of hope, I remain hopeful that the people themselves, although divided, are tired of fighting, and are ready for a new chapter. With that same hope we will continue to run and God willing expand the Amin Institute with the support of everyday people.

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