25, 2002, Special Edition
Recounts Afghan Suffering
In the mud huts of
a vast refugee camp, Afghan women pleaded for food. In a decrepit
hospital, mothers pressed feverish babies into her arms, seeking
money for medicine. In the streets of her hometown of Karachi,
Pakistan, beggars offered her a day's work for a single meal.
Sister Shamshad Sheikh
had come face to face with the poverty and desperation that decades
of war had wreaked on Afghanistan.
When Sheikh, the College's
Muslim adviser, boarded a flight to Pakistan on Christmas Day,
her intention was to meet with Afghan women, learn about their
suffering, and try to find a way to help. "This trip was
very successful. I was able to do what I wanted to do. I was able
to meet those women, and hear from them, and talk to them,"
Her first stop was
Karachi. From there, she traveled to the border city of Peshawar,
where she was invited into the home of a family friend.
Prevented by security
forces from crossing the border into Afghanistan, Sheikh visited
the Kacha Garhi refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar, where
an estimated 150,000 people find shelter in crude mud huts. Kacha
Garhi was formed twenty years ago, when thousands of refugees
poured through the Khyber Pass after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan.
The flow of refugees
has not stopped. In her visits, Sheikh met women who told of fleeing
Kabul over the past several years, driven out by the harsh regime
of the Taliban. In the camps live "the poorest of the poor,"
Sheikh said. Each hut contains a common room, ringed by several
smaller rooms, each of which houses a family. Some families have
a dozen or more children. Although she visited during lunchtime,
Sheikh neither saw nor smelled food.
Over and over, Sheikh
heard the same pleas for money, for food, for decent schools.
While the mass media have created the impression that Afghan women
most want to throw off the burqua, the head-to-toe covering they
were forced to wear by the Taliban, it is education for their
children for which they are most desperate, she says.
In a dusty, crumbling hospital, dozens of women waited in line
to have their children seen by the only doctor on duty. When Sheikh
appeared, the women swarmed around her, taking her for a doctor.
"They all started running after meLook at my
baby!' They were taking their babies' clothes offLook
at all these rashes here! Give me some medicine.' And I kept saying
I'm not a doctor, I'm not a doctor,' " Sheikh said.
"I was trying to be brave, and trying to show my love, so
I said, Give me your baby, I'll hold her.' And the baby
had a fever, burning, that baby."
Sheikh had brought
with her $2,000 in donations from local churches and individuals,
to which she added another $1,000 of her own funds. Against the
advice of the local office of the United Nations refugee agency,
she began doling out small sums in cash when her offers of food
and clothing were met with pleas for money. By the time her return
flight left the ground in early January, she had not even enough
money left for a cup of coffee.
Sheikh hopes to return
to the refugee camps across the border in Afghanistan. Until then,
she will use what she has learned in plotting out her next steps
in aiding the refugees.
What she learned is
"going to reflect on every step of my life," Sheikh
says. "Be thankful to God for what you have. We forget that."
Monday, February 4, from 5 to 7 pm in the lounge of Eliot
House, Sister Shamshad Sheikh will speak about her experiences
in Pakistan and show slides from her recent trip.