How TEAR’s partner Serve is continuing their vital work in vulnerable communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the verge of yet another humanitarian catastrophe, Afghanistan is woefully ill-equipped for COVID-19. Yes, the Afghan government is asking its people to take care. But as Zafir, one of Serve’s staff members in Kandahar shared with me, the on-going conflict and civil unrest coupled with extreme poverty and a decimated health system has left the state at the peril of the virus. Zafir says that there are no coordinated social distancing measures, lockdowns are being largely ignored, especially by daily wage workers and stranded migrants. This has resulted in almost half of those tested for COVID-19 testing positive and daily occurrences of people in our communities dying.
And yet, despite overwhelming challenges, the local Serve staff are pressing on, finding new ways to ensure those who need the help are getting it.
This sort of hardship is obviously not new for Afghans. Another staff member, Zeenath, reminded me they’re used to coming together as a community in the face of adversity and suffering. But COVID-19 lockdowns have shut the door on traditional community support mechanisms. This is especially hard for young women and girls in the modest Afghan culture, cutting them off from so many vital daily interactions. Zeenath’s work is with visually challenged and hearing-impaired female students, requiring her to engage with them face-to-face. COVID-19 has forced her to stop this interaction, but it hasn’t stopped her from ensuring these girls stay engaged and continuing their studies, especially those Serve has helped into university. Through social media like WhatsApp, Zeenath has developed ways to monitor and tutor these girls and to encourage them to stay COVID-19-safe.
Majid, a coordinator of the disability programmes, has been with Serve for more than 15 years. Every time I speak with him, he tells me how much he loves seeing these beautiful children thriving because of the programmes Serve runs. As you can imagine, the lockdown of schools and universities has impacted Serve’s ability to fully engage children with special needs in our programmes. What I found so amazing was the way that Majid chose to handle this massive set-back. His team were determined to keep hope alive and have spent almost every day since March calling every one of these students and their parents, encouraging and checking in with them, gathering updates on the most pressing needs, providing them with learning resources over the phone as well as reminding them of the importance of social distancing and washing their hands.
A vet checking up on animals received through Serve’s program, after families raised fears of COVID-19 impacting their livestock.
As a result of this information network, Serve set up a food security programme for the most at-risk families. Sayid is one of the team distributing relief. Sayid told me just how difficult a task this actually is – nobody’s allowed to leave their homes, except for groceries, the cost of supplies skyrocketing, and all major roads blocked. But like Majid, Sayid was determined to bring hope in any way he could. He got on the phone and called all the programme supervisors; the supervisors called all our field workers and then each of those field workers called every single beneficiary. Through this process Serve has reached the 2,340 families identified as in most desperate need.
This on-going communication has built real trust with these marginalised families. One extremely poor villager shared with Suhail, another Serve team member, that many in the community were scared that their cows and chickens could give them COVID-19. These animals were very precious to these villagers, providing valuable income and food sources. They’d received them through Serve self-sustainability programmes. According to Suhail, many of the animals in the village became sick through lack of care, due to this fear. There was real fear the village livestock programme would be wiped out. Serve’s veterinary doctors were mobilised to provide simple medicines as well as education that COVID-19 was not transmitted through their livestock.
Hope is so important but hope without action is meaningless. This is especially true in a country like Afghanistan, where so many are holding onto such a thin thread of hope. I’ve learnt from my new friends at Serve Afghanistan that there’s always a way to find and bring hope: “the kind that passes muster before God the Father: reaching out to the homeless and loveless in their plight” (James 1:27 The Message).
All names have been changed for safety reasons.
Tim Sisarich is a New Zealander who would be in Afghanistan, but due to COVID-19, is currently based in Queensland. He is working with Serve to build their communications and media capacity, enabling their vital work to be shared sensitively and powerfully with supporters.