“I felt truly at home in Afghanistan”

ZOA is leaving Afghanistan after 20 years. Often our work was difficult, complex, or unsafe due to the many attacks. However, ZOA staff also look back on good times, brave and resilient Afghans, and the added value of ZOA’s presence in this country. One of them, Cor Verduijn, says it best: “I truly felt at home in this country and enjoyed my work.”

Without exception, all our personnel emphasised how good it was to contribute to building up the capacities of this country. This includes building schools, digging water wells, and repairing houses. It also includes setting up women’s groups and visiting women in prison. Liesbeth Verduijn, who worked with Cor in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2010, says: “I thank God that I could share my life with Afghan women and that I could let them know that they are precious and valuable in God’s eyes. There was a timid woman named Aisa, who reluctantly agreed to join a sewing course. She now receives many compliments on her work. She is a beautiful flower who is blossoming thanks to the attention she receives and the skills she is building up.”

Motivation

Where do ZOA personnel find the motivation to carry on? Andries de Blaeij, programme manager and country director from 2012 to 2018, says: “Afghanistan was exactly the place where ZOA needed to be, because millions of people were victims of armed conflicts and recurring disasters like floods. That need inspired my work every day.” Cor, programme manager and country director from 2006 to 2010, adds: “Only through God’s grace and the hard work of our colleagues, we were able to achieve results. It was certainly not easy. But it was always nice to escape from the office and visit projects in the field. That helped me enormously to stay motivated. I remember that I sometimes looked at colleagues as if to say, ‘Should we do it? This project, too?’ And then we forged ahead anyway to help the neediest.”

Afghaans meisje

Difficult

None of ZOA’s staff deny the difficulties. Rina Teeuwen, who has worked for ZOA in Afghanistan since 2019, says: “It was sometimes enormously frustrating to work in discriminatory situations. Men here are so accustomed to their privileged status that they have no idea that they are discriminating. And women are so used to their inferior status that it doesn’t even occur to them to stand up to that. The unacceptable becomes the acceptable. Moreover, you continuously live in a state of unsafety here due to the many attacks. Those beautiful moments (like when you see that the participants in projects can stand on their own two feet again), your personal motivation and seeing the added value of your work – you truly need that to keep going.”

Added value

Joop Teeuwen, Rina’s husband and ZOA’s former country director for Afghanistan (2009 to 2014), confirms that added value. He says: “ZOA worked in provinces where few other organisations were present. We reached out to people who truly needed help. With all our imperfections, ZOA was there with a mix of professionalism and compassion. Over the past 20 years, motivated and dedicated colleagues worked in Afghanistan. They made a difference in the lives of a good many people. Every day we heard stories from people who were struggling to survive, but thanks to the intervention of ZOA and other organisations they could provide for themselves again.”

One of the many water projects in Afghanistan – wash point Nangarhar

One of the highlights of Joop’s time in Afghanistan was the National Solidarity Programme. Communities could submit plans for projects – usually infrastructural projects – to be financed by the World Bank and facilitated by ZOA. “It was an ambitious plan, but when I visited on site it all came to life. One day, I visited a village in the province of Sari Pul, where villagers had chosen a secondary school for girls as their project. I talked with some of the students and was deeply encouraged by their infectious enthusiasm and ideas about what wanted to do with their lives.”

Andries cites another example of ZOA’s added value in Afghanistan. He says: “It was enormously gratifying to see young people who had just finished school coming to work for ZOA. Often this group had trouble finding jobs because companies usually require work experience. Under the supervision of more experienced colleagues, these young people became effective employees who worked to advance the development of their own country!”

Brave

ZOA likes to bring hope and perspective to crisis regions. This is also true for Afghanistan. Rina says: “For both the colleagues and the project participants, it was deeply encouraging to see that we were prepared to go to them and let them know that they were not forgotten. The female staff took inspiration from us. We were there: for those suffering in a corner, like the women in prison. And we learned from each other, for example in the women’s groups. The encouragement and appreciation was mutual.”

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Hats off to all the Afghans who fall down and yet get up again – their resilience – , say our colleagues. Rina says: “You have to be very brave to keep starting over after a flood or drought or after you have to flee your home due to fighting or after domestic violence where you suffer blows.” Joop agrees: “In general, the resilience of the Afghans I met was exceptional.” Meanwhile, some of our Afghan colleagues have launched their own organisations to continue some of the projects. Rina: “Let’s support them through prayer and publicity – and also financially if possible. They are worth it.”