Four days after the Taliban took control of the city of her birth, Mahboba Rawi spoke with me about the work she is doing to help the children and women of Afghanistan. She kindly and gently told me her story having not slept or eaten properly since the collapse of Kabul, her hours now filled by the race to evacuate as many families as possible.
Mahboba Rawi was born and raised in Kabul, fleeing when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. She now lives in NSW and founded a charity to support Afghan women and children, Mahboba’s Promise, 26 years ago after a family tragedy that changed her life.
“There are no words to describe the amount of suffering in Afghanistan. What has happened is shocking and it has affected us badly emotionally – our community has a proud history of fighting and being brave but they have fought for 40 years.
Everybody in Kabul has gone into deep silence and nobody wants to leave the house. Imagine the last day of the world and absolute panic – that is what happened to my people. People tried to run away, if there was one road open they just went for it, risking their lives. Now, they are silent.
They feel betrayed, they feel abandoned, they don’t know what to do. The economy is down, the shops are closed, there is coronavirus. It’s like the whole country dropped from the sky and is in pieces and now the people have to put Afghanistan back together.
We have an orphanage in Kabul and there are about 900 displaced families in a camp close by. Each family has five to 10 children. This is only one camp, there are many more. There was war everywhere during the peace negotiations and these people fled to Kabul.
They don’t have anything, their houses have been demolished or burnt, they are homeless. One lady gave birth to a tiny little girl there, she is 10 days’ old now. The devastation, that level of poverty, my God. You go to the camp and they jump on you, they are desperate for food and water. I saw this when Russia left, it’s heartbreaking. Yesterday we gave baby milk to 100 children in the camp. Today we are cooking for 900 people.
We have around 80 workers at Mahboba’s Promise and all of them were once in the orphanage. They are well educated and open-minded – and they look like Aussies because we take them clothes and shoes from here. What are they going to do? I told them, ‘Go ahead and help, we are not doing anything wrong, why should we be scared of the Taliban? We are Muslim, we all pray five times, we are doing the holy work of helping support people.’ I said to them, ‘If anybody is stopping you, put me on the loudspeaker and I will speak to them.’
I grew up in Kabul, but after Russia invaded Afghanistan, I fled to Pakistan and came to Australia in 1984. But in 1992 I lost a son. He drowned in Kiama. We went for a picnic and a wave came and washed him away. When I was beside his coffin I realised that I’d rather have died. After that tragedy, I became a different person. I took the sorrow and turned it into strength and I promised to dedicate my life to children in Afghanistan. I didn’t care about material things any more, my mission in life had changed and there was so much to do.
I learnt how to raise money and, 26 years later, we have built orphanages, schools, a maternity clinic and programs to educate widows and to help them stand on their feet and to heal. It’s a nightmare for any mother to lose a child, I did it and I know they did it. I became a mother and father to the widows’ children.
All of the children who were tiny little babies at the beginning have now become adults. They have finished university and they are doctors, they have law degrees and are fighting for women’s justice. My work is like a tree – and my tree has just started fruiting. But the Taliban have come to take all of the fruit.
Afghanistan is a country with no prime minister. The Taliban have thrown out the flag. Is this democracy? Nobody wants to stay, it’s going to be a dead country. But please, Australia, don’t give up on Afghan women – they need us more than ever before.”
Find out more about Mahboba’s Promise here.