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Innovative CWS Quilt-Making Program
Means Income for Afghan Refugee Women

Story and Photo by Paul Jeffrey*

December 3, 2001, Quetta, Pakistan - Qamer arrived in Quetta two months ago, a widow and penniless, her four small children in tow. She knew no one in this sprawling border city, so she went to the local mosque and asked for help. The religious leaders there sent her to stay with a family deep in a local neighborhood of featureless mud walls and mud houses, filled with fellow refugees from Afghanistan. Qamer joined the ranks of the "invisible refugees" who have fled their war-torn homeland in recent weeks yet who haven't registered with Pakistani or international authorities because they fear they'll be deported back to a land where violence and anarchy still reign.

Even if she could officially register as a refugee, Qamer, who like many Afghans uses just one name, is afraid of being sent to a refugee camp, most of which are controlled by Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Pashtuns are Pashtu-speaking Sunni Muslims, and the roughly 55-year old Qamer (she's not sure of her exact age) is a Persian-speaking Shiite Muslim, a member of the Hazara ethnic group, one of the smaller tribes in Afghanistan.

She didn't want to leave her home in the province of Bamyan, but the ruling Taliban, who are mostly Pashtuns, forced the decision on her. "The Taliban occupied our house and killed my husband. They killed him simply because he was a Hazara," she said. "So I left. I didn't know what else to do. I didn't know where to go. But many people from Bamyan were coming here toward Pakistan, so I followed them across the border."

Qamer said she wants to go back. "It's our country. We have to live in our country. But as long as there is fighting, we can't live there."

Afghan Woman Refugee Makes CWS QuiltWhile she waits on the thin promise of peace for Afghanistan, Qamer is supporting herself and her children by making quilts for other refugees. She's one of more than 400 refugee women in Quetta earning money as part of an innovative program sponsored by Church World Service (CWS).

According to Gulshan Maznani, a CWS emergency coordinator here, the quilt project will produce 25,000 quilts, many sporting colorful designs for children, for distribution to internally displaced families in Afghanistan and refugee families here in Pakistan.

The women earn 50 Rupees per quilt, about 85 U.S. cents. It takes one day to make each quilt. The amount the women earn is greater than they could earn at other jobs, if such jobs were available, and it's competitive, at times even higher, than what refugee men can earn in a labor market depressed by too many hands and not enough jobs.

The women's income is more than just a means of survival, however. "By contributing to the family income, the women come to have a greater say in the family decision-making process," said Maznani. "It's much more than quilt-making. It's really about the empowerment of women."

Early every morning, participants in the program line up at the local office of the Shuhada Organization, an Afghan non-governmental organization that coordinates the project with CWS. The women, organized in groups of 8-10 members each, collect the cloth and thread and four kilos of cotton batting that goes into each quilt. While some women work in their own homes, many gather to work collectively, thus having an opportunity to share with each other while they beat the cotton flat and carefully stitch it into place between the cloth covers.

Part of a larger CWS project to produce 60,000 quilts in Pakistan for distribution to needy Afghan families, the Quetta women have made more than 17,000 quilts in the last two months. Six thousand were sent to Afghanistan's war-torn Ghazni province in early November where they were combined in "shelter kits" with tents and food and distributed by Shuhada among internally displaced families in the villages of Jaghori and Behsood.

According to Jawad Ali, Shuhada's program manager, the families there are ethnic Hazaras who over the years have migrated to the larger cities of Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sherif, driven out of their home valleys by persistent drought. When U.S. airstrikes started battering those cities in October, the families fled back to their home villages, but there isn't adequate shelter or food to sustain them. And Ali said the area is about to become inaccessible because of winter snows.

CWS has been hurrying to get food into affected areas of Ghazni, and succeeded in transporting 1,500 food packages each with two months of food for a family into Afghanistan in early November. But the route from Quetta over the border into southern Afghanistan has been closed for the last two weeks because of fighting and security concerns. According to Ali, the last shipment of CWS food and quilts was part of a truck convoy that became the target of U.S. warplanes on November 17. He said the CWS truck was one of few vehicles to escape unscathed.

Maznani said more than 11,000 quilts are stored in Quetta, ready to be shipped into Afghanistan when the route opens. In the meantime, as Qamer and her neighbors keep producing the quilts, Maznani said CWS was negotiating with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about using some of the quilts for refugees inside Pakistan.

CWS also carries out a variety of programs with women in the Afghan refugee camps near Peshawar. Much of the programing focuses on health education for women.

"I learned how to keep my house not just looking clean, but really clean. I learned how to get rid of germs, how to properly give birth, and how we can keep our children clean and well," said Naeema, an 18-year old refugee who came to the Shamshatoo camp two years ago.

The health program includes some women who have just arrived in Pakistan. Nafas Gul lived in the camp for two years and then, tired of exile, went back to Afghanistan early this year. She had originally fled her homeland because of the drought. One November 29, she returned to Shamshatoo, this time around fleeing the violence. Gul, who is about 50 years old, runs a household where the adults are all women. A widow herself, she doesn't know what happened to a son who fled to Iran as a refugee five years ago. Two sons-in-law were killed in fighting between the Taliban and their opponents.

Her two widowed daughters share her home, along with six grandchildren. Like the quilt-making program in Quetta, the health project helps empower women by educating them about their bodies and how to care for their families. Naeema said education is something that refugees have long needed.

"If I have a daughter some day, I want her to grow up to be a doctor or a pilot, at least to have more education than me," she said. "My father is well-educated, and I think children should have more education than their parents. But under the Taliban I couldn't study past grade five. That's wrong. I still want to study, to learn lots of things. But if I can't study anymore, I want an Afghanistan where my daughter will be able to do more with her life than I've been able to do with mine."


* Paul Jeffrey filed this story for Action by Churches Together (ACT), an international alliance of churches and relief agencies including Church World Service, assisting thousands of people recovering from emergencies in more than 50 countries worldwide.

Photo: An Afghan woman refugee makes a quilt as part of an income-generating program run by Church World Service in Quetta, Pakistan.  Photo credit: Paul Jeffrey/ACT International

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