On International Day of the Girl, Taara* speaks to UNICEF Aotearoa New Zealand about gutsy girls. Although she is now safe on New Zealand soil, Taara has asked to remain anonymous for the safety of her family that still resides in her homeland.
Kite-flying in Afghanistan was typically reserved for boys and men. But nobody could stop this gutsy girl. Taara was a feisty girl growing up in Kabul who danced with colourful paper kites on rooftops, and challenged friends to battles in the air. She climbed the highest branches of the weeping mulberry trees and played marbles with the boys. Truth be told – she was desperate to avoid housework.
“Girls in Afghanistan are expected to learn housework as soon as they can walk, but I hated it. Instead, I begged to purchase the groceries. I lugged 40-kilogram sacks of rice and flour to the wheelbarrow and raced them home along the potholed streets. I loved being outside, moulding the mud bricks for our home and laying them neatly in rows to bake in the sun. I could beat the boys at kite flying. I was strong.”
A girl walking to school in Afghanistan
Taara’s late father was well educated and taught her and her siblings English and Maths in the evenings, huddled around the bukhari (fireplace). She knew from an early age that she was expected to one day hold a masters degree; anything less would be unacceptable, because girls are capable of great things!
Even if her childhood was marred by conflict.
When she closes her eyes, Taara can still see the bombs vividly. She hears the helicopters and the explosions ripping through the night skies. She remembers sitting in her mother’s lap and pressing her small hands over her ears to drown out the sounds of war.
“One night, a rocket landed in my neighbour’s house. My teacher and her whole family were killed. We were lucky to escape.”
The children were taught not to touch anything in the streets as they walked to school; what looked like a rock, a pen or a toy could have been bombs. Afghanistan’s children were losing their childhoods, while New Zealand’s 1980’s children were listening to RTR Countdown and mesmerised by Spielberg’s ET.
New Zealand’s population had just topped 3.2 million when her father came to Auckland for a conference in 1984 and then sought political asylum.
“In New Zealand, my dad's first job was working in a factory,” Taara says with sadness. “My dad was a highly educated man, and he was working around the clock to support our family. He gave up his career and his homeland so that his children could have a better opportunity at life.”
Back in Afghanistan, Taara and her family had to wait for the right time to leave. “In the middle of the night, mum woke us up and told us we were leaving. We had to wear baggy, unattractive clothes so we couldn’t be recognised. I grabbed a small bag, put it in the truck and followed on foot for two nights and three days.”
“Mum was so courageous. She was still in a lot of pain from recently giving birth but protected us all. I remember holding my little siblings’ hands and running when the Russian planes swooped overhead, diving to hide between rocks. Occasionally we saw bombs explode in front of us.”
The family finally reached a safe area in Pakistan where they were reunited with their father and stayed for a few weeks while their paperwork and visas for New Zealand were arranged. They had less than $100 in their pockets.
“We were one of the first refugees to arrive in New Zealand from Afghanistan in 1985. When we landed, the airport was bustling with journalists asking questions like: ‘Are you happy to leave Afghanistan?’ and I just nodded. ‘New Zealand was my new home.”
Taara says her father desperately wanted her to be a doctor, but she couldn't stand the sight of blood, maybe because she had seen so much of it as a child. All the siblings went on to achieve multiple degrees and they were proud of this achievement until a few years ago when their bathroom leaked.
“We couldn’t find a plumber and my dad smiled and jokingly said, “I made a mistake. We’ve got a Nurse, a Pharmacist, an Accountant, a Computer Programmer, an IT Specialist and two Engineers in the family, but no one can fix a pipe!”
Education is, after all, not about the piece of paper you hold, but the opportunity it provides for children and young people to realise their potential.
At Mawlana Hatefi school for girls, only grades 1 to 6 have returned to learning. With high demand and shortages in funding a number of classes are held in tents for lack of space.
Taara has deep concern for her family left behind in Afghanistan. One cousin was studying journalism and another hairdressing, but now their lives are on hold.
Even before the most recent humanitarian crisis, UNICEF says 4.2 million children were not enrolled in school in Afghanistan. Around 60 percent of them are girls.
“My cousins have studied so hard and they are determined not to give up on their dreams. The economy is worsening, and families are struggling to make ends meet.”
According to a statement by UNICEF and WHO released on 5 October, half of Afghanistan’s children under five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition.
“Children are getting sicker and their families are less able to get them the treatment they need. Rapidly spreading outbreaks of measles and acute watery diarrhea will only exacerbate the situation,” says Hervé Ludovic De Lys, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan.
This tape measure shows that the young child is malnourished. Fortunately she received treatment in a UNICEF-supported hospital in Kabul
The first aircraft carrying UNICEF lifesaving medical supplies arrived in Kabul through the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) Airbridge in late September and in the past eight weeks, ready-to-use therapeutic food for more than 42,000 children and therapeutic milk for 5,200 children has been delivered to UNICEF partners.
It used to be only the poorest and uneducated who were pushing produce in wheelbarrows in Afghanistan for a living, but now it’s the most qualified who don’t have any savings – teachers, doctors, and engineers are struggling to feed their children. Some have lost their jobs and left their homes out of fear.
When asked if she still has hope for the future of Afghanistan, Taara’s thoughts immediately turn to the gutsy female journalists who have continued to share stories on air despite being harassed.
“The female journalists are absolutely amazing. I love the way they question the system. They ask the right questions and never give up. I admire those women so much, and I admire all the girls who are unwilling to concede defeat.”
On International Day of the Girl, Taara salutes the gutsy young girls and women standing up for change.
“Girls work hard, both inside the house and outside the house. Some are pushing wheelbarrows and racing with paper kites while others are lost in Harry Potter. Every single one should have an opportunity to succeed.”
Over the past two decades, the number of children in school has increased from 1 million to 9.5 million. UNICEF is continuing to advocate with all actors so that all girls and boys have an equal chance to learn and develop the skills they need to thrive and build a peaceful and productive Afghanistan.
*Taara's name has been changed to protect her identity.
UNICEF is on the ground providing an urgent humanitarian life-line for children and families in desperate need.
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