A Bold Act of Compassion
By Linda Unger*
September 6, 2011—The decision by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States to open a field office in Afghanistan signaled then and now both a humanitarian response to profound need and a bold act of compassion.
“In a way, it was kind of like turning the other cheek,” said Thomas Dwyer, executive director of UMCOR NGO, the nongovernmental entity that encompasses UMCOR’s field offices, currently in nine countries. “Despite 9/11, we’re here to love and serve those in need in Afghanistan.”
Prior to 9/11, the Afghan Taliban had provided safe haven to al-Qaeda, author of the attacks. The Taliban, which may have controlled up to 90 percent of Afghanistan, was routed by the US-backed Northern Alliance in the weeks following the assault on New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
But Afghanistan was far from stable. A transitional government had only recently taken power, and the country was occupied militarily in a still tense environment. Although the Taliban was in retreat, they had shown themselves to be resilient and would, in fact, produce a resurgence by mid-2006.
In the United States, people were still reeling from the attacks as UMCOR formulated its Love in the Midst of Tragedy response to them. UMCOR staff and board of directors knew from the start that an international component needed to be part of it.
“We wanted to look at this in a larger manner,” recalls Sharad Aggarwal, who is today director of programs for UMCOR NGO and shortly after 9/11 was a finance officer for Love in the Midst of Tragedy’s case management project in New York City, which served some of the most vulnerable survivors there.
“It was determined that we needed to look at [our plan] in a multifaceted manner. So, it was seen as a localized response in Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania, and as a national response, bringing harmony where ill will and ill intentions had come up against Muslim populations and other ethnic groups in the United States after 9/11,” he said.
“But I think the really interesting part was that UMCOR really pushed for an international response, and the executives of the time knew the first location of the international response was going to be Afghanistan,” he said.
This was largely because of the massive return to the country by Afghan refugees, who had fled to neighboring nations beginning with the Soviet occupation in 1979.
On their return, the refugees found that the departing Taliban had utterly destroyed homes, farms, irrigation systems, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure—in a country where there was not a lot of social and economic infrastructure to begin with and where destruction provoked by war was ongoing.
“There was suffering there,” said UMCOR Treasurer Roland Fernandes, as he recalled the situation that moved the UMCOR board of directors to approve the plan to open a field office in Afghanistan following a spring 2002 assessment trip by UMCOR NGO Regional Director Guy Hovey.
“There was overwhelming support by the board for going into Afghanistan,” Fernandes added. The plan to support sustainable returns of Afghan refugees was announced as part of the Love in the Midst of Tragedy Advance and supported by it.
Supporting Sustainable Returns
This allowed UMCOR to quickly set up operations in Kabul province in May of that year. A diverse national staff, now of 24, was hired. The staff has been critical to both program success and security, said Thomas Dwyer. Dwyer headed UMCOR’s field office in Kosovo in 2002, before becoming director of operations and then executive director of UMCOR NGO.
“We have an excellent team of national staff in Afghanistan,” he said. “They develop very good relationships with the shuras, village leaders, and chiefs. They work with them to help them think about their needs and how to prioritize them, and then we articulate those needs in our funding proposals.”
Meeting those needs—even in a relatively confined geographical area defined by the war—is what makes the returns sustainable. UMCOR has provided support for the construction or repair of homes, schools, and clinics; clean water; generation of income and livelihoods; health-care training; and emergency response to droughts and floods.
Along with United Methodists and other people of good will who have supported UMCOR’s work in Afghanistan, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Migration and Refugees has been a longtime partner. This partnership is a strictly civilian and humanitarian one.
Building Capacity for the Future
More than 130,000 people have benefited over the years from UMCOR-built or refurbished schools and health clinics. More than 11,000 families have received assistance for income generation, livestock, and livelihoods. And more than 11,000 people now have access to clean water because of UMCOR’s programs in Afghanistan.
More recently, UMCOR has managed cash-for-work programs that employ local residents to clean and repair traditional irrigation systems called karizes. Over the past three years, 218 kariz tunnels have been rehabilitated and 17,000 meters of streams improved, which has increased access to irrigation.
UMCOR also has distributed and assisted in the planting of more than 65,000 apple and apricot trees by some 3,000 families. With this assistance, returnees begin to rebuild their traditional agricultural livelihoods in their homeland.
The most significant contribution that UMCOR has made to Afghanistan’s struggling returnees, though, Dwyer said, is “the value and focus of remaining a community-based provider; of building local capacity not just with our Afghan national staff but with the communities we work with.”
That was part of the intent of Love in the Midst of Tragedy, he said: “To respond to this part of the world with an act of love and outreach, despite what happened on 9/11.”
*Linda Unger is UMCOR’s staff editor and senior writer.