January - February 2002
Qamer arrived in Quetta, Pakistan, in October 2001, a widow and penniless, her four small children in tow. She knew no one in the sprawling border city, so she asked the local mosque for help.
The religious leaders sent her to stay with a family in a local neighborhood of featureless mud walls and mud houses, filled with other refugees from Afghanistan. Qamer joined the ranks of the "invisible refugees" who have fled their war- torn homeland, but haven't registered with authorities for fear of being deported back to Afghanistan.
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, part 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 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 says. "So I left. I didn't know what else to do. But many people from Bamyan were coming here, so I followed them across the border."
Qamer said she wants to go back. "It's our country," she says. "But as long as there is fighting, we can't live there."
While she waits on the thin promise of peace for Afghanistan, Qamer supports 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.
Gulshan Maznani, a CWS emergency coordinator in Quetta, says the quilt project will produce 25,000 quilts for distribution to 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, with higher wages at times 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," says 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 to 10, collect the cloth, 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 displaced Hazara families in Jaghori and Behsood.
The UCC Afghanistan Disaster Appeal supports this effort.
Paul Jeffrey filed this story for Action by Churches Together (ACT), an international alliance of churches and relief agencies assisting thousands of people in more than 50 countries. Photos available at www.act-intl.org.
See a longer version of this story at www.churchworldservice.org/Reports2001/afghanistan/ACTdateline12-03.html.