Editor’s Note: Lt. Col. James Bishop is deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan. He is chief of Public Affairs at Westover Air Reserve Base.
Three military vehicles rolled out of the International Security Assistance Forces compound on July 18, packed with more than 800 pounds of clothing, toys and school supplies for Afghan children. And, stuffed in the pockets of several International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops were lollipops for the children.
The humanitarian items will be shared by PARSA
(Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Services for Afghanistan), an organization serving the disadvantaged in Afghanistan through a wide range of programs, and Shamsa Village, an orphanage housing 52 children in a residential setting.
This was my first trip outside the cement-walled ISAF compound in three months. So, I loved seeing everything: the chalk art along the ISAF's blast barriers depicting a dove holding an olive branch, the man selling watermelons from an ancient wooden cart, the herd of lambs being shepherded down a main thoroughfare in western Kabul, the burqua-clad women. We drove around a traffic circle, which had a massive sculpture of the open Koran in the middle. A few miles later, we passed people living in the remnants of a crumbling cement building that looked like it had been torn apart by bombs. We also passed the lovely, gated Baghi Babur park, its green hills filled with trees.
I was apprehensive about going. The day before we left, insurgents attacked the Kabul airport from several directions, and the ensuing gun battle lasted four hours. There had been recent rocket attacks, vehicle-borne bombs and a motorcycle suicide bomber near our compound in Kabul. After we left the relative safety of the Green Zone, traffic jammed to a halt and a motorcycle raced toward us, the driver glaring. But he passed by, and we weaved in and around traffic to the residential compound.
At the PARSA camp within a Red Crescent compound in Western Kabul, residents, teenage Afghan Scouts and a dozen ISAF members formed a bucket brigade, transferring goods from two SUVs to a storage shed, laughing as they pitched bulging bags down the line – a sack of stuffed animals, baby clothes, shoes, a box of notebooks, blankets – under the hot Afghan sun.
“I loved being able to help the most innocent victims of the long war here,” Dr. Catherine Warner, Director of ISAF's Telecommunications Advisory Team, said. She organized the delivery. “Living and working at ISAF, we are limited in how much we can personally help the Afghans, but if we make a difference to even a few children, it's worth the effort.”
Soon a group of 10 young children appeared, shy at first, then excitedly gathering around Lt. Col. Bridget Reynolds, who passed out lollipops. Although it was during Ramadan, children typically do not fast. One savvy child filled his right pocket with lollipops and came back for more.
“Show me your pockets,” Reynolds said. He opened his empty left pocket, smiling.
“It felt fantastic to get out of ISAF, see the kids, and take [needed items] directly to the organizations that support them,” Reynolds said. “We got to meet the organizers and see their dedication.”
After helping to stack the donated goods, PARSA project manager J. Reese Hume said the gifts will be helpful for both his organization and the orphanage they partner with, Shamsa Village. Hume, who is from the United States, has been living in Afghanistan for six years.
“I don’t make nearly as much money as I could in the states,” he said, “but I’ve never enjoyed a job as much.”
What is the most fulfilling part to Hume? “Spending time with the kids,” he said, some of who come from “a horrible background” including opium villages, households where the children are tortured, sold for their bodies, or sold as slave labor.
It felt good – great – to know that the children here, at least, were protected in the compound. They would learn to read and learn a trade. The smiles were genuine from both the children and the adults. One Afghan interpreter, whose name I have to withhold for his own security, came out on his day off to help translate.
After filling the storage area with donated goods, some Afghan Scouts gave a demonstration in knot tying.
The unloading complete, we passed out more candy, spoke with the scouts, played with four Labrador Retriever puppies, and visited the Afghan Garden Kitchen. The cafe is staffed by Afghan hospitality industry trainees, another aspect of PARSA's program, which seeks to help older orphans and impoverished adults transition into the work force.
After an hour, it was time to head back. As the ISAF members prepared to leave, they shook hands with the older children, receiving a smile and hearty “Thank you” from each child.