By Bibi Bahrami, member of the Rotary Club of Muncie and founder of AWAKEN
Growing up as a young girl in the peaceful village of Qala-e-Malakh in Afghanistan, I was part of a loving family with ten brothers and sisters. We were happy, but little did we know that our lives would soon face devastation as the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. I was frightened and scared for my life and for the lives of my loved ones. Every time I heard shots or explosions, I trembled at the thought of losing a family member.
In the face of war, we were forced to flee our home, leaving everything behind to head towards refugee camps in Pakistan. A long journey awaited us as we traveled through mountains without much food or water, with small children and my mother who was eight months pregnant at the time. We arrived to the camps safely where I spent the next six years of my life. My life had been turned upside down. Growing up, I always had aspirations and dreams to be educated, and hoped for the opportunity to pursue them. My six years in the camp did not give me that opportunity, but I tried to learn what I could from my brothers’ books.
In 1986, I boarded a plane to meet my fiancé, who was a medical student in the United States who I had met in the refugee camp in Pakistan. My trip brought me to Muncie, Indiana, and I was blessed with the opportunity that I had always wanted. I was finally able to pursue my education, completing a GED and continuing on to receive an art degree from Ball State University. As my life has moved on from my home in Qala-e-Malakh and the refugee camps, I never forgot about the girls I left behind who have the same dreams as I did.
My husband and I continued to travel back to the refugee camps in Pakistan every year, with medicine and other humanitarian supplies. In 2002, with the support of family and friends, we established AWAKEN (Afghan Women and Kids Education & Necessities) to provide educational opportunities, vocational training, and healthcare services to the people of Afghanistan, especially the women and children.
As part of AWAKEN, we offered a vocational training program where we traveled from village to village and rented a room conveniently located near women’s homes. We conducted a six-month course teaching women basic hygiene, reading, writing, and sewing. At the end of the course, all women received a sewing machine and kit so they could become self-sufficient.
There were also no opportunities for education in my hometown of Qala-e-Malakh. In 2004, AWAKEN established a school for children grades K-12. The school now has more than 1200 students enrolled.
Most villages in Afghanistan do not have access to any sort of healthcare. In 2008, we built the Behsood Health Clinic which provides over 500 families access to basic treatments such as vaccines, birth control, etc. The clinic sees more than 180 patients daily.
Recently, AWAKEN partnered with the Rotary Club of Muncie Sunrise (United States) and the Rotary Club of Jalalabad (Afghanistan) to establish a Saheli Center. The center will open near the current AWAKEN clinic and school providing literacy, nutrition, and reproductive health classes. The center will also provide vocational education, including but not limited to computers and tailoring expanding upon AWAKEN’s efforts.
One of my biggest dreams was to open a birthing center in the village. AWAKEN created a birthing center to provide prenatal and postnatal care. With the support of partnering Rotary clubs, we will expand our efforts by conducted Family Planning Workshops taught by medical professionals from the Rotary Club of Jalalabad and the AWAKEN clinic staff. Birth attendants will also conduct small workshops on pre-natal nutrition, birthing practices and infant nutrition, including breast feeding for those receiving pre-natal care. Small packages of infant care supplies provided by the Rotary clubs will be given to women who complete all the classes.
I was once a little girl in Afghanistan with limited opportunities, and am blessed to have the life I enjoy today. Unfortunately, people living in impoverished countries do not have access to the opportunities and resources that I do now. Together we can make a difference in the lives of many women and children in Afghanistan, so that they can awaken to a brighter future with opportunities for continuing their education and becoming self-sufficient!