About the Author: Todd Pierce is the Public Affairs Officer for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. He interviewed colleague Amy Wendt, a program officer who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan where she inspected various refugee assistance projects funded by the United States. Wendt, who has served in Africa, told him about what the United States is doing for Afghans returning home and how people can help.UPDATE: Since this entry was written, there has been another attack on humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, August 13, three international staff and one Afghan driver with the International Rescue Committee, a U.S.-based NGO, were killed by the Taleban in Logar Province outside of Kabul. We strongly condemn this attack, and extend our condolences to the families and friends of those killed.
QUESTION: So, you just got back from Pakistan and Afghanistan. What were you doing there?
AMY WENDT: I traveled with my colleague Nancy Iris for a two-week monitoring and evaluation visit. We joined up with our Refugee Coordinators -- Allison Areias in Kabul and Linda Hoover in Islamabad -- to review work being conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and a number of our non-governmental organization partners. The U.S. government, through the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, financially supports these organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, returnees, internally displaced persons, and victims of conflict in the region.
QUESTION: Was this your first trip there?
AMY WENDT: Yes. But while it was my first trip to the region, the Bureau has been supporting refugees and victims of conflict in these countries for decades.
QUESTION: Decades? Wow. What sort of projects is the US funding for Afghan refugees? Were you able to visit any of these projects?
AMY WENDT: The United States Government funds approximately 25% of UNHCR's Afghanistan refugee program, which covers support in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
Since September 1, 2007, we have contributed slightly over $20 million to UNHCR for this program. The United States also supports a number of non-governmental organizations to provide reintegration support within Afghanistan and basic services to refugees and host communities in Pakistan. We have committed over $10.4 million for NGO projects this year and plan add additional support before the year ends.
Our Refugee Coordinators and locally employed Refugee Specialists visit the project sites regularly to monitor progress and oversee the work these partners are doing. During our visit to Afghanistan, we spent considerable time at a number of Land Allocation Scheme (LAS) sites that the Government of Afghanistan has set aside for returning refugees. Many of those who left Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s no longer have a claim to land. The LAS system is meant to provide land and a community for returnees who find themselves in this situation. The U.S. Government is working with the Government of Afghanistan, UNHCR, and NGOs like CARE, United Methodist Committee on Relief, International Rescue Committee, and International Medical Corps to provide additional support with shelter, water, primary education, and livelihoods programs to make these more viable communities.
QUESTION: What is happening in the photo you provided for DipNote?
AMY WENDT: We were visiting the Bari Kab land allocation scheme, which is located in Kabul Province. Many of the people now residing there had been living in public buildings or tent sites in Kabul city after returning in 2002. They had to pay a fee to gain title land after being approved for residence at this site. The international community is working with the government, UNHCR, UNDP, and NGOs to help provide additional support to the community. Although Bari Kab is located near a series of dry, river beds which can channel water to the site during spring and the rainy season, it still needs additional year-round water sources. One source was being put in place during our visit, and the boys are checking out some of the construction work that is underway. There is still a lot of work to be done on water and other support projects. We are working with USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance on how the USG might be able to provide additional support at this and other land allocation schemes.
QUESTION: Earlier, you mentioned that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was also working in Afghanistan. Tell me about the work they are doing there.
AMY WENDT: Yes, the United States also supports the ICRC in Afghanistan. ICRC devotes 60% of its country operational budget to support six orthopedic centers and four non-ICRC prosthetic workshops throughout Afghanistan. During the visit, we monitored the work being done by ICRC at its main orthopedic center in Kabul. ICRC sees about 6,000 patients a year at this center, with 1,000 presenting as war victims or survivors of mine or ordinance accidents, and others the result of health care issues like polio. Through a physical rehabilitation program, the center also teaches patients how to walk using the new prostheses that have been made for them. ICRC manufactures over 15,000 artificial legs and arms every year to assist Afghans seeking rehabilitation assistance.
QUESTION: What did it feel like to be there?
AMY WENDT: Amazing. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are challenging environments dealing with complex issues of governance, reconstruction, development, and counter-terrorism. Sometimes its difficult for people to remember that millions of Afghans remain in countries of asylum while hundreds of thousands are still returning to their homes. They will need a great deal of support in both countries to ensure refugees and returnees continue to receive protection and have the best start possible if they choose to come home at this time. One of the great parts of conducting a monitoring visit is that we get to spend time with incredibly dedicated staff like Allison and Linda, members of the U.S. forces who are working with the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghans on trying to improve security, and humanitarian workers who often put themselves at great personal risk to help communities rebuild after decades of war.
QUESTION: What did you wear?
AMY WENDT: Now there's a question you don't get every day after a monitoring trip, Todd. We spent a lot of time in the field reviewing project sites and interviewing refugees and returnees about the services they are receiving. Let's just say that Afghanistan is a "dry heat" and Peshawar in Pakistan brings "humidity" to a whole new level -- which is why I'm so glad I found a bunch of kurtas and tunics in Kabul that served me well throughout the trip. Even under Kevlar.
One of the NGOs that the United States will be supporting this year specializes in increasing market support for clothing and textiles made by Afghan women. The group started years ago in Peshawar with Afghan refugee women specializing in embroidered items for sale in both countries. Now that many have returned, they have registered as a NGO in Afghanistan and are specializing in high end clothing for weddings, special occasions, and the expatriate community. If they can work out an agreement to start exporting items for sale, they will look to expand business opportunities and increase the product line. I hope the next time we do a blog entry, we'll be able to put up a website so more people can learn about this group and consider supporting it.
QUESTION: How many Afghan refugees are there? How many internally displaced persons (IDPs)?
AMY WENDT: There are approximately 2 million Afghans registered as refugees in Pakistan and slightly over 1 million registered as refugees in Iran.
Over 5 million refugees have returned home to Afghanistan since 2002, making this the largest and most successful return operation conducted by UNHCR in its history. IDP figures often fluctuate, but, at the moment, UNHCR estimates there are approximately 132,000 IDPs in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: What would you say life is like for refugees in Afghanistan? Is it getting better or worse?
AMY WENDT: It depends on each individual returnee. For some that we met during our visit, the return home offers a chance for a new start, reuniting with family members, and safety in their home country. We met one man who had been running a shoe factory in Pakistan for years. He had been able to work with family to get another factory set up in his area of origin in Afghanistan and was now returning with his entire family. Their prospects were quite high for a successful reintegration. For others, especially those without a claim to land and limited education, there is no question that they will have many difficulties ahead in reestablishing themselves again. The last thing we want to see are high numbers of returnees who cannot reintegrate and who then turn around and go back to Pakistan or Iran.
QUESTION: How can we help Afghan refugees who are struggling with higher prices for food and fuel?
AMY WENDT: The most efficient and effective way to help those affected overseas is to make a monetary donation to a humanitarian organization that is implementing relief programs in the affected region. There are several different ways to go about identifying such organizations.
The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) will often have links to various lists of organizations that are responding to a disaster.
InterAction, an association of non-profit development and humanitarian organizations, may have a list of responding members on its website.
Global Giving may have specific recovery projects listed that can be supported.
Other organizations that may also have information on responding organizations include The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, The American Institute of Philanthropy, GuideStar, and Charity Navigator.
News and search engine websites sometimes have lists of responding organizations. Check CNN, MSN, Google, Yahoo, or the website of your local newspaper or television station.
The United Nations maintains a website called ReliefWeb, which is a repository of information, listed by situation, submitted by responding humanitarian organizations.