'Fifty Years of Progress in Ten'

Posted by Maja Boehm
May 1, 2012
Afghan Civil Society Leaders in Berlin, Germany

The Afghan Ambassador to Germany, Professor Dr. A. Rahman Ashraf, smiles warmly at the group of four young Afghan civil society leaders. They smile back, timidly. "This is the best day in my life in the past eighteen 18 months since I became Ambassador to Germany!" he proclaims. The group now smiles with a more complex mixture of embarrassment at being in the spotlight and pride, obviously moved by his words. He continues: "When I was teaching at the university in Kabul, I was hoping that one day my students would go out and present Afghanistan to the world. And now you are doing just that."

The Ambassador's reaction was perhaps more personal than the reactions in some of the other meetings to which I accompanied the group, but it is hardly atypical. In their day in Berlin -- part of a week-long tour through Germany, Hungary, and Spain, from April 15-22 -- these four young leaders kept audiences spellbound just by their reports on their daily work and life in Afghanistan. It is information we rarely get a chance to hear, because so many media reports out of Afghanistan just focus on military issues, Taliban, drugs, or corruption. We hardly see or hear anything about what committed and courageous individuals are doing, daily and on the grassroots level, to build a better society for themselves and their children.

The group of travelers were Ms. Razia Arooje, who is a national program officer for the Kabul office of an international development organization; Ms. Freshta Karimi, who is the director of Da Qanoon Ghushtonky, a legal organization supporting women and children; Mr. Mohammad Sadiq Mohibi, who is an advisor to the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and the Disabled; and Dr. Mirwais Rahimzai, the country director for the Center for Human Services/University Research.

In Berlin, they met with German diplomats, who briefed them on their perspectives on the current situation in Afghanistan through the lens of their professional focus. During a luncheon with German journalists selected for their direct personal experience with Afghanistan, the group spoke openly about their work but also about their thoughts on transition, corruption, drugs, and the legal system. There were a few moments that particularly brought the reality of the group's struggles home to the German journalists. add a space One of the Afghan visitors reflected on a question posed by a reporter: "What is it like to be a social activist in Afghanistan? Be prepared to be hated!"

When the group moved on to stick to their tight schedule, the journalists lingered and reflected on their comments. "In all my travels with German officials to Afghanistan, I never met and was able to talk to Afghan citizens like these," one reporter said. "We only always see the military aspect of things and the schedules are too fully packed for individual conversations like these."

During a roundtable at the U.S. Embassy later that afternoon, a group of German parliamentarians, staffers, think-tankers, academics and journalists listened to the group's presentations.

Medical doctor Mirwais Rahimzai summarized the public health situation in Afghanistan as representing "50 years of progress in 10 years" because it has improved so dramatically. The mortality rate for women giving birth has decreased tremendously and the number of midwives has increased tenfold. Ms. Razia Arooje characterized her work on preventing gender-based violence as "reaching the individuals and provinces in Afghanistan that are not reachable by the Afghan government." Ms. Freshta Karimi said that her legal aid organization only grants legal assistance to individuals who promise not to pay bribes, thus contributing to a bottom-up effort to fight corruption. She noted with pride that not only has the number of defense lawyers increased in Afghanistan in recent years, but that the number of female defense lawyers has increased in particular. Mr. Mohammad Sadiq Mohibi, whose organization works to raise awareness for the rights of women, children, and the disabled, described his participation in second Bonn Conference in 2011 and the role that committed activists are playing in rebuilding the country.

The U.S. Embassy in Berlin has been hosting visitors from Afghanistan for many years, on the government and civil society level, to meet with their German counterparts to exchange views and ideas on how to promote and foster our common efforts for a democratic and prosperous Afghanistan. We consider ourselves to be very lucky to work with such a strong partner nation that supports Afghanistan in so many ways -- and to have the opportunity to meet such inspiring visitors, who are quietly and assiduously doing the work that all too rarely makes headlines but that could not be more important.

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