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Staff member leads humanitarian mission to Afghanistan

CHARITY WORK: Inayat Habib, a parking enforcement officer, is pictured on campus. He delivered envelopes of money to help needy families in 36 villages in Afghanistan. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Kwok Wong

As a plane landed in an airfield in northwestern Afghanistan, the scorching sun beat down on a U of T Scarborough staff member who was there with a crowd of businesspeople and travelers.

Inayat Habib, who has been working as a parking enforcement officer at the University of Toronto Scarborough since 2001, was visiting the province of Herat for a different reason than his fellow travelers.

He and another Canadian volunteer, Zakariakhan Zakaria, a local real estate agent and member of the Canadian Afghan Business Council, were in the country in March on a humanitarian mission. Together the two men hand-delivered money that had been raised by Toronto’s Afghan community to more than 1,000 needy families in villages hard hit by the worst winter on record.

Toronto’s Consul General of Afghanistan, Habibullah Qaderi, praised the pair, calling them a symbol of the “unity and solidarity” of the Afghan community in the Greater Toronto Area.

During the four days following their arrival at Herat airport in 32-degree heat, Habib and Khan spread out across the province in a convoy of pickup trucks, accompanied by members of the Afghan security forces.

The Canadian pair vowed to reach all of the 1,036 families on their list of needy recipients in 36 different villages. The families they were visiting were some of the worst hit following this year's harsh winter, when temperatures dropped to a range of 35 to 40 degrees below zero for weeks. More than 180 people, mostly women and children, died due to severe weather conditions, according to Habib. The harsh winter was compounded by the country’s ongoing struggles against poverty and war, he said. Hundreds of thousands of livestock — the livelihood for many more Afghans – also perished over the winter.

Toronto-area Afghans pulled together to raise more than $38,000 over only one week in March to help out the worst hit of their countrymen. This "week of solidarity" was organized by the newly-formed Canadian Emergency Afghan Relief Fund, a council of six Toronto Afghan organizations. The council spurred on many of the donations through appeals to local mosques and via radio broadcasts. Habib and Zakaria lobbied the council successfully to be the ones to deliver the relief.

"I wanted to do something distinguished and different from what other people would do, because of my passion, and because of my interest in helping the poor and needy back home," said Habib, a married father of three. He was born and raised in Kabul and had been studying commerce at Kabul University, but he left the country midway through his studies when the Taliban took over. This was his fourth visit to the country since he came to Canada in 1998.

On their recent trip, Habib and his partner hand-delivered envelopes containing an average of 1,500 Afghanis (about $30 Canadian) per family. The recipients used the money to buy basics such as flour and cooking oil. Because many of the recipients were poor rural villagers who use the barter system, many had never seen hard currency – even in their own country – before. “The council wanted to spread the money around to more families, so although the amount we gave each family was not a lot, they were really grateful and said it made them feel supported,” Habib said.

The council pinpointed the neediest recipients by having the donations hand-delivered to individual families in Herat -- the only province amongst the three hardest hit that was deemed safe enough for Habib and Zakaria to visit. Through rigorous consultation with government and aid agencies, the organizers drew up a list of needy families from a long list of potential recipients in the far flung rural villages of the country’s northwest.

In Herat, the pair started their first day at 6 a.m. with a journey through dusty, rocky terrain. Habib said the trip was rife with rumours that the Taliban could be close by. But before his convoy had even reached the district where local Afghan volunteers were to meet them, Habib came face-to-face with another unexpected group.

The volunteers came across a psychiatric health care facility run by the Afghan Red Crescent Society. Habib said the hospital was in very poor condition and resembled a prison, in which the 96 patients and four staff members were also malnourished, with not enough protein in their diets. On this first day of his trip, Habib decided to dedicate some of the funds to feed the entire group of patients and staff. "We found a caterer and supplied the best food that we could," Habib says, a smile rising to his face. The cost was only $400 (Canadian) to feed them all for two days.

The pair then continued to the first district on their list. By then the Afghan security forces in the back of the pickup trucks were fully covered with a layer of dust. At the first village, a table was set up in a room in one of the local houses. Habib and his volunteers distributed envelopes to the needy in exchange for a signature or fingerprint from all recipients to verify and ensure that the donations would reach the right families.

This routine was to be repeated at 35 other villages he visited over the course of the trip. Many of these meetings were underscored with their own heart-wrenching tales -- the man who had no choice but to amputate his son's leg at a local butcher shop, and the hospital that had so many patients in need that donations to individual families had to be reduced so that no-one was missed.

On the second day of the trip, following another eight-hour drive, Habib and Zakaria split into two teams in order to reach more people. But there was a problem this time – it was getting dark and Habib's convoy was hours away from its ad hoc headquarters in Herat. He said the fear was palpable, and his guards were wary of traveling back through potentially dangerous valleys at night.

Fortunately one of Habib's guards lived in a house in a nearby village, with a wife that he had not seen for two months. “Although it was 10:30 at night and 16 of us showed up unannounced, the family was very welcoming,” he said. Piling into the mud-bricked house for the night, the group told Habib more about the country he left in 1998.

Habib heard that the soldiers, the Afghan students, and the guide all expressed similar views. Afghanistan "has lost its track" they told Habib, and had changed little since the 39 countries of the International Security Assistance Force entered the country in 2001. They said the fighting was still going on, but not for any ideological reason, and many people are just trying to survive. When the Taliban pays four times as much to its soldiers as the Afghan National Police, it becomes a simple matter of numbers, they told him. Habib learned that some families have soldiers fighting on either side.

Though Habib said he was "expecting anything" in Afghanistan —the idea of an imminent suicide bomb raced through his mind whenever he was in a large crowd — but he said he quickly dismissed those thoughts. "I'm from Afghanistan and I know my people,” he said. “I don't believe that Afghans would ever do such a thing."

Habib said he felt relieved after finishing deliveries to the last district and his plane left the Herat province for the relative safety of Kabul. Yet he said his relief was not due to the fact that he emerged unscathed after four days of traveling rocky and dangerous terrain. Rather, "I knew that we were doing a very good thing,” he said. “I had a passion, along with the family support, love and interest in doing this. When we got back to Kabul, I took a deep breath and felt pleased that we were done."

Inayat Habib is hoping to plan a fundraiser and organize other initiatives in the future to raise awareness of the needs of the Afghan people. Anyone interested in supporting these can contact him at habib@utsc.utoronto.ca.

Kwok Wong is a fourth-year student in the journalism program offered jointly at U of T Scarborough and Centennial College.




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