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Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - Gifts from Japan

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1997

Many Afghan child refugees have never had a gift in their lives. Japanese girl scouts are bringing a little joy to their lives.

By Veslemoy Naerland

The little Afghan girl said she had never owned a toy in her life. Now she was happily skipping a rope for the first time. Other Afghan refugee children excitedly unwrapped presents containing inexpensive pencils, crayons and notebooks. Girls weaved ribbons through their hair and proudly wore them for weeks afterwards. They may have cost very little, but the gifts were the most precious objects these children have ever owned.

Aid for Afghanistan comes in many forms. One of the most unusual, and touching, is the annual visit to the region by members of the Japanese girl scout movement as part of the worldwide peace pack programme launched jointly by UNHCR and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in 1993. Since then, girls in 52 countries have collected more than 260,000 packs for refugee children around the world.

The Japanese movement concentrated on Afghanistan. In 1995 and 1996, the peace packs were distributed directly to children inside Afghanistan, as well as in Pakistan. This year, because of the continuing civil war and political instability, they have so far only been distributed in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Fifty thousand Japanese girls had spent the previous year collecting 13,536 packages. In March, a delegation of six Japanese Girl Scout leaders and their trainer inaugurated the distribution of the first of the packages in the city of Peshawar and the rural Dir district bordering Afghanistan. It is hoped the distribution can be completed inside Afghanistan later this year if the situation there stabilizes and schools, especially for girls, reopen.

The peace packs included educational materials such as pencils, notebooks, erasers and rulers and other items such as toys, T-shirts and toiletries. Each group of items had a particular importance. Most children in less developed countries, especially refugees, are desperately keen to receive an education and the crayons and rulers stressed the importance of schooling to parents, teachers and children alike. The other items were pure luxury. Few of the children had ever owned a bar of soap or a toothbrush in their lives.

For one day, as the Japanese girls handed out their gifts, the children became the focus of attention of the whole village, enjoying what for them was the first brush with luxury in their lives. Teachers watched startled as their normally subdued and shy pupils burst into spontaneous song. As a morale booster, and an important and practical addition to the lives of the refugees, "the value of these packs is impossible to quantify," said one teacher at a girl's school in Dir.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)




UNHCR country pages

UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award 2015

Aqeela Asifi, an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan, has been named the 2015 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award. Asifi has dedicated her adult life to educating refugee girls. Despite minimal resources and significant cultural challenges, hundreds of girls have now passed through her school, equipped with life-long skills and brighter hopes for their futures.

Asifi fled from Kabul in 1992 with her young family. They found refuge in the desolate Kot Chandana refugee village in the south-eastern Punjab province of Pakistan. Adjusting from life in a capital city and working as a teacher, to living in a dusty refugee village was difficult. She was especially struck by the total absence of schools for girls.

It took time but eventually Asifi was allowed to start a small school under a tent. Over the years the school expanded and received the hard-won backing of community elders. Asifi's dedication has helped guide more than 1,000 girls through to the eighth grade and encouraged more schools to open in the village. Another 1,500 young people (900 girls, 650 boys) are enrolled in six schools throughout the refugee village today.

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Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

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At a recent conference in Geneva, the international community endorsed a "solutions strategy" for millions of Afghan refugees and those returning to Afghanistan after years in exile. The plan, drawn up between Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and UNHCR, aims to support repatriation, sustainable reintegration and assistance to host countries.

It will benefit refugee returnees to Afghanistan as well as 3 million Afghan refugees, including 1 million in Iran and 1.7 million in Pakistan.

Many of the refugees in Iran have been living there for more than three decades. This photo set captures the lives of some of these exiles, who wait in hope of a lasting solution to their situation.

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