Afghans returnees take first step towards self-sufficiency
BALKH, Afghanistan, Feb 14 (UNHCR) - Rahima is not sure of her age, but she thinks she has been weaving carpets since she was eight years old.
A single bulb lights the room where she and her two eldest daughters, both in their 20s, spend long hours knotting wool into intricate patterns. The yarn is stretched over a wooden frame made of roughly cut logs which fills the small space.
The women work quietly and methodically. It takes around three months to complete a two-metre carpet, for which they receive between US$250 and $300 from a dealer in the bazaar.
The money must support not only Rahima and her three daughters but also the family of her unemployed brother.
It is a big responsibility, but Rahima is grateful that she is able to fulfil her role as provider while continuing a tradition which has sustained the Turkmen and Uzbek communities of northern Afghanistan for generations.
It is a task that has been made easier through assistance from the UN refugee agency.
A widow for 15 years, Rahima, like most of the residents of the village of Andkhoy near the Turkmenistan border, fled with her children to Pakistan five years ago to escape Afghanistan's civil war. In 2002, following the defeat of the Taliban, she returned. She had the skills to provide for herself and her dependants but lacked the money and materials needed to resume her work as a carpet weaver.
Through the local village council, or shura, Rahima's precarious position as a single mother and sole source of income was brought to the attention of a UNHCR-funded organisation which is helping returnee families to earn a living.
The income generation programme is aimed at families who are considered particularly vulnerable. Most recipients are returning refugees with large families and no means of supporting themselves. Many, such as Rahima's, are families headed by widows.
Those selected are given the wool and tools needed to make one carpet. The package, worth around $110, allows the weavers - who are almost exclusively women - to then use the sale of the finished carpet to purchase new supplies and continue the cycle while providing for their families.
"Without this help we would have had to borrow money," says Rahima. "It would have taken us a long time to get out of debt."
Similar income generation projects are operating across Afghanistan, each tailored to meet the needs of individual returnee communities. They are part of UNHCR's ongoing work to assist Afghan refugees who have come home to settle back in their places of origin.
Maleka and her family returned to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 2004. The city was the scene of some of the most intense fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, which sent tens of thousands fleeing.
A relative provided Maleka and her family with a place to live when they returned from Iran, but her husband struggled to find work. With few jobs and no skills, the family faced an uncertain future.
Five months later, Maleka is providing for her family in a way she could not have previously imagined. The walled courtyard of her simple mud home is filled with pens holding chickens and turkeys.
Raising her voice to be heard over the noise of more than two dozen birds, Maleka admits she never saw herself raising poultry.
"I had no idea about how to raise chickens when I started," she says. "But with the help of Rasa I now feel confident and am able to run my own small business."
Rasa is an Afghan organisation supported by UNHCR, which through its income generation programme, is providing returnee families with the equipment, training and support needed to begin small poultry farms.
"We provide women with an incubator, fertilised eggs, veterinary support and training to help them get started," says Rasa's Nihu Sayar. "The women are able to get a simple income by selling the chickens. They also learn a valuable skill which they can pass on to others."
Forty women have so far been selected for the programme in and around Mazar and are supported by a team of two female trainers. Many still require help with the cost of vaccinations and feed, but the objective is for each recipient to become self-sufficient.
For Maleka, who last year raised and sold more than 20 chickens, this unexpected opportunity has long-term appeal.
"Even when my husband does find work," she says, "I'll continue to raise these birds and continue to have my own income."
By Tim Irwin