As Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis deepens, its young people step up

Afghans are giving food to the hungry, clothes to the needy, and medical care to the sick: ‘I just wish I could work at night, too.'

By Nanna Muus Steffensen
photographs by Kiana Hayeri
Published 8 Mar 2022, 16:56 GMT
Latifa head

Latifa, 55, stands outside as her grandchildren peer through a window of the family's makeshift house. They moved to the Qala-i Wahed neighbourhood of Kabul when they were displaced from their home province of Parwan, north of the capital city. Last year, the plastic roof collapsed after a heavy snowfall.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

Navid Amini always knew he wanted to study medicine. But one day this past January, the 24-year-old realised that providing health care might not be enough. The people flooding into the public hospital where he works as a medical resident were not just sick—they were poor, hungry, and desperate for help.

One patient, a widow with five children, begged Amini and the senior doctor for money, medicine, and food. He wanted to reach into his pocket and give the woman some cash. But then what about the next patient and the one after that?

Latifa cooks lentils over an open fire in the tent that serves as her family's kitchen and shower. With prices rising, many families can't afford basic food items.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

A two-month-old baby boy is placed near the only source of heat in his family's home in the Qala-i Wahed neighbourhood of Kabul.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

That night, Amini lay sleepless in bed, overwhelmed by the thought of how many other Afghan families out there needed help. “I was trying to remember a time when Afghans were really happy, and I couldn't think of one,” he says.

Afghanistan is suffering through a humanitarian crisis of disastrous proportions. Three-quarters of the country’s public spending had been funded by foreign aid. When the United States withdrew and the Taliban seized control in August 2021, that aid was cut. Now, nearly nine million people face emergency-level food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme.

Navid Amini, a medical student and aid worker, examines an X-ray of one of the 45 children under five hospitalised for malnourishment at Mirwais Hospital in the southern city of Kandahar. Amini distributes meals to patients in need as part of his work for LEARN Afghanistan, a local education NGO that branched out to providing emergency aid after the Taliban takeover.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

Navid Amini (standing) and his friend Shabir Zahid (with his back turned) pack containers of chicken stew, bread, and fruit into plastic bags in a courtyard in Kandahar. Mohammad Kabir Hotaki (centre), a chef, used to cater wedding parties but now receives more and more orders from NGOs that provide meals to poor families.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

More than one million children under the age of five eat so little that they are acutely malnourished, and one out of three adolescent girls suffer from anaemia, according to UNICEF. More than half the population—24 million Afghans—is in need of vital humanitarian assistance, according to UNHCR, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees. (Historic images show the century-long struggle for Afghanistan.)

Ten-year-old Aziza kisses and comforts her five-month-old cousin, Ezatullah, who has been hospitalised for acute malnourishment at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar. “He is sick and so weak,” Aziza says. “I rock him back and forth until he falls asleep. I’m good at helping others.” Most days, Aziza goes to school in the morning before looking after Ezatullah in the hospital, but today she had to skip classes. The boy’s mother works as a cleaner to provide for her family.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

Eighteen-year-old Kamila (left) brought six-month-old Jannat to a clinic in Kandahar as soon as she sensed that her daughter wasn’t well. “Compared to other children her age she is very weak and she doesn’t try to crawl,” Kamila says. The doctor, Rafiullah Fazli, concluded that Jannat suffers from severe malnourishment but that her mother's quick reaction gives her a good chance of recovery.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

Kamila and another mother wait for their children to be examined. All of the children suffer from severe malnourishment. Kamila and her husband struggle to afford flour, oil, and other basic necessities. Her husband used to earn 200 Afghani a day driving a rickshaw but only makes half that now.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

While the international community is trying to figure out how to help the Afghan people without benefiting the Taliban, young Afghans, including Amini, realise that they can’t afford to wait for foreign aid to resume at full scale. They grew up during the American occupation with war and hardship, but also with dreams and promises of a better future and more possibilities in life than their parents had. (Photographer Kiana Hayeri gives an inside look at the fall of Kabul.)

Seeing that future crumble, they are taking matters into their own hands to help their communities. Some distribute clothes to needy families in northern Badakhshan Province. Others teach underground classes to girls who are out of school in Kabul, the capital. Another group operates an emergency bakery in Bamiyan Province in the central highlands. (What’s at stake for women in Afghanistan.)

Amini started doing humanitarian work with Learn Afghanistan, a local education NGO that branched out to providing emergency aid as the need grew in recent months. He delivers hot meals every week to 50 patients in another public hospital and distributes vital food packages around the city every three weeks.

Accidental aid workers

On a sunny February morning in Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city located in the south, Mohammad Kabir Hotaki, 32, watches two large pots of rice and chicken stew bubbling over an open fireplace in the backyard of a rental company that provides cutlery and carpets for wedding parties. Hotaki used to cook for weddings and the occasional funeral, but now he receives more and more orders from NGOs distributing food to needy people. On this day, his customers are Amini and his friend Shabir Zahid, 21, who ordered the stew on behalf of Learn Afghanistan.

Learn Afghanistan started three years ago, developing digital tools for home learning, but last September began doing meal and food distributions as well. Now run by 15 employees and numerous volunteers, the organisation’s work is funded by contributions from local businessmen and a GoFundMe campaign where donations range from a few dollars to several thousand. They’ve raised more than £70,000 so far.

Laborers offload 900 sacks of flour from a truck that has arrived at the World Food Programme’s warehouse in Kandahar. The flour, along with sunflower oil, extra-nutritious meals for infants, and other essential food products, will be distributed across six provinces in the country's south and west.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

Several of the women receiving food donations from LEARN Afghanistan are widows. Women in Kandahar don't commonly work alone outside the house, and many widows struggle to provide for their children. Thirty-year-old Bibi Ayesha (not pictured) says she keeps her daughter at home most of the time. “I don’t let her go outside because if she catches any sickness I can’t pay for treatment.”

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

Zahid, a former student of politics and economics, never imagined becoming an aid worker. Instead, he aspired to join the Afghan army, until it collapsed last summer. After the Taliban seized control of Kandahar, he spent most days at home helping around the house or playing soccer until friends working for Learn asked him to join as a volunteer.

“I had hoped to serve the country and nation but being in the military is not the only way to help the people,” he says, packing containers of stew, fresh bread, and fruit into plastic bags.

Amini and Zahid bring the food to Mirwais Hospital, where Mohammad Sadiq, 50, waits with a list of patients most in need of a meal donation. Many of them are in the wards for malnourished children, where two to three babies share each bed. In one ward, 10-year-old Aziza comforts and kisses her five-month-old cousin. The boy’s mother has to work every day to provide for the family.

As much as Sadiq appreciates these efforts to meet immediate needs, the doctor worries about the future. Before the former government collapsed, much of the health sector was funded by international development aid.

Mursal (21) receives a kiss from her 2 year old son, Nabi, inside the small kitchen that also functions as a shower. Mursal, who is 7 months pregnant, and her husband, Sharif (25) have rented a house in Kolula Poshta. Sharif is a day labourer, and has been mostly out of job since the collapse of the previous government. 

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri, National Geographic

Mursal serves lunch – cooked potatoes in tomato paste, served with rice. With the rising prices of food items and Sharif being out of a job, the family has been mostly feeding themselves on potatoes, bread and rice. 

“Aid alone is not a sustainable solution; it should be in combination with development,” says Sadiq, who has worked at the hospital for 18 years.

“If you give me a food package, I will eat for one month,” he says. “After that, I’m hungry again. It’s better to give me 10 hens so I can eat their eggs and sell the rest on the market.”

Although Zahid is pleased to do some good, he doesn’t plan to be an aid worker forever. His father and an older brother, both soldiers, were killed in the war, leaving Zahid responsible for his family. He is contemplating leaving the country to find work abroad.

“It will be a tough decision to leave,” he says. “But if the situation doesn’t improve, I might have to.”

‘It’s getting worse day by day.’

On the southern outskirts of Kandahar, women covered in sun-bleached burqas hold children in their arms as they wait outside a small health facility.

Inside, Rafiullah Fazli, a doctor and the clinic’s manager, points to a graph on the wall. One year ago, the clinic received about 500 patients a month. Now the number is 1,500. Eighty percent of the patients are either malnourished or suffering from other conditions related to poverty, he says. A year ago, it was 50 percent.

Mirdil Rahmati, who owns several bakeries in Kabul, distributes free bread to those who gather in front of his bakery in the Khair Khana neighbourhood.

“This situation is very dangerous. Not only children but even adults are becoming malnourished, and medicines are getting more expensive. It’s getting worse day by day,” says Fazli, 28.

He and his staff have not received their salaries for three months, and they have stopped taking lunch breaks to make time for more patients.

“We are all exhausted,” says 23-year-old Arzo Hotak, who advises mothers of malnourished toddlers on what to feed them and how. She studied midwifery because her parents thought it would be the best path to a job as a woman in Afghanistan's deeply conservative south. Hotak, however, always wanted to become a diplomat in Washington, D.C.

“With this situation, actually, I’m helping people more in this job,” she says.

Still, she holds on to her dream despite the Taliban’s resistance to women working. Every morning at six, she studies political science at a private university before opening the clinic at 8:30 am.

A secret network

Poverty is growing even in the capital, where the middle class has traditionally been large. Early one morning, two friends head out to a large market in Kabul where lentils and grains are sold from open sacks. The 24-year-old and the 19-year-old are there to shop for one of the 55 families they support through a secret network. (The women’s names are not being used for their safety.)

Most of the people the network assists worked for the previous government and lost income when the Taliban took over. Many of them are women who are no longer welcome in their professions, like police officers and prosecutors. They are struggling financially and live in hiding.

Naqibullah, a member of the Taliban, argues with women who have been waiting in line for food donations since the early morning hours in Maidan Shahr, the capital of Wardak Province in central Afghanistan. The World Food Programme distributes 600 food packages to people who have been registered in advance. However, many people without registration cards beg for aid.
Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

Sultan Mohammad Sedaqat, 35, raises his gun to disperse women who had gathered around food packages from the World Food Programme at an aid distribution in Maidan Shahr. Local Taliban fighters like Sedaqat volunteered to secure the distribution. Tensions rose when people who had not been registered in advance for a donation broke the queue system.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

Other beneficiaries are people whom the two friends just decide to help, like the 75-year-old taxi driver with a cough who drove them across the city. When they learned that he didn’t have heating in his house, they asked him to drive straight to a market where they bought him a stove and some firewood. The young women’s supervisor jokes that their own money isn’t safe with them because they give out cash to everyone they meet.

But they say they’re also trying to help themselves.

“This is a time in our country when everyone feels injured, everyone feels hopeless,” says the 24-year-old, who was a student before the Taliban came to power.

Working and dedicating their time to others keeps them too busy to think about what they’ve lost, explains the 19-year-old.

“I just wish I could work at night too,” she says. “I don’t want the free time to think about the future.”

Men waiting in line for aid in Maidan Shahr say they can’t find work. Even some World Food Programme employees say that they struggle to feed their extended families.

Photograph by Kiana Hayeri for National Geographic

Nanna Muus Steffensen, a Danish journalist and photographer, lives in Kabul and has covered Afghanistan since 2017. To see more of her work, visit her Instagram.

Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian-Canadian photographer, has worked in Afghanistan since 2013. Her recent work covering Afghanistan appears in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine. Follow her on Instagram.

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