Christmas Appeal: Hope of a family life for 'orphans' of Kabul

In the latest in our series, Justin Huggler reports on the charity that reunites children and parents
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On the outskirts of Kabul is a great grim building, a relic of the Soviet era. Inside, children live 20 to a room, the bunk beds so close together you can hardly move.

The windows are broken and the corridors are icy. Cobwebs hang from the ceiling, and there is filth everywhere. This is the Kabul orphanage. Only it is not really an orphanage, because the parents of most of the children here are alive.

Nooreddin's story is out of Dickens. The portions of food at the orphanage are meagre. Like Oliver Twist, Nooreddin asked for more. The orphanage staff beat him for his audacity. Nooreddin is one of the "economic orphans" of Afghanistan. His mother is alive but the family is so poor they could not afford to feed and clothe him. Their only option was to put him in the orphanage.

But now Nooreddin is out and reunited with his family, thanks to Children in Crisis, one of the charities The Independent is supporting in its Christmas Appeal this year. Nooreddin is among hundreds of children the charity has managed to get out of the orphanage by providing their families with a way of generating a small extra income.

"When my son was in the orphanage, sometimes he got so sick he couldn't walk," says Nooreddin's mother, Bibi. "Then we used to have to bring him home until he was better. I'm so happy to have him back living at home. It would be better if all the children in the orphanage could go back to their families."

Nooreddin is living in the family's mud house in the suburbs of Kabul. It is basic, but he is with his family. After Bibi's husband died, she found she couldn't afford to look after the boy. He was 11 when she sent him to the orphanage. His older brother moved to Pakistan in search of work. Bibi just managed to keep Nooreddin's sisters at home, eking a living for them as a cleaner for a paltry wage and keeping chickens at home.

Now Nooreddin is 16 he is old enough to work part-time while still going to school. Children in Crisis have set him up selling pre-paid mobile-phone recharge vouchers, so he is no financial burden on the family.

There are no landlines in war-shattered Afghanistan, so mobile phones introduced since the fall of the Taliban are hugely popular. The streets of Kabul are lined with boys and young men selling recharge cards.

Children in Crisis gave Nooreddin the investment he needed to get started. Since then he has been self-financing. This is not an option with the younger children. Naqibullah is 11 and he had been seven years in the orphanage when Children in Crisis reunited him with his mother. He could never remember a time living at home, but he used to visit. "When he had to go back to the orphanage, he was crying, 'I don't want to go back, you are sending me to prison'," says his neighbour, Shikiba.

His father was killed in a rocket attack on Kabul during the civil war. His mother was badly injured and is no longer with the family, so Children in Crisis has reunited Naqibullah with his aunt, Fahima, who he used to visit from the orphanage. In traditional Afghan society, the extended family takes care of children whose parents have died. It is only when they cannot afford this that the children are sent to the orphanage.

To help the family care for Naqibullah, the charity gave Fahima a cow to provide for him. She sells milk and curd to bring in enough money to pay for his upkeep and schooling.

Naqibullah's neighbour, Aimal, has been reunited with his mother. He is 12, so Children in Crisis set up his older brother selling the mobile-phone vouchers to pay for his upkeep. He used to visit his mother once a month. "I was so happy when they told me I could come back and stay for good," he says.

There are 1,300 children in Kabul's orphanages, divided between the big boys' orphanage and a second, smaller one for girls and younger children. So many have living parents that the orphanage in effect closes for the winter holidays and most of the children go home, leaving only a small number of genuine orphans, and those whose parents live too far away. It is run more like a boarding school than an orphanage.

It is a strange relic of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan: a Communist institutional solution to grinding poverty. But it has survived, through the civil war and the Taliban era. Under the Taliban, it was even worse, say the children. "They didn't provide any education or anything," says Nooreddin. "They were just keeping us alive."

Children in Crisis has reunited 300 children from the orphanages with their families in Kabul. It has been an uphill task: the charity faced considerable opposition from the directors of the orphanages. But now the Afghan government is convinced, and has asked the charity to act as an advisor for a nationwide scheme to get children out of orphanages and back with their families.

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