Fri, Jan 13, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Heroic defender of Afghan orphans battles corruption and greed

In a country where caregivers steal food out of children’s mouths, a young director overseeing orphanages jostles with deeply embedded unscrupulousness

By Rod Nordland  /  NY Times News Service, KABUL

In a country desperately in need of a hero, Sayyid Abdullah Hashemi would like to apply for the job.

It would be difficult to find a more wretched place to go to work on that goal than at the National Directorate of Orphanages in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and the Disabled, where Hashemi became the director seven months ago. He wasted little time shaking things up at an agency that had become infamous for orphanages where caregivers stole food out of children’s mouths and mattresses from under their bodies.

Whether he was motivated by altruism, ambition or some mix of the two might matter little, given the importance of his work. However, how Hashemi fares over the long term may be an important sign of whether a reform ethic stands any chance against the corruption so deeply embedded here.

First, Hashemi focused his energy on the two major government-run orphanages in Kabul, nightmarishly run-down places with dismal reputations. One, the Tahya-e-Maskan Orphanage, was notable for having poisoned its children en masse, serving them milk so far past its expiration date that it nearly killed several of them.

Now, the Tahya-e-Maskan Orphanage is a tidy and obviously well-maintained place. It offers computer science and English classes, with 36 graduates sitting for university entrance exams this year and 44 children on scholarships for study abroad.

“In the 12 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a director like him,” said Wahidullah Hamid, an orphan who at age 17 speaks English so well that Hashemi hired him as an English teacher as soon as he graduated from the orphanage’s high school.

Hashemi is a lean, short man, wiry and restless, with a dark beard that makes him look older than his 29 years. He has a sense of self-esteem that seems to come easily to many called Sayyid, a name that identifies its bearer as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed’s family. It is not difficult to read his confidence as arrogance and his detractors do, accusing him of high-handedness and being driven by personal ambition.

Whatever the source of his confidence, it is mixed with a large measure of righteous indignation. He is an orphan himself; his father was killed fighting the Soviets during Afghanistan’s occupation by the USSR in the 1980s.

“I understand what orphans are suffering,” he said.

His early efforts drew the attention of a venerable Afghan charity, Parsa. Best known for its physical rehabilitation work with the war wounded, Parsa has for the past six years also been running an orphanages program.

Unlike most charities in that field, which tend to focus on private, foreign-managed orphanages, “we wanted to work within the government system,” said the group’s executive director, Marnie Gustavson.

It proved to be six years of “beating our heads against a wall,” she said.

Then came Hashemi, whom she described as “someone we could believe in.”

For years, Parsa had been buying items like blankets and warm clothing and delivering them to government orphanages, only to have the management sell them on the open market as soon as the aid workers left town.

Parsa offered to raise some money if Hashemi would make sure it was spent honestly at some of the 33 orphanages in the provinces, many of them quite remote. In turn, Hashemi decided to do something that Gustavson called unprecedented: He actually traveled beyond the capital to visit the orphanages for which his directorate is responsible.

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