I stared intently out the car window, trying to understand this new place I spent the last two days traveling to: Kabul. I watched construction workers sweating in the morning sun, kicking up dust with every step, and kids playing tag on a side street. I won’t lie, my heart raced a bit when I heard a helicopter zoom across the sky above us.
That afternoon, I was treated to a historical tour of the city: Babur’s gardens, speckled with families picnicking and children playing in the grass; Eid Gah Mosque, buzzing with people at evening prayer time; Darul Aman Palace, a now-ruined European palace whose grounds had been transformed into a dozen mini soccer fields, complete with children scurrying after their make-shift soccer balls.
We ended atop Maranjan Hill, with a view of sprawling Kabul and young boys flying kites against the reddened sunset sky. I watched as families milled around and enjoyed the moderate September weather.
I was in an active war zone. But take away the occasional military vehicle swerving through traffic and the heavily walled compounds along the streets, and that fear-inducing title wouldn’t have seemed so obvious.
The potential danger of the city was never lost on me; per the security team’s advice, I was always on high alert. Within only a few hours of being in Kabul, however, I learned that life goes on, even in a war zone. Parents still send their children to school. Business owners still open up their stores as the sun comes up each morning. And young people still hunt for jobs after graduating from university.
That’s why Creative Associates International’s work – increasing employment placements and wages for Afghans through training programs – is so critical. I realized that although the focus on such run-of-the-mill employment and education projects was to me unexpected in a place like Kabul, it was also completely appropriate. Even in the most uncertain times, people still need paying jobs to support and feed their families.
The Afghanistan Workforce Development Program aims to do just that. Already, in its first year and a half, the program has trained more than 9,000 Afghans, and placed or promoted 4,176.
The program partners directly with private sector companies like Afghanistan Wireless Communication Company, Afghanistan’s largest wireless communications company; Afghanistan International Bank; and several construction companies throughout the country.
A few days into my visit, I asked Salem Helali, Creative’s Deputy Chief of Party, why he does this job. He told me that it is his duty, as an Afghan. He told me it is his team’s job to build skills. Others will build buildings, he told me, but Afghans “need to be able to build [their] own country.”
He told me that this project actually makes a lot of sense as compared to some of the now infamous infrastructure programs or aid schemes. Having more employed workers is naturally better for a country’s economy, but to the Afghans involved in the program, it’s really about gaining skills, finding a job, and earning enough money to support themselves. When Salem talks to his family and explains his work, they understand.
“It’s realistic, it’s practical, and it works,” he told me.
I spent the week meeting others who felt as strongly as Salem, those who understand the importance of the project – providing people with marketable skills and secure jobs.
One morning, I met a group of women, only a few years younger than I, who had just finished a training course through the Afghan Workforce Development Program. It focused on business administration and finance.
Afterward, I spoke with one of the girls, Mursal, whose fluent English amazed me. She took the training course while enrolled in university – every day, she attended classes in the morning, and then the training course in the afternoon.
When I asked how the training has helped her, her face lit up with a coy smile: within 10 days of completion, she was offered a job at the Ministry of Public Health. Now, she will finish her degree while earning money for herself and her family.
When I think about my time in Kabul, Mursal and her friends come to mind. The images that stick in my head are not ones of violence, poverty or devastation. They are of routine activities and everyday dreams.
I know that as I sit here in my office, thousands of miles away from Afghanistan, kids are still playing tag in the street. Cars are swerving left and right and honking at each other. Goals are being scored in the soccer games at Darul Aman Palace. And Mursal, who was shy at first then held my hand, who hugged me goodbye and sent me a Facebook friend request, is busy at her new job.