Afghanistan: Women's refuge inspires laughter and song

10 June 2016
Afghanistan: Women's refuge inspires laughter and song
Women with mental health problems enjoy a morning outdoors in the Marastoon's sunny orchard. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Jessica Barry

For women in Afghanistan, raising children in the midst of conflict is a lifetime struggle. And when this is coupled with poverty, illiteracy, violence and back-breaking work, the strain can leave deep emotional scars.

If they are lucky they may find solace through their own inner strength or with help from their family, or through the kindness of others who care. Such is the fate of 70 women with mental health problems who are living in a Marastoon, or house of refuge, run by the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Kabul. Some of them are newcomers, others have been there for decades.

One recent morning, 12 of the women could be found sitting in a circle under the spreading trees in the Marastoon's orchard, singing songs and enjoying an hour of freedom outside their walled compound.

Their carer, Amina, one of 11 women who take it in turns to look after the women, sat in their midst, singing too. "They are always happier and more relaxed when they are out in the garden," she commented as two visitors came by. After introductions and a few welcoming stares the singing resumed. This time it was a famous folksong, 'Allah Shahkokoh jan'.

Amina (in black), sits in the middle of the circle, singing with the other women. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Jessica Barry

Belqis, a mother of four, who has been in the Marastoon for the past two years was in full voice. "No one can come and go without my permission," she exclaimed when the song was over, amid nods and laughter from the other women.

Keen to practice her English, Freshta, who was sitting next to Amina, recited a curious ABC. Her sister is also in the Marastoon. A third sister died there.

Middle-aged Nafisa spoke of her dream of becoming a teacher.

It would have been easy to dismiss these women as the sad victims of domestic violence, failed marriages and abuse, which many of them are. But this would be to do them a disservice for they are also survivors in the self-created worlds they inhabit. Nor have they lost their ability to find pleasure in simple things -- fresh air, songs, wild flowers -- that are so easy to lose sight of in the midst of conflict. Though they remember the past, and even receive visits from their families, or occasionally go home, each has created a protective space around herself where she is invulnerable.

Nafisa (left) dreams of becoming a teacher. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Jessica Barry

"I love these women," admited Amina, (28) from Bamiyan, who has worked at the Marastoon for the past four years. Without any formal training she has nevertheless the innate empathy to understand the women's moods and needs. She also cares for a number of much more severely ill women who live in the same compound and need constant attention. "One of them is very strong and becomes jealous easily." Amina remarks. "She makes a lot of noise. But I feel very happy when I am talking with her."

Amina's family has had its own share of suffering. Her father is disabled and mentally frail. One of her brothers was injured 14 years ago in the conflict and is also disabled. Both are patients at the ICRC's Orthopaedic Centre in Kabul.

"It would be wonderful if you could bring us some colouring books," Amina remarked. "When the women have to be inside they like painting flowers."

"We also watch television," one of the women giggled. "Indian movies."

"And football," murmured another.

"When you visit us next time we will bake a cake," suggested one of the ladies in the circle.

"I never cook", sniffed Belqis. "I have always had servants to make my meals."

Between conversation and song, the hour passed quickly by. When it was time to leave the women refused to go back to their compound. The sun was still warm, casting green shadows over the grass. Amina sat down with them again, and started another song, until she could gently persuade her charges to return.

Looking back at them sitting there, it seemed for a moment that it was not amongst these women that Afghanistan's many sorrows are manifest, although indeed they are; it was as if these women had glimpsed the elusive peace that so many in this sad, war-torn country are searching for.