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In the harsh Afghan winter, barely getting by

In an informal settlement in Kabul, Afghanistan, Fereshta, 15, struggles to help her family get through another hard winter.  Download this video


By Rajat Madhok and Gulistan Mirzaie

On 21 February, UNICEF launches Humanitarian Action for Children (HAC) 2014. This global appeal pulls together the combined needs for those living in the most challenging circumstances – whether large-scale emergencies making headlines around the world or less-visible but no less urgent crises that put the lives and well-being of children and women in danger.  

With the aim of providing critical assistance to 85 million people, including 59 million children, the HAC 2014 is the largest humanitarian appeal ever made by UNICEF – $2.2 billion in total – reflecting the increased impact of disasters and emergencies on children around the world.

In Afghanistan, where upcoming elections and the withdrawal of international forces will likely have a significant impact on security and development, 2014 is a critical year. 

One 15-year-old Afghan girl’s struggle to help support her family in Kabul shows that more effective interventions are needed to assist and protect the most vulnerable. UNICEF's humanitarian appeal is focused on responding to the ongoing nutrition crisis, providing water and sanitation services, and supporting displaced persons and children and women affected by conflict.

© UNICEF Video
For the past seven years, Fereshta has lived in a makeshift settlement with her five siblings and her mother, who earns money sweeping floors in nearby houses.

KABUL, Afghanistan, 12 February 2014 – Winter is always the most difficult time for Fereshta and her family. Their mud-brick house in Charahee Sarsabzi, an informal settlement camp in Kabul, has only a plastic sheet for a roof. Fereshta, her five siblings and her mother have been living here for the past seven years.

They used to rent a house, but the family was forced to move out when Fereshta's father, already psychologically ill, fell into drug addiction. Now, Fereshta's mother must support the family on her own.

At 15, Fereshta is the eldest child in her family. While her sister attends a free school nearby, Fereshta stays at home and takes care of her younger siblings. Fereshta's mother does domestic work in nearby houses, a job that brings home around $20 per month. While at home, Fereshta prepares bolani, a pancake stuffed with potatoes, which her younger sister takes to the market and sells for 25 cents apiece.

Severe hardship

Just a few months ago, Fereshta's brother was hit by a car while selling bolani on the streets of Kabul, a part-time job he did after school to support the family. Ferestha's mother recalls that when her son didn't come home, she went out searching for him, only to be told he had been hit by a car and was taken to a nearby hospital.

When she arrived at the hospital, doctors said they were unable to treat him, and he died. His schoolbag still hangs on the wall of their home, untouched.

© UNICEF Video
While one sister attends school nearby, Fereshta stays at home to take care of her younger siblings. Her sister passes on her lessons when she comes home.

Many families living like Fereshta’s have been displaced by conflict or natural disasters. There are some 51 informal settlements in and around Kabul housing an estimated 30,400 people – some who have been living in these circumstances for more than a decade. To help meet their needs, UNICEF, other United Nations agencies and NGOs distribute food, firewood and non-food items such as blankets and shelter materials.

In summer, families in the settlements have little access to water, food or basic health services, and poor sanitation increases the risk of disease outbreaks. In winter, acute vulnerability, limited shelter options, and little access to basic services combine with harsh weather to make living conditions extremely difficult. During the unusually harsh winter of 2011–2012, for example, 24 children died of hypothermia.

Effective interventions

There is hope for Fereshta and many children like her. UNICEF and partners are looking at better ways to reach children in emergencies with timely and effective life-saving health, nutrition, and water and sanitation interventions.

In coordination with the Afghan Government, NGOs and other UN agencies, UNICEF will contribute to preventing acute watery diarrhoea and cholera outbreaks through extensive chlorination campaigns and hygiene promotion interventions. Prevention of acute malnutrition will be pursued through emergency infant and young child feeding to all affected children. And treatment of children under 5 with severe acute malnutrition will be increased significantly in the years to come.

Back home, after sending her sisters off to school, Fereshta collects the dirty dishes and washes them in freezing cold water. The ground is wet and muddy, and she has no socks on.

One of her younger brothers, who lives with a disability, plays with their dog.

“I hope organizations can see our problems,” says Fereshta. “There is so much we need during the winter, like warm clothing and blankets and food.”



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