Stories of hardship and abuse in war-torn countries should never fail to horrify the reader. Mahboba’s tale is one such story, with a good measure of inspiration thrown in.
At age 14 Mahboba was one of about 3000 children at a selective school in Kabul. Then the Russians invaded Afghanistan and everything changed. The teenage boys and girls went from being students to activists and soon the year 12 students were in the streets with signs saying, “Russians get out”. These brave souls were rounded up and imprisoned, most never heard of again. So it fell to the younger ones to continue to protest and this is why Mahboba found herself hiding from Russian soldiers, in an underground cellar, for 20 days.
“It was a horrible time. I did not get the chance to say goodbye to my mother. It hurts me even now to talk of this”.
Then the message came that she would be taken by a smuggler over the Khyber Pass and through to Pakistan. At the last moment her father came to the departing vehicles and gave her a plastic bag. Not clothes, money nor food, but a bag.
“You are my lion daughter”, he said. “You are a fighter. You will survive.”
After 20 hours of walking and driving, the refugees arrived in Pakistan where Mahboba lived for two years with an uncle and her grandmother – six people in a room, in 47 degrees heat.
“I was so sick, but I learnt to appreciate that plastic bag, it was with me wherever I travelled. It kept me clean. My father understood me and what I was about to undergo.”
Seeing how depressed she had become, Mahboba’s brother sold his business and together they walked from Pakistan to India. Here Mahboba met an ‘Aussie’ Afghani who she married at the tender age of 18. Together they journeyed back to Australia and had three children – one daughter and two sons – before separating.
In Australia Mahboba continued to display the ‘lion-like’ qualities admired by her father. Within seven years she had organised residents’ visas for each of her nine siblings as well as her mother and father. But misfortune struck again when her son, Arash, drowned at Kiama on the NSW South Coast. This became a catalyst for Mahboba’s determination to teach swimming classes.
“My life experience has made me a better person. I was already doing community welfare work for Parramatta Council but I wanted to teach mothers so they could teach their children so no more would need to drown.”
More than 60 women graduated from Mahboba’s classes. Many of these Afghani women subsequently joined her English classes. One day her friend, Leila Wahid, shared a letter she had been sent by a female doctor in Kabul.
“As I read, I began to cry. She was pleading for help, describing how children were dying in front of her. It’s amazing how one letter, one telephone call can change you. This letter shook me – something clicked in my life. I realised I had been so busy helping Afghanis in Australia, I had forgotten about my own country.”
Mahboba managed to collect donations of $120 that day, and quickly sent this through to the doctor, who sent back fingerprints of the orphans who this money had helped. Next she sold most of her possessions – jewellery, carpets, whatever she could live without – in order to send a monthly donation to Kabul.
Since then Mahboba’s promise has taken off in a big way. The foundation supports 500 widows and children by sending money, supplies and creating the opportunity for education through the establishment of Hope House in Kabul and the recently opened Handicraft Artisan Training Centre in the Panjshir Valley where Mahboba’s mother was born. Aid goes straight into the hands of the needy, rather than administration. Further schools and community centres are on the drawing board. This year more than 21,000 has been raised in the Winter Appeal; money destined to provide wood, coal blankets, food and medical care for those without heating during the freezing winter months.
Mahboba returns to Afghanistan once a year to share the funds and learn more of the stories and needs of the widows and children her organisation is assisting. She says there is little problem getting a visa for entry and exit, but once there it becomes a challenge to move around.
“Life there is always a challenge and I take this on. I will go no matter what is going on. I will change the mentality which makes widows and children suffer so much. But Afghani women are so strong. We are caring for 500 widows and when I listen to their stories I wonder how they survive.”
“I lost a child. It is difficult to lose your child so you learn to help others so they wont lose theirs from starvation. I grow every day and learn from my painful life to make it easy for others. I think it is a good outcome that I didn’t just become selfish and want more material things.”
In January this year Mahboba was awarded an Order of Australia (OAM) medal in recognition of the founding and ongoing work of Mahboba’s Promise. She is also enjoying the company of her son, Nawid, who, she says, is a beautiful reminder of his older brother. And in a few months she is looking forward to becoming a grandmother with the birth of her daughter, Pamana’s first child. But these achievements still aren’t enough in her eyes.
“I have a big dream for the orphans in my country. I want to make their lives better so they do not go to sleep with an empty stomach. I want them to wake up, have breakfast, put on shoes, and go to school every day. I want them to have what they deserve. Education is the key. One day they will run Afghanistan and I want them to do so in a way that is respectful of all.
For more information visit www.mahbobaspromise.org.