Dreaming of Duvets
I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread
softly, because you tread on my dreams.
- William Butler Yeats
by David Smith-Ferri
October 21, 2012
Published by Portside
Haroon has recurring dreams. Haroon whose father was killed
when he was a boy and who remembers a gnawing hunger during
the long winter in every year of his childhood. At night, he
dreams that someone drops him from a great height. He
freefalls through the air, crashes to hard ground, and dies.
During the day, he dreams of relief from the anger and
confusion that pursue him, and of being a photographer, a
Faiz, who lost his parents when he was a boy, and whose
brother was shot and killed in front of him, has nightmares,
too. Each night at the Afghan Peace Volunteer (APV) House here
in Kabul, as he sleeps against the wall a few feet away, his
moans and cries wake me. By day, he dreams of being a
journalist, of marrying and raising a family, of a world
without borders and war.
In Afghanistan, with a child mortality rate of nearly twenty
percent, many children never even have a chance to form
dreams, yet alone to realize one. Life is especially hard on
children whose families flee their homes, leaving behind not
only their land and livelihoods, but their social networks.
Across the country, four hundred people are displaced every
day by violence and poverty, and many of them choose to come
to Kabul, carrying their shattered dreams with them. Kabul, a
city built to support 300,000 people, is now home to over five
Last winter, particularly fierce, dozens of very young
children froze to death in squalid, "refugee" camps on the
outskirts of the city. An estimated thirty-five thousand
people live in these camps, many of them having fled to Kabul
from areas of heavy fighting in Helmand and Kandahar
provinces. When we visit these camps, we find the residents in
tattered cotton clothes and bare feet. They live without
electricity or plumbing in huts they've constructed from mud,
and the deaths of their children last year were as wholly
preventable as the war their families fled.
Every evening at the APV House, a small group of young Afghan
high school students gathers in their bedroom to sip green tea
and study, leaning over their books on the one table in this
sparsely furnished house. When night overtakes them, they
sleep on thin blankets on a concrete floor, the pulse of the
street below beating in their blood, its sounds seeping into
Every morning when they wake, these young men roll up their
blankets and makeshift pillows in a large sheet and carry them
into another room. They sweep the floor with short-handled
straw brooms purchased in the bazaar. Two hours later, their
bedroom and late-night study is converted into a classroom
where up to twenty Afghan women meet six days a week to learn
how to sew.
These women, all living nearby in the Pul-e-Surk neighborhood
of western Kabul, are of mixed ethnicity, Hazara, Tajik,
Pashtun. That in itself is extraordinary, in a country where
mistrust between ethnic groups is a major obstacle to the
kinds of cooperation needed to build lasting peace. They have
been meeting now for several months.
The class also offers a burgeoning network of social support
for women whose responsibilities and daily routines often
isolate them. Because of cultural norms and security concerns,
many of these women spend their entire days in their homes, a
place where they are subject to physical and emotional abuse
from men and the physical and psychological strain of endless,
often hard work. "I always wanted to have a job and earn an
income for my family," Faribah says, "but I have never been
allowed outside the house. Coming to this sewing class is the
very first time." Others echo her words. "This is the first
time I have been out of the house to learn something,"
Shararah says. "I have never been allowed outside before." She
adds that her husband is not employed and so there are
problems at home. In a statement that brings murmurs of
assent, Faribah tells us, "We are human beings. We have
feelings and sentiments and we all want to be free, to have
dignity, whether male or female, but here in Afghanistan we
cannot be free. It is not only because of social traditions,
but also because of war."
The sewing group has also become a safe place, where dreams
can be named, held in public, and nurtured cooperatively.
These are mothers who dream of feeding their families, of
getting out forever from under the crushing weight of poverty.
Every day, when the women arrive for class, this dream enters
the room with them. Its voice rings in their laughter, and
speaks in the rapid, metallic sounds of the sewing machines.
Long after they leave, it lingers.
And now its voice has grown. With winter approaching, Faribah,
Shararah, Golbahar, Turpikay, Shakirah, and the rest of the
group have decided to sew their personal dreams together with
those of their community by making large, warm comforters -
Afghan duvets - for families living in Kabul's refugee camps.
In the camps last year, children who died were sleeping with
family members, but they rolled out from under their small
blankets. A New York Times article quoted the father of one of
the children who died, "Adults know how to keep warm, but the
little ones do not." So the women will make duvets that will
cover the children and protect them all night.
The women will work closely with the Afghan Peace Volunteers
on this project. Over the last week, they have held several
meetings. They approach planning for the project with
intelligence and confidence, drawing on their understanding of
people and how things work in Kabul. Their statements are
strong and clear. For warmth, the duvets will be made with a
double layer of wool. They set a fee of 100 Afghanis (about
$2) per duvet that will be paid directly to the seamstress who
makes it. At an expected two duvets per day, a woman can earn
eighty to a hundred dollars per month, and make a significant
contribution to the welfare of her family.
At today's meeting, they are equally strong on their ownership
of the project, and their insistence on being involved in its
administration. "We want to be involved in all decisions,"
especially those related to who is involved. A spirited
discussion ensues. "In Afghanistan," they state clearly, "we
have all learned to cheat and lie." The cream of the aid money
flowing into the country is skimmed off the top by corrupt
officials. No one needs to point this out or explain it to
these women. They have only to look around and see how little
has been accomplished despite great expenditures over the past
eleven years. By the time aid reaches the people it is
supposed to assist, so little of it is left that they feel
justified in taking what they can. The duvet project, the
women say, cannot succeed without honesty. And this requires
clear rules, oversight, and accountability.
Today's meeting ends. And slowly, slowly the women leave,
saying long, lingering goodbyes to each other. Their dreams
lay at our feet. All day, we tread softly.
Afghan people have a saying. We dream dreams and nothing comes
of our dreams. But still we keep dreaming.
[David Smith-Ferri is a member of Voices for Creative
Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org) and the author, most recently, of
With Children Like Your Own. He is in Kabul at the invitation
of the Afghan Peace Volunteers ( www.2millionfriends.org). He
can be reached at [log in to unmask] ]
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