Terror in Chch

Out of terror, hope for Afghanistan

Almost $20,000 has been raised for a project in Afghanistan to honour the victims of the March 15 attack. David Williams reports.

The idea was simple. After a visit to his native Afghanistan in 2017, University of Canterbury engineering student Bariz Shah wanted to help the people, especially youngsters, he met there.

“At the time I didn’t know how I could help them but I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do something. And then recently I decided I wanted to go and give three months of my time and save a bit of money and see how many people I can help over there by establishing a micro-business.”

The March terror attack happened, and the plan evolved.

Rocked by having to help bury some of the massacre’s victims, Shah, 24, president of the university’s Muslim association, hatched a plan to start 51 small businesses in Afghanistan – one for each of the Christchurch victims. The project was initially called The Forgotten Ones.

“It relates to the people of Afghanistan, who’ve been forgotten,” Shah says. The other important component is ensuring the victims of the March terror attack aren’t forgotten. Taking two strands of remembering and weaving them together in an idea for good that comes, partly at least, from evil.

“It’s basically starting 51 fresh new lives,” he says. “The funds of this project will enable a person to change their life completely – from living on a day-to-day basis to being able to provide for their family, to send their children to school.”

He adds: “It’s a perfect way to show that a good thing that can come out of [the Christchurch terrorist attack].”

The intention is to repeat this approach in different countries every two years, inspiring New Zealand youngsters who want to make a difference.

“The entire economy in Afghanistan basically runs on small businesses like this.” – Bariz Shah

According to the Global Peace Index, Afghanistan, home to some 35 million people over an area more than twice the size of New Zealand, is the most dangerous country in the world. Beyond crime, security and terrorism, it has several overlapping challenges.

It has a relatively young population. Most women don’t work outside the family home. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says unemployment doubled between 2007 and 2014.

Aid and development money was pumped into the country after the United States-led invasion in 2001. But those funds are expected to dry up, which will make official jobs, like those in the Government, hard to come by.

Small family enterprises are the backbone of the Afghan economy, the ILO says – which feeds neatly into Shah’s project.

Small businesses can be simple. Shah says one idea is buying a sewing machine and metres of fabric to turn into clothes. Another is buying a mobile cart for selling vegetables and fruit.

“The entire economy in Afghanistan basically runs on small businesses like this. The Government doesn’t provide benefits for anyone, and there’s hardly any work. Anyone that is able to make money, it’s through a business like this.”

Shah is travelling to Afghanistan in November with his wife Saba Afrasyabi, 23, a photographer. To ensure the integrity of the project, they will pose as visiting locals, to ensure that their team, including Afghanistan-based friends and family, are told the truth about people’s circumstances. Video footage of their three-month humanitarian effort will be turned into a film to be shown to young Kiwis on their return.

It’s important youngsters think as “global citizens”, Shah says. “We just want to create mindful young people through a project like this.”

Sleeping rough in Kabul. Photo: Saba Afrasyabi

Shah and Afrasyabi, who are paying for their flights and staying with family while in Afghanistan, started a Givealittle page to raise $20,000 – $392 for each business. The page has less than 10 days to run.

If they raise more than their target – and it’s looking likely since yesterday it was sitting at $19,300 – they’ll either spread the extra money evenly or invest slightly more in needy businesses. (Separately they’re also hoping to raise a few thousand dollars for transport around Kabul and to the Panjshir Valley, and to buy a video camera and microphones.)

“It feels great,” Shah says of being so close to their goal. “It just gives us more motivation to know that the New Zealand public believes in this project and wants to see it happen.”

One of the biggest donors to the project has been Te Raranga (weaving), an umbrella group for Christchurch’s Christian churches established after the 2011 earthquakes. It donated $5000.

Donald Scott, kaitiaki (trustee) at Northcity church, says Te Raranga loved the message that while the city needed support after the earthquakes and the mosques attack, “it’s not all about us”. “For that [support] to flow back into Afghanistan, we felt that was the same heart that we’ve got. We just want to help people that are helping people.”

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel has also written Shah and Afrasyabi a letter of support.

“I found my passion, which is serving people.” – Bariz Shah

Shah has had his own struggles. Born in Afghanistan, his family fled to Pakistan before moving to New Zealand in 2001, a month before the September 11 attacks. After that, his schooling was difficult and, for a time, he lost his way, through drugs and alcohol.

With the help of his family, who live in Auckland, Shah got back on track, and started studying civil and global humanitarian engineering. He’s about to finish his fourth year.

“I found my passion,” he says, “which is serving people”. Shah’s a mentor to Muslim youth through the Rising Leaders Programme – which has grown in importance after March 15.

Shah knows the Afghanistan project will be difficult.

“I’ve come up with this idea and I’m going to make it happen. It’s not going to be easy. We’ll deal with the difficulties as they come. We’ll definitely have footage when we come back to prove how those businesses are going and how those people’s lives have changed.”

His goal is to run these humanitarian trips every two years – to corners of the world that might have been forgotten, setting up businesses to honour those who died in the March 15 attacks. The next one might take them to India or Africa.

One of the project’s biggest motivations is to prove to young people that you don’t have to be a big aid organisation, or be proficient in humanitarian work, to make a difference. “All you have to have is the will and you can do it. This is just the beginning of something that we’re going to carry on.”

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