“Right away I can spot the powerful bond and the mutual affection between the sisters. Saliha, who is five, protectively holds her little sister Reyhan’s hand. Reyhan, three, leans into Saliha, burying her face in her sister’s belly. They call each other Bibi, or Miss. In another world, I think to myself, they could have been child models. Both are breathtakingly beautiful, with big, luminous eyes and striking blond hair. But they are Afghan children living in a barren part of the poorest non-African nation in the world. Between them they have one toy, a small, plastic Winnie the Pooh, the sort you get with a meal at a fast food restaurant. They are barefoot and they don’t attend school because there is no school nearby. They play with the scrawny chicken outside their shelter and make dolls from mud. In all things, they stay together. They love each other; they are sisters.
Saliha and Reyhan lived as refugees in Pakistan and now they are home in Afghanistan with their parents and their two brothers, one of them just twelve days old. They live in the wind-blown, dusty Shomali plains, north of Kabul, a few miles from the Bagram Air Base. I watch the sisters swing from a rope -Saliha carefully pushing her little sister, Reyhan all smiles and giggles- and I look around me. It is a desolate place, hot, windy, everything the color of dust, and I marvel at the family’s resilience. I wonder how I would fare in a place like this. But when I speak to the girls’ father, a soft-spoken, gracious man of thirty-eight, I am struck by his hopefulness and positive outlook. Though he acknowledges the day to day challenges his family faces –the lack of clean water, of a nearby school or clinic- he also tells me how happy he is to finally have a home.
Saliha and Reyhan’s family live in a newly constructed shelter. I am relieved to know that this winter, Saliha and Reyhan will not be out in the open. The sisters will have a roof over their head and will be protected from the notoriously harsh elements. It is no overstatement to say that the girls’ lives have likely been saved by this shelter –in my travels in Afghanistan, I have heard too many stories of children dying in the winter of hypothermia. The girls’ father also tells me that the shelter has given his family a sense of dignity and belonging. Now, he says, he could turn his attention to other pressing matters, such as education for Saliha and Reyhan, a water pump for the malfunctioning water well, a job. If you don’t have a home, he says, you have nothing.
As I leave, I offer a pair of red apples to Saliha. She thanks me politely and calls out to her little sister and gives her the bigger apple. A friend of mine likes to say that there are a thousand tragedies per square mile in Afghanistan. I think of all the Salihas in this country who’ve lost their Reyhans because of homelessness. I think of an Afghan saying, GO hungry if you must, but may you NEVER go homeless. So many families are not as fortunate. They have no shelter. They face homelessness and the daunting prospect of struggling through the winter without the warmth and comfort of a home.”