AKRON, Pa. – When Zainap first arrived at Le Pelican, an organization started by two French Mennonites in Kabul, Afghanistan, she was 8 years old and afraid. (Her real name has been withheld for security reasons.)
That morning her mother had told her, “You have no father. Nobody can help and you need an education. Come on, let’s go there and see if these kharedji (foreigners) could help us.”
Word had spread in the neighborhood that poor people could get help at Le Pelican, an organization whose name refers to Christian imagery in Europe but is not offensive in Afghanistan. Children could get food and vocational training there.
Zainap had never met foreigners before. She didn’t know if she would understand their language or like their food. She didn’t know her age, either, or where she was from, exactly. She did know she was from the ethnic group called Hazara.
Le Pelican, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner, works predominantly with Hazara, who are treated as outcasts of Afghan society. Boys can get vocational training in baking and girls learn skills such as jam making and tailoring.
LePelican also reinforces and supplements the half-day education that children get at school. Students who can’t afford to go to school, learn what they can in the supplemental program at Le Pelican.
MCC’s Global Family program supports the training, meals and leisure activities that Le Pelican provides to about 250 boys and girls, five days a week, as well as apprenticeship options for older teens.
Arriving at the gate outside Le Pelican, Zainap and her mother were welcomed inside by Ariane Hiriart and a translator. Hiriart founded Le Pelican with her husband, Jacques Hiriart.
Zainap listened to her mother explain the circumstances that led to their need, a story Zainap had not heard before.
Zainap learned that when she was a baby, her uncle killed her father, the result of a fierce argument over money. Eventually the area of the Hazarajat region, in which Zainap’s family was living, ran out of water – “the grass did not grow, and the animals could not eat,” Zainap remembers her mother saying. So they moved to Kabul, the capital city of 3 million people in eastern Afghanistan.
Now 15 years old, Zainap recounted this story earlier this year after coming to Le Pelican for seven years. Had they not moved, Zainap said, “we certainly (would have) starved and eventually died.”
Zainap’s mother could not afford to send Zainap to public school, but through Le Pelican, Zainap learned conversational English and is able to read, write and speak in the Dari language.
Now, when she goes shopping with her mother, she makes sure her mother receives the correct change from the shopkeeper. She applied for legal documents for her mother and reads billboards that help them to find services, like doctors and dentists.
Zainap hopes to attend high school next year and eventually get a university education. She wants to return to her village in Hazarajat as a teacher.
“When I look back over these sad and difficult years, I consider that I am lucky, and I pray to God almighty and thank him from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “I know that we are still very poor, but I have great hope for the future. I tell Mama all the time, ‘Do not worry. I will be a teacher, and I will earn enough money for our small family.’”
Zainap is an example of how Le Pelican, with the support of MCC, can transform a young person’s life, said Ariane Hiriart. She and her husband attended a Mennonite church in Colmar-Ingersheim, France. Those young people then benefit their communities.
“Afghanistan will progress through educated people who will work at bringing peace between ethnic groups and will endeavor to apply justice when there are so often unfair gender segregation issues,” Ariane Hiriart said. “Progress has been made, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.”
Currently 60 sponsors are needed to support MCC’s Global Family program at Le Pelican. Visit donate.mcc.org/project/le-pelican or call your local MCC office to become a sponsor.
Sheldon C. Good is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.