Stories from Afghanistan
It Takes a Village
Partnering with Volunteers to Support Affected Communities
“I want to support my community. Before, no one knew about malnutrition. Now, I can tell them. I can help. We don’t want to see any more children malnourished.”
As he speaks with our team, 23-year-old Fahim’s* attention momentarily turns to the activities happening around us. Mothers, with children in tow, are gathered in a community facility to receive treatment from Medair’s nutrition team. While a doctor and nurse examine each mother and child, Fahim’s voice is barely audible over the cries of babies who are thoroughly unimpressed at having to be measured and weighed.
This isolated village is tucked away in a deep valley of Afghanistan’s Central Highlands, where the community struggles to gain access to basic nutritious food and essential services, like healthcare. The nearest city, which takes days to reach on foot, can only be reached by a winding mountain pass. During the long winter months, the harsh weather conditions make the journey all but impossible.
When our team first arrived to provide urgent nutrition treatment, Fahim and his wife Roya* both volunteered to help. His friend Amir* and his wife Diba* decided to do the same.
“We visit each family in this village,” Fahim tells us. “We screen children, and if they are malnourished, we refer them to the nutrition team.” The day before the appointment with our team, volunteers visit households to ensure no one misses it.
A mother and her son attend a consultation with Medair’s nutrition team and local volunteers in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan. © Medair
Although the two young couples would never say as much, their work is saving lives.
“Two of the children we referred to the team were suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Today, they are cured,” Fahim says, smiling timidly.
Fahim, Roya, Amir and Diba are four of hundreds of volunteers we partner with in Afghanistan, and four of over 5,000 Medair volunteers around the world.
In every community where we work, our first priority is building relationships and trust. And volunteers are an essential part of achieving this.
“I was born here, I grew up here. I know everyone, and everyone knows me.” Mohammad,* a volunteer in another Afghan village, says proudly.
A volunteer’s firsthand knowledge of their community, its culture, and its needs is deeply rooted. They know every child by name, every sick mother, every village elder. They are keenly aware of the challenges their community faces, and are best positioned to help us address them effectively.
A Sense of Purpose
In the midst of challenging circumstances, volunteers often tell us they find a sense of purpose, of hope even, in the responsibilities entrusted to them.
This is particularly true for refugees who, often, are not allowed to work in their host countries. Living in situations where they’ve lost nearly everything, they are empowered to bring positive change to their family, friends and neighbors. They know people are counting on them, and are determined to see situations improve. They take ownership of projects and lead their communities to successfully implement them.
Mounir,* a Rohingya Site Volunteer, provides new ration cards to mothers and children at a World Concern/Medair nutrition clinic in Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh. © Medair
The purpose volunteers find in this work is best displayed by their energy and enthusiasm—finding any opportunity they can to impart what they have learned.
“One day, there was a big party in the village,” Mohammad recalls. “People came from all across the valley. I thought, ‘Why not share our messages with them?’ So I got up and told everyone there about the importance of good nutrition.”
Outlasting Our Presence
One of the main challenges facing the humanitarian community today is how to make aid sustainable. How does the impact of our work long outlast our presence on the ground? Training people as volunteers is part of the answer. As international and national staff members gradually leave once projects are completed, volunteers are equipped to ensure their communities continue moving forward.
The skills they acquire as volunteers can also open up new opportunities. The volunteers we partner with are, at times, young, barely in their early twenties. Due to their circumstances, many have not had the opportunity to receive a formal education. We hope the skills they acquire through volunteering in health, nutrition, shelter, masonry, etc. is an investment in a brighter future for them and their families.
Ahmad,* who volunteers with our Health team in Bangladesh, shares, “I want to continue to work in the health sector one day, when I am able to go back to Myanmar.”
Rohingya Health Volunteers participate in a training about promoting essential health practices in Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh. © Medair
From Bangladesh to Afghanistan to South Sudan, the challenges communities face, though different, are often overwhelming and hope can easily be lost. Yet, volunteers find the strength and resilience not only to carry on but to be an active part of the solution. They refuse to be defeated because, put simply, giving up is not an option to them.
As aid organizations, we must never take for granted volunteers’ contributions, knowledge and the value they add to our work and the sector as a whole. We must be mindful of our volunteers’ needs, well-being, and the potential stresses linked to their responsibilities. We must ensure they, like any aid worker, are protected and cared for in the work they do, and that the partnership is one of equal footing. Doing so, together, working hand-in-hand, we may continue supporting vulnerable people and communities with trustworthy, professional, purposeful and sustainable solutions.
How you can become a volunteer
We are grateful for every one of our volunteers in our field programs. They are transforming their communities and helping to save lives.
We also rely on the support and skills of volunteers at our Global Support and affiliate offices around the world. Contact an office near you or click here to learn more about volunteering with Medair, and how you can contribute right where you are.
*All names have been changed for security purposes