MUNCIE, Ind. — Just weeks before the U.S. was officially set to complete its troop withdrawal following a two-decade war, the Taliban have seized power in Afghanistan.
Right now, there’s uncertainty and concern over what the future holds, especially for Afghan women, due to the fears that the Taliban takeover could mean a rollback of rights.
The previous Taliban rule was a dark period for Afghan women, but since it was overthrown, women and girls have made significant progress, some of that thanks to the help of people like Bibi Bahrami, founder of AWAKEN.
“We tried to work with those areas for last 20 years for the women and children and they were very dear to my heart because they suffered so much money, occupation, and war problems,” said Bahrami.
Bahrami, who lives in Muncie, has dedicated her life to serving others and for the last 20 years, that focus has been on the Behsood district of eastern Afghanistan, where she was born in the village of Qala-e-Malakh.
“I started my nonprofit after 9/11 when there was opportunity to help those women and girls who didn’t have the opportunity before,” Bahrami told CBS4. “I always remember the girls I left behind and who had the same desire, interest for education.”
Bahrami and her family were forced to flee a war-ravaged Afghanistan after the Soviet Union invaded and the war devastated the country and led to the death of millions, including several members of her own family.
She lived in a refugee camp for six years in Pakistan, where she spent her time helping others by cooking, cleaning, administering vaccinations and IVs for anyone in need of care since there was no safe way for girls to receive an education.
After meeting her now-husband at the refugee camp, she moved to Indiana to join him as he pursued his medical career, while she learned English, earned her GED, and continued her education at Ball State University while raising her six children.
She has taken her lived experiences she calls ‘inspirational’ and translated them into helping others receive educational opportunities, vocational training, and providing access to healthcare for women and children.
“We started with the school in the village. There was no school existing for the boys and girls,” said Bahrami.
The co-ed school was completed in 2004 and now has more than 1,500 students from grades 1-12, according to AWAKEN. One year later, AWAKEN reached another milestone.
“I opened a vocational center for those older girls that could come back and learn how to at least read and write, the basic hygiene.”
In addition to reading, writing, and practicing hygiene, Bahrami said the vocational center helps provide women with the skills to sew. This is done through a 6-month training program.
“These women sometimes in the villages they don’t own anything, and they don’t go anywhere. They just take care of their families,” said Bahrami. “When they go to the vocational center and I give them the sewing machine, they’re so grateful that they own something in their house.”
Another challenge Afghan women and children have long faced is access to health care. Bahrami wanted to address that and provide a place for women and children to come.
“We built a health clinic there in the area because of course, you have to be healthy to go to school,” said Bahrami.
In 2011, the first clinic in the Behsood district of Afghanistan was created thanks to the efforts of Bahrami and the organization’s volunteers and board members. Several years later, in 2016, they opened the Maternal and Child Health Unit, which is an addition to the health clinic and provides prenatal, delivery, and postnatal care to around 200 people per month, according to AWAKEN.
“When they get pregnant, they don’t even have nutrition in their stomach, but they’re surviving and trying to do their best,” said Bahrami.
In 2019, they expanded their efforts even further, establishing a mobile health clinic to reach villages beyond Behsood. The van travels five days a week, providing basic health care and life-saving vaccines.
As Bahrami explained, the efforts are made possible through donations, fundraisers, and also those on the ground in Afghanistan who have been crucial to the success of the nonprofit.
“I’ve been truly blessed,” she said. “A blessing that I was able to have family there who have direct connection with the government and in the village.”
Building on donated land, Bahrami said they have been able to put every dollar raised towards the nonprofit’s mission and the direct services that impact those in need.
Taliban takeover and moving forward
“At this point, it was, to be honest with you, was very shocking and we’re in like a numbing condition at this point,” she said. “The people are reaching out, trying to be in contact with our family and the people that work for me. There’s a lot of attacks and there’s been a lot of threatening.”
Bahrami said right now, they are encouraging women to stay home. Her nonprofit has halted all services except for the health clinic based in the village. They know many have come to the village sick and scared and know how crucial it is to keep that service running.
“The male doctors are seeing the patients at this point and the rest of the service is kind of on hold,” said Bahrami.
The images coming out of the country are difficult to see, said Bahrami, but she shared that it is also the reality that many have lived for so many years.
“The people who cannot go, they have no means of traveling, they have no financials, they have no ways of getting out. They have to either die or they live there and accept the situation,” she said. “These are very vulnerable people in trying to survive, with not having much education unfortunately and it hurts me a lot.”
“It’s very difficult on a lot of people.”
What many Afghans are living now and for many years, Bahrami said is a “method of survival.”
“Having opportunity and going places and escaping, it’s very rare for the women,” she said. “For the men, of course, I mean if they don’t like it, they try to go away or they travel, and a lot of these women are left behind with children.”
Bahrami noted many are in search of a better life for their families, but women are left behind to suffer with their children and face challenges like food insecurities — something she said she’s witnessed firsthand.
“There are people starving, they don’t have bread to give to a child before they go to sleep,” she said. “Everybody wants to strive to get better and have food and shelter and we have been deprived of that unfortunately with so many attacks and so many situations that has come to the country.”
Since Bahrami came to the United States in 1986, she said she has been back to Afghanistan more than six times and has also traveled back to the refugee camps in Pakistan. Each time they return, Bahrami and her husband bring medical and humanitarian supplies to treat as many people as possible.
“I have gone several times during the different rulers and witnessing those women and children, it’s very, very difficult,” said Bahrami.
Although Bahrami worries about what the future may hold, it’s her faith that is keeping her spirits alive. She said she hopes history does not repeat itself and asks people to pray it does not.
“I’m trying to be positive and encourage them that there is a hope, and we believe as a strong believer that God has a better plan for us,” said Bahrami. “We tried our best – the United States tried our best to help out and everybody tried to do their best in spite of what’s happening there.”
“I want everyone to keep their prayers, be positive, and to support whatever way they can help the most vulnerable and needy people in Afghanistan,” Bahrami asked.