Afghanistan-a peek into the diary (18)

10 March 2006 (continued)

I have just got back from my second R&R in Syria which was wonderful: I spent quality time with my sister, enjoyed wandering about freely again, strolling around the souqs (bazaars) in Damascus and Aleppo, taking photos of some of the highlights of Syrian life, resting and enjoying the freedom of movement which being out of Afghanistan offers, as well as the higher quality of life and, occasionally, getting frustrated with being chatted up by men or asked for bakshish. We also spent some time in a hammam (public bath-house) which was such fun. Obviously we went during women’s hours, and it was so funny seeing all the women chatting, giggling, and occasionally arguing with each other (their high level screeching during those moments would have pierced a dog’s ear drums!) while wandering around the steam room or scrubbing away at themselves. They were quite fascinated by us being there and obviously made sure to share their food (yes, meatballs and cucumber in steam room—it has got to be done!!!) with us while helping themselves to our belongings e.g. combs and sponges, when they felt it fit to do so. Private space is just not the same in other parts of the world as it is at home!

After my return from Syria, I spent a week in Kabul at a team workshop, which was hard work but also fun. Good to get the whole team together and share experiences and we made some good progress with our planning. One afternoon was quite marked by the persistent sound of helicopters circling above the city, which, ash we later found out, was due to George Bush’s brief visit to Kabul. I got back to Jalalabad last Tuesday and am glad to be back now though—I just don’t like Kabul as much as Jalalabad: the community feeling is not the same and it is so polluted that you always come back with nasal congestion or worse. Being there once every six weeks—before and after every R&R—is quite enough for me.

Today it is exactly five months since I left the UK to come here and I just last week I had my performance review, upon which my contract was renewed for another 8 months, until December 2006. This will see me through to the end of our project, after which I am not sure what I will do with my life. I would like to stay with UNDP and my boss has said he would like to keep me on but we will have to see how things work out and how I feel in a few months time. The UN is a funny old place really—the sluggish, often inefficient system can drive one crazy sometimes and there are moments when I feel that the time and money that is sometimes wasted through inefficiency and too many layers of bureaucracy makes it ethically wrong to stay within the system. There is also part of me which feels it would be lovely to work in a Christian organisation again. Other times I believe that it is precisely by staying in the UN system and fighting for things to change that the system can change…..either way, all those decisions are to be made well down the line, so who knows how I will feel in a few months’ time.

Afghanistan-a peek into the diary (17)

10 March 2006 (continued)

During the last 2 months, things at my guest house, Zulu House, have not been going so well, which has been upsetting. In the past, when work got tough or frustrating, it was such a joy to come back to the guest house and see my friends. However, now the dynamic has changed, due to my housemate’s girlfriend. She is chronically jealous and one of those women who let their own insecurity out on other women. She has taken it out on me in particular (possibly because as a single woman she saw me as a threat, what rubbish! ) and so I have felt quite isolated in the house, especially with Danielle’s long absence in Kabul before the decision was made to relocate both her and Jim to Mazar. Jim has already left and Danielle will follow soon. I will miss them-they are such dear friends and Danielle and I have been so close.

These two factors, coupled with a steep rent increase due to higher cost of the generator, have made me decide to leave my current guesthouse and I am due to move out in the beginning of next month to take up residence in the Taj Mahal guest house (and yes, the building does look like an Indian wedding cake!) . The Taj guys are offering me a very good rate, have a pool which will be great during Jalalabad’s summers which can bring temperatures of over 50 celsius, internet access in the rooms which will finally help me to communicate more regularly with friends and family at home, and many of them have become good friends over the last few months, on those fun Thursday and Friday nights, which usually begin with awild drive from Zulu House to the Taj by Antoine( as a security officer, he is allowed to drive himself, unlike the rest of us who have to use drivers, accompanied by his music selection. One of our particular favourites is “Shame and Scandal in the family”-we crack up every time we listen to it on those drives to the Taj. Recently, we had a casino night at the Taj, which the gurkhas also joined. Brilliant fun.


friends at the Taj

Afghanistan-a peek into the diary (16)

fruit and meat market Jalalabad


10 March 2006

I can’t believe that I am sitting here not with a little electric heater working furiously in the background and at least two layers of clothing to keep out the biting cold, as I have done so often in the past 3 months , but in a T-shirt, the window open and the sun shining in. Yes, spring is finally with us here in Jalalabad, although the evenings and nights are still chilly.

The greatest news of the last few weeks has been that the donor funds have finally reached the UNDP bank account so we can, at last, start work. The engineers are busy gathering quotations for equipment and materials and soon, there should be lots of digging and building going on. This will also solve the problem I have been having with ensuring that my engineers respect their working hours and don’t download music videos and/or view porn on their computers instead of working. Even with the adjustment I made to combat this risk (the shared computer with internet access is now in the corridor rather than in the engineers’ office!!!!), this has been an ongoing problem-evident through hasty closing of pages when big bad boss approaches from behind as well as the slow speed of my internet connection due to the downloading of heavy graphics….

My networking activities have led to the development of proposals for other projects in conjunction with other UN and NGO partners. I would dearly love to take these further and am lucky enough to have a boss who is fully supportive of me taking initiative and do work which is strictly speaking beyond my job spec, which is incredibly empowering. However, despite recent commitments at the London Conference, funding is much sought after and will take time to reach us, not least because proposals have to go through zillions of administrative layers at UNDP country office level, so I am beginning to wear my fundraising hat again to see whether I can cover some of the smaller projects from other sources. We are looking for funding to build a dormitory for girls at Nangahar University (this is a big project, though); funds to work with UNHCR in making Sheikh Misri returnee cluster into a proper place to live; money to do work to make public buildings in Jalalabad city more accessible to people with disabilities, possibly resources to support the Red Crescent by building them some additional rooms for their much needed women’s refuge, and funds to build a Bag-Zanana (women’s park and meeting centre) here in Jalalabad. …..given we could not incorporate that project into our scope of works this time round. There is such a need for more work here in the region and it kills me to find my hands so tied in following up some of the projects I am able to identify.

Security-wise, things are okay here. Obviously, the world-wide reaction to the (re-) publication of the Danish cartoons caused some concern in Afghanistan, too, and generated worries on the part of those working on security that we would see a repeat of the May 2005 riots (which was caused partly because of that Koran being flushed down a toilet). Thankfully, Jalalabad remained quiet with only peaceful demonstrations taking place, but Laghman province saw violence break out which lead to the evacuation of several, largely Danish, nationals and the deaths of two nationals. Other parts of Afghanistan were also less lucky. It made me angry to see how a couple of idiots in their safe offices in the West could publish something which could upset so many people and endanger so many lives as a result, but then again, I suspect some of the violence that ensued was the work of people who used the cartoons as a pretext to flag up other gripes they have with the Western world.

changing tyres

Once you label me, you negate me (part 2)

My interest in the impact of labelling goes back a few years now.  During my MA in Refugee Studies, I came across a body of work which analysed how labelling impacts refugees, services for refugee and refugee policy making in general, and subsequently used this as the basis of my MA dissertation. The latter focused on services for older refugees in Reading, UK, on their appropriateness and on factors influencing their availability and appropriateness. I am still stunned by the findings and thought it was time to share them on here albeit in a summarised format.

As I said in my blog yesterday, labels do have their uses. There is also “no necessary equation of categorisation with stigmatisation and oppression” (Jenkins, R. 2000:20). However, problems may arise when labels are “authoritatively applied” (Jenkins, R. 2000:9) and “represented as having universal legitimacy” (Wood, G.1985:9), not least because labels frequently “serve as a shorthand for policies and programmes and above all access to these (Zetter, R. 1985:97). Dangers in labelling are therefore twofold: on the one hand, incorrect labels may harm certain groups by excluding them from much-needed support (Zetter, R. 1985:97); on the other hand, they can form the basis of altogether inappropriate programmes. The question to ask, then, is not so much whether labelling is occurring but “whose labels prevail to define a whole situation or policy area” (Wood, G.1985:7) and what their impact is.

Refugees worldwide and in the UK specifically have to contend with the label of “refugee” as per the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees: According to this definition, a refugee is someone who

“owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country” (Excerpt as cited in Chimni, B.S. 2000:2)

Refugees in countries worldwide have to go to great lengths to prove that they have left their homes for exactly the reasons outlined in this definition.

 In the UK (and in other countries, too), the “refugee” label is then further fragmented (Zetter, R. 2007:178), with policy makers and implementers having to differentiate between “asylum seekers”, who have sought refuge in the UK on the ground of the 1951 Convention but have not yet been granted the right to stay, and “refugees”, individuals who have successfully claimed asylum and are allowed to remain in the country. This additional differentiation between different types of refugees has its roots in policy designed in the 1990s, when labour migration channels were gradually opening (Flynn, D. 2005: 465) and when the government sought to balance a perceived risk of abuse (Flynn D 2005:475; Home Office 2005:17) with a desire to facilitate the type of migration advantageous to the British economy (Flynn, D. 2005: 465). The resulting need to protect the interests of the state (Fekete, L. 2004:5) and keep undesirable migrants at arm’s length lead to a decision on the part of the government to exclude those who have not as yet been granted asylum from mainstream rights, in order to deter those contemplating abuse of the asylum system from entering the country (Mynott, E. 2002:122). As a result, two new social and political categories of “refugee” found their way into both discourse and policy (Sales, R. 2002:463), each with its own set of corresponding rights and entitlements: “asylum seekers” and “refugees with status”.

When adopted by agencies administering refugee entitlements and services, legal labels become further entrenched in both discourse and policy and are transformed into bureaucratic labels. (Zetter, R. 2007:180).This phenomenon is particularly significant given that non-statutory, private and charitable organisations currently play a significant role in the provision of UK welfare services (Sales, R. 2002:469; Zetter, R. and Pearl, M.  2000:676). Sub-contracting arrangements may force Housing Associations, NGOs, Local Authorities,  other community-focused charities, private sector agencies such as the transport sector and even employers to verify immigration status (Cohen, S. 2002: 153; Humphries, B. 2002:127; Zetter, R. 2007:185) and turn away refugees with the “wrong” status when legislation so demands. This may prevent them from pursuing refugees’ best interest and may jeopardise their neutrality (Humphries, B. 2002:131; Dona, G., 2002:47; Cohen, S. 2002:141), and can influence public perception and discourse about specific groups and their right (or not) to support and services.

Bureaucratic labels can also be the direct result of social labels. Some of these are based on stereotypes. Older people in the UK, for example, are sometimes regarded as frail subjects of care (Peace, S. et al 2007:13) unable to continue contributing to economic life. This label may be bestowed on older refugees in the same way that it is on older British people.

Others may be the direct result of social policy.In the view of some gerontologists, images of older people, refugees and older refugees as helpless partly result from welfare policies. They argue that the very existence of retirement age legislation and emphasis on institutional care creates and enforces perceptions of older people‘s inability to live independently and/or earn a living (Townsend, P. 1986:28 and 37).

A third and forth category of labels is produced either as a result of available funding or as part of a quest to attract funding. Malkki , for example, shows how Hutu refugees in Tanzanian camps are frequently depicted as helpless victims (Malkki, L. 1996:388) and how their voices have to be silenced, their stories neutralised and their resilience discredited in order to attract funding for standardised humanitarian intervention (Malkki, L. 1996:389). Once funding is available this stereotyping has to continue in all reporting to prove the legitimacy of the funding.

The creation of such labels and the fact that they can be used effectively for fundraising is ironic given the completely opposite labels in operation in the UK which describe refugees as scavengers (Lynn, N. and Lea, S. 2003:438). This conflict of ideas confirms that labels are inherently political and/or organisational tools, used when suitable for addressing particular priority concerns.  The image of the potentially parasitic or “bogus” asylum seeker (Hynes, P. 2006:8; Robinson, V. et al, 2003:12; Welch, M. And Schuster, L.2005:407; Lynn, N. and Lea, S. 2003:433), for example, is an intrinsic component of the wider “migrant-as-a-threat narrative” (Ibrahim, M. 2005:173) adopted by both UK media and policy-makers to justify deterrence mechanisms and denial of rights.

Lack of information contributes further to the development of distorted labels, for example when unrepresentative samples of a group are used for advocacy purposes (Jacobsen, K. and Landau, L.B. 2003:97) or during research which is then used to make policy recommendations. One of the main pieces of research available on older refugees in the UK actually only interviewed 20 individuals from 10 different countries (Connelly, N. et al 2008:52).  The risk of social labelling derived from incomplete empirical knowledge is, of course, all the higher in a context like the UK where studies on refugees are limited in number and small-scale and where quantitative and qualitative data on refugees in general and older refugees in particular is lacking (Hardwick, N. 2001:19; Boys-Smith, S. 2001:3; Stewart, E. 2004:37; Robinson, V. 1998:150; Connelly, N. et al 2008:8).


My research sadly confirmed the risks of labelling and the impact it can have on older refugees in the UK. Although Reading constitutes a setting marked by the presence of many committed and active statutory and non-statutory organisations, and although the organisations interviewed provided services which closely matched the challenges described by the refugees consulted, access to such services is restricted by the very same legal, bureaucratic and social labels which generate so much heartache for refugees in the first place. The challenges of older refugees in Reading and services available to support them are, indeed, a potential marriage marred by external pressures.

At first glance, the financial deprivation, lack of right to work, dependence on family and friends, housing problems, ill health, and separation from family which pained the older refugees whom I interviewed may seem part and parcel of the experience of an older refugee in exile. However, close examination of refugees’ accounts highlighted the great extent to which legal labelling dynamics directly created or, at best, merely worsened, some of their challenges. The need to match their stories with the narrow “refugee” definition provided by the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees posed considerable challenges for some of the refugees interviewed (in the case of one couple, it led to a 10 year asylum process as the couple refused to lie to “fit the bill” and make their claim more legitimate).  Both for refugees and the organisations studied, being a “refugee” and claiming asylum on those grounds proved to be  insufficient and both had to contend with the implications of the different fragmented labels  “refugees with status”, “asylum seekers” and “failed asylum seekers”, as discussed by Zetter (Zetter, R. 2007).  Problems suffered by refugees as a result of lack of rights and entitlements associated with these labels were particularly acute at the asylum stage, notably in regards to financial well-being, housing, employment and health care entitlements.

While services exist in Reading which could, in principle, support older refugees in these key areas, the organisations offering them are themselves constrained by bureaucratic labels born out of these legal labels, which govern access to the services in question. At times, organisations had been forced either by the law or by donor guidelines to adopt these labels, excluded older asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers in particular from certain types of support despite their great need for them.

Other types of bureaucratic labels also worsened some of the refugees’ challenges. While those interviewed were not typical in that they all enjoyed support from at least one organisation and its corresponding referral partners, support received was often found to be restrictive due to bureaucratic labels, for example in cases where food or financial aid was only short –term and limited to a certain amount . The organisations interviewed in my study had equally adopted  bureaucratic labels of this nature, for example in regards to funding ceilings, time limitations in awarding support, referral mechanisms and access criteria relating to beneficiaries’ eligibility for state benefits.

Refugees had also suffered the impact of some of the various social labels discussed by critics which, at times, had become institutionalised through corresponding bureaucratic labels. Landlords’ reluctance to give properties to those on housing benefit or exclusions from employment on the basis of age were examples of this phenomenon. Some of the organisations interviewed in my study equally exclude certain groups on the basis of such labels, with some targeting their support women only while others focus specifically on—sometimes divergent—age criteria. Adoptions of such labels was frequently the result of financial and staff shortages of the organisations in question, but were partly also the product of the kind of “informational vacuum”   which Robinson has warned us about (Robinson, V. 1998:151). Not only are research data and statistics on older refugees limited in the UK in general, but most organisations themselves had not tried to fill this gap by consulting statistics available or monitoring relevant criteria, such as legal status or age, on their databases.

Given the various ways in which labels can originate, it is not surprising that in most of the services studied, various labels simultaneously influenced access to or exclusion from services. As a result, most of the services analysed were fragmented in multiple ways and organisations’ potential to systematically reach all types of older refugees was limited by various interlinking factors. The strongest link existed between legal and legal-bureaucratic labels, especially in the case of government or government-funded agencies.

It was relatively hard to gauge whether age worsened the impact of labelling-induced challenges, or whether hardship experienced as a result of them would have been felt equally by refugees of all ages and in all age brackets of the older age category. While the findings offered no reason to challenge the argument that age and refugee-hood may make it harder for older refugees to rebuild their lives in the UK (Stitching BMP and ECRE 2002:3; Norman, A. 1985:1), refugees themselves did not readily mention age as a key contributor to their problems. The minority of refugees who did refer to themselves as old or revealed anxieties about ageing and death were those who suffered from significant health problems, allowing us to wonder whether ill health, rather than age per se, generate an awareness of age and concerns about death. The impact of gender-related issues was similarly hard to gauge, given the low number of women interviewed. Nonetheless, there were differences in the emphases given to different issues by men and women respectively. While further research into the impact of age and gender differences is clearly called for, my research supports the view of many of the organisations interviewed that older refugees and their challenges can be addressed as part of a holistic approach to service provision, provided that significant attention is given to them, and that separate services may not necessarily be required.

My findings and their implications for refugees in general and for older refugees in particular justify a call for a more universal, geographically uniform and legally binding refugee integration framework with clear guidelines as to provision of minimal services. In the interest of refugees in general and older refugees in particular, the British government‘s authority to deprive refugees of scope for rebuilding their lives should be challenged. Politicians should equally be held accountable for policies which reduce refugees, particularly those still at the asylum stage, to dependent welfare recipients. As Robinson states, “simply to grant the right of entry is insufficient if the needs of refugees are then to be ignored for financial, political and social reasons” (Robinson, V. 1993:329). Furthermore, the automatic link between immigration law and welfare provision, which forces welfare providers to implement exclusionary policies, should be broken. Even when funding is given by government bodies, organisations should be able to freely reach out to all those groups with whom they wish to work, regardless of immigration legislation. That said, organisations themselves could equally weigh the implications of accepting government funds, lobby for legislative change, use existing data for planning and advocacy, and actively call for further quantitative and qualitative research on the refugee experience to be conducted and publicised.  The voices of older refugees must be heard and taken into account by the British government and effective channels must be found to pave the way for this.

In a wider sense, my research has made me extra wary of labelling….and I am sad to see that inappropriate, restrictive labelling continues not only socially but also in politics and policy-making today, with assistance of the media. All of us have a responsibility to be mindful of labels we bestow on others, and to challenge politicians, policy makers and the media when they inappropriately use labels. How to do this effectively is something I have not quite worked out….

The full version of my MA research can be provided to those interested and is also available through the University of East London.


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Afghanistan-a peek into the diary (15)

February 2006

Good news-the old mayor is back in office and so we can make progress again with finalising the scope of works. There is still great enthusiasm for building a new slaughterhouse but I still don’t see how that project can go ahead: there are not many slaughter houses in Afghanistan, and so coming up with a suitable design will be a challenge. Then there is the issue of location: the new site now being proposed by the mayor is miles away from town, reachable only via a dirt track and, more significantly, is separated from town by the river. Incidentally, I witnessed two people crossing the river in a very resourceful way. Every day brings me fresh examples of just how creative and resilient Afghans are.


Anyway, how can we ensure proper construction at such a remote site? How will meat get safely from there to the market? Who will cover the running costs for the place be covered and hygiene standards ensured? No-one can currently answer my questions in that regard and often, I get the feeling that officials are surprised that I even want answers to such questions-perhaps they do not want to think that far ahead?

Similarly frustrating is the progress in regards to the access centre for disabled people. I am just so worried that the local director cannot confirm that the ministry will fund the running costs…..I would hate to see something built which cannot function. So many flawed projects like that are implemented by well- meaning aid agencies. I do not want our programme to fund and deliver one of them.

I am much more at peace about our other projects. The drain channels in the town centre and near the market are so horribly blocked and inefficient, such a threat to health and hygiene, and shop owners say that the smell from them and the fact that they are so difficult to cross deters their customers…….for this reason, both the mayor and the engineers are proposing a covered design. Not my area of expertise, so I am glad my line manager is an engineer and is overseeing the technical side of the designs. I would feel a bit out of my depth with that. I cannot wait for work to start……the slow progress has been frustrating us all a bit, as we are already almost 5 months into a 1 year construction project, and no work has actually begun. I wonder when the funds for the project will actually hit UNDP’s bank accounts……donor and UN administration are truly astonishing animals!

dirtty drain which UDG will also work n running along the market site


“Once you label me, you negate me” (part 1)

“Once you label me, you negate me”. Apparently, this is something Kierkegaard once wrote,though on closer analysis, there seems to be some doubt as to whether he actually said it in those words.

Be that as it may, the quote struck a real cord with me when I came across it a few days ago. It summed up something which, perhaps largely subconsciously, I have been feeling quite acutely for some time now and have been mulling over in subtle ways especially during this past year, aware of how many labels I have shaken off since I decided on my career change. But my resistance to labelling goes further back than that: I remember finding it irritating when friends attributed things about my character to me being half German, or when they referred to me as “German Nicky” when they could have used my surname or my hair colour or loads of other attributes or passions to distinguish me from any other Nicola. I found it unnerving during my home visits from overseas stints that people saw me only as “aid worker Nicky” or “Congo Nicky”, slightly set aside from others by virtue of that label-an alien object in some ways. What about “singing Nicky”, “writing Nicky”, “photography Nicky”, bird lover Nicky”? Each of these labels is and remains incomplete without all the others. None of them, on its own, define all I have been and continue to be. Reducing me to just one means boxing me, limiting me, crushing a part of me.

Then again, in our quest for identity, we sometimes contribute to labels sticking with us. I, too, fall in the trap of associating people with specific activities only, making judgments in my head about only one aspect of their personality or one of their interests and hobbies. …..and have, in the past, played to the labels people have bestowed upon me……perhaps out of insecurity, perhaps out of a false sense that without that label, people would not notice me at all. Like all of us, I suppose, I am still on a journey to free myself from any labels, from the wish to associate my identity with a job or a hobby….and to learn to rest secure in the knowledge that only one label in my life matters to me: that of being a loved daughter of a living God.

At least in my case, being labelled has only had the impact of people not wanting to know or understand all of the facets that make me “me”-passions, characteristics, past and present life and work experience……limiting, sometimes frustrating, but this can be changed and resisted. For others, being labelled has detrimental consequences. Is our unqualified, generalised label of “immigrants”, which has so dominated politics generally here in the UK but specifically the EU referendum campaign, really helpful for anything? Does it not lump a Polish migrant who comes here to work in the same pot as asylum seekers fleeing their homes who, in turn, can become tarnished with the same brush as terrorists? Does the careless, negative label attributed to “illegal asylum seeker” not totally obscure the fact that people desperate to find protection here in the UK could not reach the UK borders by legitimate means and, in their desperation, resorted to clandestine practices to reach safety? Why don’t we look beyond the label to try and understand human beings as individuals, with unique motives and backgrounds, histories, passions and characteristics, rather than bantering about terms which are unlikely to educate the public and only serve to engender a distorted view of other human beings, sometimes with negative consequences for them as individuals, citizens or recipients of public services?

We so love individual human interest stories-gossip magazines, facebook and even recent events like the Olympics with their surrounding people-cult show how we revel in individual achievement, passion and life/work. So why do we see fit to label others the way we do, instead of celebrating each and every facet of other human beings as unique and precious, each part of their story as worth hearing and relevant?

(To be continued)

Afghanistan-a peek into the diary (14)


January 2006

I cannot believe that it is already January …..sometimes I just don’t know where time goes. Just yesterday I was looking forward to going home for Christmas, and now I have already been back for a few weeks. It was lovely being home but I also felt quite lost and disoriented for much of the time. How do you answer questions like “How is it out there?”. How do you tell people what it is truly like without worrying them? How do you start trying to sum up all the emotions, sights, sounds, impressions………? I felt strangely lost…..I belonged, but also felt “out of it”; it was wonderful to have more routine, more safe, stress-free days, but equally I am now used to a life where there is rarely a “normal”day, so am not quite sure how to handle “normal” anymore. As for New Year’s Eve, I found the fireworks unnerving. Those I could see were definitely better than loud random bangs with no visible source…….truth be told, I was glad when they subsided, and am not sure if I will ever feel the same about them again.

Although I was not gone for that long, I was greeted by a lot of change upon my return to Jalalabad: most significantly, the mayor of Jalalabad has been sacked, supposedly for corruption and is now in prison, and the new mayor is trying to change the nature of the infrastructure projects to be implemented (I do pray this does not mean we are back to square one in defining the scope of works!). He definitely also has more issues working with internationals and women than the previous mayor had, so I think I have a few challenging weeks ahead of me.

We are now beginning the process of recruiting unskilled labourers for our constructions works, under our “cash for works” component. Just before Christmas, following both feedback from the communities and on the basis of my own observations, I had suggested to my line manager to widen the project scope to include not only disarmed ex-combatants but also people with disabilities, women (where feasible) and returned refugees and/or Internally Displaced People (IDPs) as skilled and unskilled labourers. My manager and the Japanese embassy (our donor) loved the idea, and so we conducted a visit to Sheikh Misri and Tangi Beshoud returnee clusters to see how we could offer them employment opportunities on our project sites.

Again, tea and treats in abundance, whilst the entire community gradually gathered around us to see the project workers and foreigners who came to catch a glimpse of their world. But it was also troubling: a high number of former Afghan refugees are now back in Afghanistan after the government called them back and promised them land. Alas, the government is taking its time with providing the plots needed for them to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, and so they live in makeshift shacks or even tents which UNHCR have provided (despite the fact that this sort of support is, strictly speaking, beyond UNHCR’s mandate, as this agency’s remit ceases once refugees are repatriated). Some of the returnees seem truly desperate: for jobs, for their old life, for their future to begin again and it is hard to see how so many of them can be helped quickly enough. I left the clusters both with a deep sense of satisfaction that we can at least give some of them jobs, and with a profound sadness and even anger that some people have to suffer in this way from the effects of war and displacement.