Catholic sisters stay in Afghanistan as foreign forces pull out
It’s been almost 20 years since US military forces came to Afghanistan, in pursuit of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the master mind of the World Trade Center attack. Now, all foreign forces will be leaving the country by the end of August.
It has also been almost two decades since Pope John Paul II launched an organization dedicated to saving the children of Afghanistan. And the Catholic sisters who teach disabled kids there, under the auspices of that organization, will not be going home.
Sisters Teresia Crasta, 50, an Indian from the Institute of the Child Mary, and Shahnaz Bhatti, a Sister of Charity of St Joan Antida from Pakistan, work at the Pro Bambini di Kabul (Pbk) school, started by an organization founded in response to John Paul IIs appeal to “save Afghan children.” It is the only school of its kind in Afghanistan, taking in 50 children between the ages of six and 12 with developmental delays, including some with Down syndrome.
“Our aim is to develop their potential and, when possible, to allow them to be included in the education system,” Teresia said.
The kids’ families are very poor and do not have the means to take care of them. “In Afghanistan, children are often traumatized in the womb, and it is not uncommon for them to be born with problems, malformations or some form of disability,” Sister Teresia said.
The pupils come from neighborhoods “where not a day goes by without an explosion,” Sister Shahnaz added. “Despite the risks, we chose not to settle in the safer green zone because we wanted to live among ordinary people.”
A Pentagon report this week said the Taliban, which was the target of President George W. Bush in 2001 for harboring al Qaeda, has rapidly expanded its presence to large swaths of the country. “The speed at which Afghan security forces have lost control to the Taliban has shocked many and led to concerns that the capital, Kabul, could be next to fall,” CNN reported.
In spite of worries that Afghanistan might soon revert to a regime where women are second class citizens and girls are denied education, the sisters at Pbk plan to increase the school’s enrollment to 60 pupils. In addition, a new sister will be joining the staff, and the Pbk will be offering a scholarship for young women who show promise in becoming citizens who will work to build up society.
Sister Shahnaz said that although the sisters cannot profess their faith in public, “everyone knows that we are Christians.”
“They respect us and appreciate the way we welcome anyone in need,” she said. “We have many friends here and for the rest we rely on God.”