Community grows under pressure

Dirk and Nel work in Afghanistan where Dirk is the Executive Director of a registered Christian NGO. Nel supports Dirk and, being a paediatric and psychiatric nurse, also works part time training nurses at a mental health project in the west of Afghanistan. While in Australia they took time to share with GO about their work.

GO: Please tell us about your work.

Dirk: The general purpose of our organisation is to serve the people of Afghanistan. The expatriates in our organisation feel called to work out God’s love in practice on the ground. Because we are a small NGO we focus on the ‘niche’ of finding innovative solutions to problems Afghans face. In partnership with international agencies, we bring in aid funding and volunteer professionals and connect these with local expertise. Innovation happens when Afghan and foreign specialists collaborate to find solutions that are actually right for Afghanistan.

GO: What of the mix of ethnicity and faith backgrounds when expats work alongside Afghan locals?

Dirk: Afghan society has at least 34 (some say 64, depending on how you classify people) different tribes, the major tribes being the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. In our projects we avoid any perception that we are siding with one tribe. We have about 500 employees, and the foreign volunteers come from all over the world, including Australia, Singapore, Europe, America and Canada. Virtually all the foreigners who work for our organisation have a protestant background, with one or two with a Roman Catholic background.

It is quite a powerful message and example to the Afghans when they see that, as foreigners and Christians with different backgrounds and origins, we are still able, somehow, to work together. Of course that is pretty biblical – through our love for each other people will see that we are God’s people.

GO: What are the communities you relate to in your daily life?

Nel: I relate with the foreigners and Afghan people who work in our organisation, and also Afghan neighbours who live in our apartment block, so I get very natural contact with neighbours and people in the street.

Dirk: For me, there are several communities. First there is Nel and myself as a couple, then there is the management team of six directors and myself – directors for personnel, finance, health support etc. – who I meet with every week. The leadership team involves those directors plus the team leaders of our seven regions. That group meets quarterly to take major decisions in our organisation. The community of leaders of other like-minded agencies in the region also meets regularly.

GO: What difference does it make to meet with other leaders?

We are all members of God’s team here on the ground. We each have our own part to play, but we are working together in a bigger team that has no formal structure, but still it’s there. It’s very enriching to meet because we share similarities but also have different perspectives and contexts. We also very much need each other, just like the various parts of the human body. The hand cannot say to the foot “I don’t need you”.

GO: How has living in a high-risk country shaped you as a community?

Nel: In the wider community, we have a member care network which I am part of. Every spring we arrange workshops such as the ’Transitioning Well’ seminar which prepares the people who leave in June to transition well: for their children in the community, how to say goodbye, and to prepare them for returning to their passport countries.

This year there have been several attacks on foreigners and places where we work and meet. This is a disturbing development because for us as member care people, there is much more to do. We also could not do what we had hoped to do. Actually, in such circumstances we needed each other so much and went through a grieving process together. Grieving alone is much more difficult than grieving together as a community, and feeling the comfort and compassion that comes from the Lord.

Dirk: If you are in trouble together, it is actually very helpful because you can debrief each other in an informal sense. There is a lot said about post-traumatic stress syndrome, but probably not enough about how stress can actually strengthen you. We see that, for instance, in Afghan women. When somebody from a Swiss donor agency visited one of our women’s projects, she commented that our project had strengthened the women and made them very aware and self-confident. Actually those women were already pretty resilient before we had anything to do with them, because they had gone through so much trauma.

Nel: We could call that ‘post-traumatic strength’!

Dirk: That’s not to say that people are not damaged by stress – they are, and irreparably. But that is not the only story.

Nel: It has strengthened them and us. The Afghan people have gone through this so often, and now we as westerners understand them so much better.

Dirk: I think living in an insecure context also corrects our faith, because in many ways we have been influenced by the prosperity gospel and the general tendency of Christians to believe that God will keep them happy and safe. There’s nothing in the Bible to suggest that, if anything there is the opposite in the New Testament; we can expect to suffer. We have worked that out of our faith and our world view, and in Afghanistan suffering is part of our life. Actually our faith is strengthened by it, and our theology of risk and suffering has been adjusted to become more biblical.

GO: What has been your focus as you’ve led this community through difficult times?

Nel: One of our Afghan workers told me that under Dirk’s leadership they felt understood and that he was right beside them as a friend. They also ask me if we could please consider staying a bit longer instead of leaving in September.

Dirk: For me, the overall goal is the long-term sustainability of the organisation, equipping of the Afghan staff, and thriving of the expats. One advantage of working in an organisation that has a long-term perspective is that we hardly ever have to make short-term decisions. Even when we recently drew down a team in Kabul from well over 30 to only 10, the first considerations were the long-term sustainability of our organisation and the wellbeing of the workers. We temporarily withdrew to get through a period of additional risk so that in due course they could return and continue the work. From a western perspective that is counter-cultural. We expect everything instantly but in Afghanistan, where everything takes more time, having that long-term perspective is appropriate.

We often have a shortage of team members, so there is a pressure for newly arrived team members to get on with the job immediately. However, we say, “No, first do six months of language study. If you don’t, then ultimately your work will be hampered. You will not understand or communicate well with the Afghans and our mission will be impossible to implement”.

GO: Over the long term, violence or tragedy or trouble is inevitable, but does it make a difference when they come in quick succession?

Dirk: It does make a difference because from research and psychology we know that trouble and stress add up. There’s even research that assigns a stress level percentage to stressors such as a bad illness in the family, divorce or losing a job. We have been able to cope with quite a lot over the last few years, but we don’t know whether we can cope if there is one more serious incident. We have therefore made sure that there was always backup for us.

Nel: We were recovering from an attack on one of the places where we meet, and then one month later three of our friends were killed at the hospital in Kabul, and that became a bit much for a number of people in the community.

GO: How has your life in community helped you understand yourself and your role in God’s work?

Dirk: The first thing is that it is God’s work, not ours. We only see glimpses of what is going on, but we must be obedient to the call. We are called to this role, and even if there are many things that are not good enough or that are wrong, that doesn’t really matter; we do the best we can.

Nel: The different parts of the body all have input in God’s work in different ways. It is very special being among God’s children from many different parts of the world. We are the family of God and we don’t find that in our home country, not like we have experienced in Afghanistan in the wider community.

GO: How do you see the future for Afghanistan?

Dirk: People in the Global North generally have very negative perceptions about the future. They think that once the foreign troops are withdrawn at the end of 2014 everything will collapse, but that is only one possibility. If the new president negotiates a settlement with the armed opposition, there would be the least civilian casualties and the best future. If the country splits up into regions run by different warlords that wouldn’t be too bad as long as they leave each other at peace. The worst scenario is if the regions and their powerful warlords start fighting each other in a civil war. While that may happen, and in the west the perception is that that’s the only option, it’s definitely not the only scenario.

Nel: The Afghan people are fed up with the years of war. The younger generation particularly have this longing for change. Many people voted in the first round of elections. We saw on TV that it was a rainy day, and they stood in line for a few hours in some places – many women in burkhas, even a 69-year-old woman who had come on a donkey to the polling station. Though many people have given up on Afghanistan, the Afghan people have not. They are very resourceful, very resilient, and humanly speaking that’s one of the most hope-giving aspects of the country. Of course we believe that God does not give up on any people, on any country, and He’s at work and He’ll continue working there.

GO: What is your prayer for Afghanistan?

Dirk: Firstly, the biblical prayer, that there will be Shalom and everybody will enjoy the fruits of their own labour, and live in their own house. Or, to use the words in Micah 4:4: “Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig-tree, and no-one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.”

Secondly, over the last six years, I have realised how much our work on the ground is often in the limelight, but we are actually part of a much bigger family, which includes our international partner agencies. It’s only together that we can do this work. We may get all the attention, but without the folk at home we could not do our part on the ground. God’s work is the work of the whole body of Christ. Everyone needs to play his or her part. Many are doing that. My prayer is that all God’s people will realise that they have a contribution to make to God’s work!