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Pakistan: Meeting women at the heart of the crisis

As a humanitarian aid worker, keeping the bigger picture in mind is essential. In its absence, the plight of those you see along the way could consume you.

As part of Save the Children’s Emergency Response team, I’m responding to the mass exodus of families, desperate to escape the fighting in Pakistan’s Khyber district. It has given me the opportunity to spend time with the women and children here – talking, laughing and playing with them to learn about their experiences.

I met several families in Peshawar today and have never felt more welcomed. Typically, Pashtuns are known for their hospitality and these families, belonging to the Pashtun Afridi tribe, lived up to their reputation.

Meeting Suraya’s family

One of the houses I visited belonged to Suraya* and her family. She lives with her two sisters-in-law in a rented house, which she pays US $35 for a month.

To call their home a ‘house’ would be an obscene exaggeration. Including spouses and children, the family of 16 lives in one room with a small courtyard and a non-functioning bathroom.

Along with her cousins and siblings, Suraya’s three-year-old daughter played with an empty cardboard box, while Suraya and her sisters-in-law spoke with me. They were fascinated by the idea of a young female on her own as their guest and had all sorts of questions for me.

In an attempt to satisfy their curiosity, I obliged. Do I have children? What, not married? Why not? If you don’t get married soon, you won’t be able to have any babies! What do you do when you are home? The questions kept coming.

A harrowing journey

I sipped on the green tea that Suraya served me while I answered their questions. My host was embarrassed and apologised for not being able to serve milk with the tea.

“You see, we haven’t had any milk since we moved here a month ago,” she said apologetically. To convince Suraya and her sisters-in-law that I preferred green tea any day, I had two cupfuls while listening to their harrowing journey to safety.

I heard how a neighbour and her three daughters were injured beyond recognition by a mortar, and how a good friend died after accidentally stepping on a landmine.

Over the course of an hour, I laughed and cried with them as they shared their stories of grief with me. I listened intently, shocked by their experiences. As I looked at the young children lost in their games, I couldn’t help but think of all they had witnessed at such a young age.

Giving all she had left

When it was time to leave, I thanked each and every member of the family for their generosity, then Suraya shyly pressed a small bag in my palm.

When I looked at her quizzically she said, “These are walnuts from our beautiful land, they are all I have left and I want you to have them. Thank you for coming and helping us keep our minds off our problems. Won’t you come again?”

I smiled and thanked her again, not daring to offend her by refusing their present. I don’t think I could ever have walnuts again without thinking of Suraya and her family.

Please help us respond to this crisis – donate to our Emergency Fund

Written by Sarah Kakakhel, Save the Children, Pakistan

* Names have been changed.

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