Photo| Börje Almqvist

It’s a challenge, working here.

For a foreigner working in Afghanistan, there are many rewards, and challenges too.

Someone who has experienced this is Malohat Shoinbodova, Former Planning and Reporting Unit Manager, who is now working as Advisor under the same Unit at the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. Malohat comes from the neighboring country to the north, Tajikistan, and is one of 18 foreign SCA employees among the more than 5 000 Afghans who work for the organisation in the country. “It feels like a challenge just to get to the office because we have to travel through areas that are considered high risk,” says Malohat of the growing instability and rising security risks. There have been bomb attacks in a couple of districts en route to the SCA main office just outside Kabul.

“But when I enter the office, I forget all about security and just think of all the children and other families we are helping all through the country,” she continued.

This is mainly because of her Afghan colleagues.

“I am impressed. They could go abroad, but they have a commitment to the cause and work tirelessly for our target groups: women, children, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups such as the Kuchi nomadic people. Every day, I look forward to meeting my colleagues’ smiles. Every day they give me a new perspective on development.” Malohat easily becomes emotional when she talks about her work and her colleagues.

The country on the other side of the river

Her path to working in Afghanistan began when she was a child in Khorog in eastern Tajikistan. The Panj River forms the border that separates her home province of Gorno-Badakhshan from the very poor and remote north-eastern Afghan province of Badakhshan.

Since childhood, Malohat has listened to Afghan music and heard her father's stories about the country and culture from the time he spent working there in the 1980.

But it was Malokhat’s and her brothers' fear of the people on the other side of the river that led her to where she is today.

 “My brothers and I were with my father in the car, driving along the river, when we saw Afghans on the trail on the other side of the river we were afraid that those dangerous people would see us. So we hid in the back seat.”

When they came home, their father had a serious talk with his children about the people on the other side of the river and about respect for poor.

“My father explained that we should not speak ill of poor people and said that the only difference between us and them is that we are privileged. We have everything and they have very little. No schools, no healthcare, no proper clothing. My father planted a seed in me. After that, the children on the other side of the river stayed in my mind and it became my mission to help them one day,” says Malohat.

The same but very different.

Despite her interest and her feelings, life is not always easy in the new Afghanistan. “It’s hard when you come from a country that has a similar, culture and a language but different in that we do not have the social barriers at home. As a woman I can do what I want. Here in Afghanistan, a woman usually is accompanied by a man when she is outdoors.”

Her commitment and work come at a price.

“I cannot go out on the town in the same way as at home.”

Sometimes the security risk level is high and then the foreign staff do not go out at all after work. If the security risk for foreigners is very high, they may even work from home—remotely.

“I stayed home on some days this year because of security,” she explains. “When we meet in the garden outside the staff housing in central Kabul, there is a curfew in operation after 18.00 hours due to a failed kidnap attempt against a foreigner working for another aid organisation in Kabul.”

Leisure time with limitations.

“Sure, I must limit my life, but working for an organisation that makes a difference to so many people makes it all worthwhile. It is a very good and satisfying experience, but not having a social life outside our housing complex and not being able to move freely is stressful. Luckily, SCA has not had any kidnapping cases, but in order to stay on the safe side, we foreigners hardly go into town.  I can go shopping with an Afghan driver, but cannot attend parties in private hotels. However, I can invite my Afghan and foreign friends to my home.”

The residential area where they live consists of a number of buildings of apartments and rooms for employees on short-term stays. In the small walled area, there are lawns and some garden furniture for residents.

“It's a good team. A family. We plan activities like a music party where we play Afghan instruments and we also have a movie room, and we arrange national day celebrations because there are so many different nationalities working here.”

There is already a course in Dari underway, one of the official languages ​​of Afghanistan, and in addition to socializing daily at their work, they hold a potluck brunch once a week.

A foreigner in Afghanistan.

Malohat tries to dress like the locals, but people still see she is a foreigner.

There is a negative attitude among many Afghans on certain foreigners, but once they  realise you are Tajik or Swedish their attitude becomes very positive instead.

Because of the security situation, relatives may not visit from abroad which is a problem because Malohat has a 13-year-old daughter at home in Tajikistan.

“We have a big family so she is well looked after and I spend a lot of time with her when I am on leave. We work two months at a time and then have two weeks off.”

The fact that the family cannot come to visit agitates their imaginations.

“They imagine a lot of unpleasant situations and circumstances and were very surprised when I showed them my photos. I wish that at least some of my relatives could come here and see that we have decent conditions and are protected and secure. This is not Syria.”

Before Malohat began working in Afghanistan she herself had a very negative perception of the country. This was changed in 2005 when she worked for the Aga Khan Foundation in the northeastern province of Badakhshan and in Kabul. She returned in 2012 and worked as Advisor to the Ministry of Rural Development and Rehabilitation through a World Bank project.

“I have realized how much Afghanistan has to give and I do not feel like a stranger. Our cultures are so similar. People have suffered so much here, but they still have good hearts. They keep moving forward and believe in a future for their children. Behind all the violence in the country, people care about each other at the community level. We should be goodwill ambassadors for the country.”

Malohat says she really appreciates two aspects of working with her Afghan colleagues in Kabul.

They have respect for foreigners and for women. This gives me double respect. They care and are considerate. Treating guests well is also part of their culture. When I was ill one day, a male Afghan colleague phoned and asked how I was. Then he drove me to a doctor.

Malohat points out that SCA is unique because there is no other organisation that works in as many provinces in Afghanistan (15).

“The people trust us. We must teach other organisations how to properly and to assist those who are most in need. We are neutral and non-political, and believe in humanity and human rights.”

Here, however, Malohat thinks that SCA has a weak point.

“We are too modest about our work. The organisation must become more outspoken and teach others how to achieve what we have achieved.”