This Amazing Afghan Student Won a Photo Contest. Then She Started a Life Changing Charity

Airokhsh Faiz

Airokhsh Faiz, 24, is a student at Juniata College where she studies International Politics and Peace and Conflict Studies. She just returned from her home country of Afghanistan to begin the fall semester of her senior year. But this was no ordinary summer break. She started a charity. And in doing so, Airokhsh is joining a growing number of Afghan social entrepreneurs who are stepping up as foreign aid organizations scale down their presence in the war torn country.

Airokhsh, who is a photographer, used cash awarded to her in a photography contest to start a charity effort in Balkh, an ancient city in Northern Afghanistan. “I wanted the money I use for aid to be our own. I decided not to get funding from non-governmental organizations. This is our country and we need to build it ourselves,” she says.

After receiving the cash award, Airokhsh formed an informal volunteer group of youth in her city of Mazar-e-Sharif to survey the working children of Mazar-e-Sharif. She named the team Eidana — a play off Eid-ul-Fitr, the Muslim celebration after the month of Ramadan which is when Airokhsh was to launch her effort.

To celebrate Eid, families that can afford it buy new clothes for their children. Airokhsh and her team of 10 youth were able to distribute 550 sets of new clothes to working children whose families couldn’t afford much at all. Eidana was able to talk to hundreds of children and identify more than five hundred in need of assistance.

When she ran out of money, Airokhsh and her team campaigned to raise funds among Afghans. The culture of giving Sadaqa, or alms, is not only a part of Islamic traditions but also a long-held practice in Afghanistan where giving to charity is thought to prevent bad things from happening to one.

Airokhsh tapped into this tradition to raise more funds and help more people. She also used social media to ask other Afghans to chip in. This enabled her to do more than distribute clothes to working children. “We visited the family of the child who was killed in a suicide attack in Mazar-e-sharif and talked to them. We raised money to buy food and fruits for the family who had lost their only breadwinner, a young boy,” says Airokhsh.

After assisting that family, Airokhsh found out that there were many more in need of urgent help with nutrition. Her team once again surveyed the area and identified more than a dozen families in need of essential food such as rice, oil and wheat. “I talked to a woman who had five children. She was a widow living with her brother. I offered to buy her children clothes but the mother said, ‘we cannot even afford food right now.’”

Airokhsh’s favorite thing about her summer was seeing the children she assisted smile.

“A smile is worth everything,” she says.

Airokhsh knew that these smiles could come at a price. It wasn’t always safe for her and other Eidana members to travel outside the city to deliver aid. Airokhsh says that the security in Balkh has gotten worse in the past two years. Many international organizations have deserted the province due to insecurity, she says as she recalls traveling to the one rural area.

“When I went to Dawlatabad Central village, the people asked me ‘why are you here?’ When I asked them why they were worried, they said that the Taliban were fighting in the next village.”

Airokhsh, like most Afghans, is troubled by the Taliban taking control of more of the country. This summer, she was not even able to visit her sister who lives in the neighboring province of Faryab because the Taliban control the roads and the villages at night.

She also noticed the radicalization of youth in rural areas. Airokhsh recalls that she spent a portion of her summer break debating other youth.“Some of our youth have closed their minds, rather than thinking about progress. Youth who train in Pakistan have become so pro-Taliban. I couldn’t believe it when I spoke to some of the youth who had been completely brainwashed after going to madrasas in Pakistan. It is so sad,” says Airokhsh.

Even though things seem grim now, Airokhsh has hope. She is hopeful about the work she was able to do over the summer. She is heartened knowing about the volunteers who promised her to continue Eidana’s work despite her leaving temporarily to finish her studies in the U.S.

“I think change is possible. We just have to keep trying,” she says.