Empathy in an Orphanage in Afghanistan

Mahtab Farid

Mahtab Farid is an Iranian-born American journalist, linguist, educator and public diplomacy strategist with background in communication and international relations. For over a decade, Farid covered the conflicts in the Middle East and reported on US policy in the region for Voice of America and for USI News, which she founded. She served in Afghanistan as a public diplomacy officer with the US Department of State. Embedded with NATO troops in Forward Operating Bases of Ghazni and Bagram, Farid facilitated conflict resolutions, cultural initiatives, and trained over 90 Afghan journalists including women to help Afghans tell their stories. Upon return from Afghanistan, she joined Georgetown University as a Boren Scholar and taught language and culture at Defense Language Institute. Farid is the recipient of US Department of State Expeditionary Service Award for her service in Afghanistan. Her dream is to solve global conflicts with communication and culture.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.11

Empathy can be described as the ability to relate to another person or a group beyond the confines of one’s nationality, culture, race, gender, and economic background. It can also play a prominent role in learning about other cultures, which can lead to more effective policymaking. Let me illustrate this point through a personal experience I had visiting an orphanage in Afghanistan.

When I was assigned by the US Department of State to conduct cultural outreach and public diplomacy programs in eastern provinces of Afghanistan, where daily security was a challenge both for NATO and Afghan forces, I often wondered what programs a reconstruction team can execute in a war zone. Endless strategy meetings with our team, which included local Afghans, yielded suggestions for financial assistance grants, development programs, capacity building projects, and employment opportunities. However, a visit to an orphanage in mountainous province of Bamyan taught us that displaying empathy was a key element in reaching out to Afghans. Without it, we could not have internalized the children’s experience and recognized the urgency of their situation.


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When we visited the Samar Orphanage, our team was greeted by about 50 cheerful kids of all ages—wearing either mismatched shoes or none at all—who led us to their classroom. Unlike ordinary kids who wish to have more toys or fun, these kids wished to eliminate child labor, which they explained to us as we were seated around a large table; kids belonged in a classroom, not in the work force. A young teenage girl said working in the field not only ruins a kid’s childhood, but it can also destroy her future. According to this girl, working in the field exposed Afghan children to abuse, human trafficking, sexual assault, and in some cases addiction to opium. A simple act of empathy introduced us to a significant and mostly hidden social issue. The kids did not ask us for money, toys, or clothing. They simply wanted a chance to tell their stories to the international community.

Teaming up with the director of a local radio station and the orphanage staff, I conducted a media workshop that taught the children how to produce their own show on child labor. In addition, the radio station director agreed to facilitate a weekly segment on his own show. The kids expressed an interest to learn photography. They learned how to take photos and express themselves visually with a number of donated digital cameras and in several training sessions we organized. In those photos one could see scores of smiling kids with hopeful eyes. These photos showed us that here is life in Afghanistan, but more importantly, the need for empathy to help others. In this case, empathy contributed to eliminating child labor for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.