Written by Birgit Ryningen
Marit Øvstedal and yours truly recently spent a week in Kabul, from 17 to 23 February. The purpose of our short stay was to check up on all of JFF’s activities, visit the dojos we’ve financed, meet the judo practicioners, and instruct and participate in judo classes… This was a rather optimistic plan, but with packed schedules from 7 AM to 9 PM every day, we were able to reach more or less all of our goals. After such a hectic week we have plenty to relate, but for the sake of brevity, here I’ll just say a few words about about the dojos we’ve built.
JFF has funded (that is, Norad has funded) the construction of four dojos in Kabul (as well as one in Mazar-e-Sharif): 3 mobile dojos for the Aschiana centres for street children, 1 dojo for the boys’ orphanage Tahi Maskan, and a large dojo for the Afghan Judo Federation.
In the past, the Aschiana centres for street children were often forced to relocate, as they didn’t own any property of their own. This led Shafiq Eqrar to design and build the mobile dojos. Since his tragic passing, Aschiana has finally been able to buy a permanent property, and all the activity has been relocated there, in a permanent dojo. Shafiq used to be the driving force behind all of the judo activity at Aschiana, but after he passed away, his former students have stepped up and carried it forward. JFF has long been working to initiate judo practices for girls at the Aschiana centres, but the management has resisted it until very recently. Today, the girls, too, finally have access to the judo mats, and the number of girls who want to participate increases every day. The instructors at Aschiana, who used to be street children themselves, organise judo class after judo class, and the children are practically lining up to join in.
The children we’ve spoken to tell us that after they started practicing judo they feel stronger and healthier. They no longer engage in street fights, and they are helping more out at home. Most of them have a desire to win medals, but there are some who say they want to become judo instructors, so that they can help other children when they themselves grow up.
The mobile dojos
Later, we went to visit the Support Children and Afghan Women in Need Organization (SCAWNO), where one of the mobile dojos originally constructed for Aschiana has now been relocated, and is in full use. Here we also got to meet some of the mothers of the judo children who train at SCAWNO. They told us that their children have become more polite and helpful after they started practicing judo. They also relate stories about judo practices in their living room, with aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. We got the suspicion that the children and mothers tell us what they think we want to hear, but then one of the blue burqas tell us that her sons practice judo, and that they learned better behaviour as a consequence, but her 7(!!!) daughters are not allowed to do the same. Two of them are married, and the other five have to help out at home. Who else will do the house work if the girls are also allowed to practice judo? she asks. We conclude that there is still a way to go before the girls of Afghanistan can do what they wish. Another problem was also brought to light while we were talking to the mothers: Since there is a shortage of judo uniforms, the children share the ones they have. This means that the girls have to train in the same gis as the boys. Apparently, this is somewhat of an issue.
At this point, I want to thank all of you back home for the judo uniforms you’ve bought in the form of christmas cards! Even though the children have to share them, almost everyone has a uniform at practice. However, since more and more children want to practice judo (and there are more and more judoka who grow up and are skilled enough to become new instructors), and the existing uniforms are in heavy use already, the need for new ones seems endless. We hereby promise to keep selling christmas cards!
The two remaining mobile dojos that were originally built for the Aschiana centres are now at two different locations on the outskirts of Kabul, and are in use by local judo clubs. We note that the dojos are in need of some repairs, but when questioned, the boys only complain about the lack of uniforms. Many of them are very poor, and a judo gi is expensive and, strictly speaking, not a life necessity. The boys tell us that they collect money to help buy uniforms for those who can’t afford them. We’ve learned that it’s apparently not only the street children who are in need of uniforms.
There are no girls’ practices in the two aforementioned dojos. Even though many girls now train at both Aschiana, SCAWNO and at “Olympic”, most girls still have additional problems. They’re not always allowed to train by their families. There are many places where they’re not allowed to go. In the winter, when the schools close for three months, many of them are stuck at home. Not everyone are allowed to train under male instructors. And many are not allowed at all. Lina has initiated training sessions for girls at several schools, and this is going well. Most of the girls are allowed to join in. She has also started a cooperation with the Ministry of Education, and she has a group of girls who practice in their facilities. Female judo resource persons are like gold dust in Kabul. There are few of them, and most Afghan judo girls have to leave the mat permanently as soon as they get married (which tends to be early in life). Running a girls’ activity is hard work, but the joy of the girls on the mat makes one want to keep on fighting for their freedom to practice judo.
The boys’ orphanage
The dojo which was built for the boys’ orphanage is in full use. It has been renovated once, and is in pretty good condition. Like the mobile dojos, this one also has no heating, nor air conditioning, but no-one complains. The boys who live at the orphanage generally live their lives behind tall walls, barbed wire and armed guards. They rarely visit the city outside; they even go to school at the orphanage. Judo is, unsurprisingly, a welcome addition to life behind the walls. Farhad Hazrati, who is the builder of, and the coordinator and instructor at, this dojo, often brings some of the boys to practice at “Olympic”, so that they can get outside and meet other people. He lets them take turns in who’s coming along, so that on average, each boy gets to go to “Olympic” one or two times each month.
This brings us to the last dojo which has been funded by JFF/Norad: the large dojo at “Olympic”. The Afghan National Olympic Committee has provided a property for the Afghan Judo Federation (AJF), and JFF/Norad has paid for the construction. (Many hours of volunteer work were also put in, together with money from own pockets, in order to complete the construction.) Today, the dojo at “Olympic” is the AJF’s pride and joy. Here they hold practices, competitions and meetings. Here, anyone who are able can train, and they host joint training sessions for all judo clubs, they have started a club cup, and they instruct courses. They have two sets of mats: an old one for everyday use, and a dedicated competition area donated by the IJF.
All things considered, coming back to Kabul was a very positive experience. What we do works. Our small contributions have a large effect. Today, JFF in Afghanistan consists of a group of young and enthusiastic judo practicioners with grand goals and ambitions. Of course, the security situation is an ever-present shadow looming over them. The girls have their extra problems. The street children live a rough life. The orphans are locked up. Most people have very little money. But they all practice judo. They meet on the mat, laugh, train and sweat. It’s almost as though there were neither war nor hunger just outside the dojo. They also send their thanks to the Norwegian judo community. They are grateful for all the uniforms. They say thanks for all the help and support.