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In Afghanistan, ‘Mother’ has her own approach to helping drug addicts

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Laila Haidari founded a shelter in Kabul to help those struggling with addiction. Some 3,600 people, she says, have left the facility recovered.

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Laila Haidari oversees management of a restaurant that was started to help fund the work of her shelter.

Enayat Azad

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The smell – a rather strong mix of sweat, dampness, and soap – is the first thing one notices upon stepping into the compound of a privately run shelter in Kabul, Afghanistan, for people struggling with drug addiction.

The corridors of Mother Camp, as it is known, are dark. But one can still see that they’re decorated with photos of those who are recovering, and there’s colorful artwork by the many people who have walked these halls in their journey to healing. Laila Haidari, Mother Camp’s founder, walks past confidently to meet a small group of addicted individuals who were brought to the shelter the evening before.

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“Mother,” as she is fondly called, “will talk to each of them personally about their addictions and how we can help them get better,” says Nasim Alizada, the caretaker at Mother Camp.

About the same time, some 15 people undergoing treatment gather in a room that’s often used for recreational activities. Five individuals who have recovered join them for encouragement – sharing personal stories of their struggles and how they finally prevailed.

Ms. Haidari is not a trained counselor, nor are the other people working and volunteering at Mother Camp. But the needs posed by Afghanistan’s drug problem are great, inviting unconventional approaches. And the fervor that fuels this little institution is unmistakable in the eyes of everyone present. Mother Camp has brought about results, too – namely, a notable recovery record.

Afghanistan is by far the leading producer of opium in the world, even after a decade and a half and at least $8 billion in aid efforts. Opium is the basis for morphine and heroin. And Afghans have been sorely affected by the drugs.

“I used to be a professional cook in a government office. I can cook Afghan, Pakistani, Indian, and Chinese,” says Fahim, who is in his late 40s and requested his name be changed. “I joined the Army and served my country for eight years before I was kicked out due to my drug abuse.”

It was stories like Fahim’s that led Haidari to get involved. “Born as a refugee in Pakistan, I longed to return to my native land and imagined Afghanistan to be a wonderful place, full of beauty,” she shares. “But when I came here in 2009, I was shocked at what I saw. Where was my beautiful Afghanistan? Where was the glorified country that I read about in poems? I only saw pain and suffering, lawlessness and chaos.”

Then Haidari’s older brother developed an addiction to heroin and left home. “My brother was a very good person and served his country as a soldier in the Afghan Army,” she says, adding after a long pause, “I can’t explain how hard it is to watch your loved one spiral into the depth of addiction.”

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“Every addict under that bridge, like my brother, has a story,” she says.

Haidari is referring to Kabul’s infamous Pul-e Sokhta bridge. Hundreds of drug-addicted men, and some women and children, live under it in unsanitary conditions. Afghan society has little sympathy for those dealing with addiction, and societal pressures often compel families who are unable to afford expensive rehabilitation to push such individuals out on the streets.

“I passed that bridge every night on my way home from work, and it hurt me a lot to watch them,” Haidari says. “One such night, I witnessed the police beat the addicts, asking them to clear the area. But if they can’t even live under the bridge, where are they supposed to go then?”

Indeed, in all of Afghanistan, there are only about 115 government-run treatment centers. These are insufficient to accommodate the number of people using drugs, estimated between 2.5 million and 2.9 million, according to the 2015 Afghanistan National Drug Use Survey.

Time to do something

Haidari made up her mind to do something about it, but “it wasn’t an easy path,” she says. She had been working at a film production house and supported her family.

Community elders discouraged Haidari, as it was unusual in Afghanistan for a woman to want to work with society’s rejects. “It wasn’t culturally acceptable, and there was a lot of resistance. But I did eventually find some support,” she says. In 2012, she found a house that no one else wanted to rent because of its condition. Friends helped furnish it with necessities and provided some financial support.

Then, she says, “I went under the bridge with my friends.... I approached [people] with caution and told them that I was there to help them. I did not force them, but asked them to come with me voluntarily, if they wanted to try recovering from addiction.”

To Haidari’s joy, 18 of them wanted to come with her. “We first went to a hamam [a public bath] and got them cleaned and showered. They looked so different after just one shower, and I knew their healing had begun,” she says with a smile.

Over the past four years, Haidari says, 3,600 people fighting addiction have come to Mother Camp and have left recovered. Of these, 11 were women and eight were children. Currently, 28 individuals are living at the shelter and receiving treatment.

Because of limited medical resources, methods employed at Mother Camp are very crude, although basic detoxification drugs are administered.

Haidari says she regrets not being able to help more women. Her attempt to provide space for their treatment was met with a severe backlash from society. Complaints about nefarious activities were lodged with the police, and she received threats, forcing her to abandon the initiative.

Changed lives

But the work Haidari has been able to do has changed lives. Fahim, the professional cook who had joined the Army, is now a fruit seller in Kabul. He has been clean for more than two years.

Many have hopes for a better future. Nazar, whose name has been changed by request, had worked at a multinational organization in Kabul as an engineer, but when Haidari found him earlier this year under the bridge, he could barely communicate. Four months later, Nazar, who is in his mid-20s, sits across from other people who are in recovery and shares his plans of pursuing a master’s degree in the United States.

While there are 27 or so government-run treatment centers in Kabul, Haidari’s shelter has gained some popularity because of its emphasis on personal care, its regular follow-ups with recovering individuals, and a lesser dependency on alternative drugs.

“The reason Laila’s camp has had a higher rate of success than government-run hospitals has a lot to do with the emotional and psychological care [the workers] provide to the addicts,” says Jawad Zawulistani, program manager at Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, who has recommended Mother Camp to a few people struggling with addiction.

One person he sent was the brother of a friend, a young student at Kabul University. After two months of treatment, the man reentered society. “He has moved to Germany and is now looking to get married to his longtime fiancée,” Mr. Zawulistani says.

“I feel the approach at Mother Camp ... provides hope to not just the addicts but also their families,” he adds.

But to be the purveyor of such hope requires financial support. Within six months of starting the shelter, Haidari felt a strain in funding. Not too many people wanted to help support drug addicts. Initial donors were beginning to feel the burden, and Haidari needed to find a sustainable source of income.

She approached some of those who had recovered and were volunteering at the shelter. They came up with the idea of starting a restaurant that would help fund the shelter’s activities. And so Taj Begum was launched later in 2012 in a small rented space in Kabul. Once again, friends donated their old furniture and other items, and several people from the shelter pitched in, too.

The restaurant has grown quite popular, indeed generating income to support Mother Camp. Eventually it moved into a larger space, and it continues to employ several individuals who found help at the shelter.

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