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Former child refugee becomes hero to hundreds of orphans

By Asieh Namdar, CNN
  • Andeisha Farid, 28, founded her group to create orphanages in Afghanistan
  • She had a turbulent childhood herself, living in refugee camps before returning to Afghanistan
  • She continually faces the challenges of security concerns, budget shortfalls and gender inequality

(CNN) -- Afghanistan has been called the worst place to be a child.

One in five will die before their 5th birthday, according to UNICEF. More than 600,000 children sleep on the streets. More than 2 million are orphans.

But one woman is trying to improve the lives of Afghan orphans and change the sobering statistics.

Andeisha Farid, 28, founded the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization in Kabul in 2008 to create orphanages that were safe environments, places to learn and paths to the future.

From Kabul, Farid talked with CNN about her own devastating childhood, teaching kids about tolerance and security concerns living in Afghanistan.

CNN: How did you get the idea of starting an orphanage? What inspired you?

Farid: I grew up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. I've seen misery and pain, extreme poverty, war and hunger. I know what it's like to have nothing. The actual idea of starting an orphanage came to me later, while I was attending university in Pakistan. I saw street children begging for food. It was heartbreaking to see it.

It started with 20 kids in a small safe house in Islamabad and a wonderful husband-and-wife team looking after the children. The main plan was to make sure that the children go to school as well. When I saw how quickly they blossomed being in the safe house and going to school, I realized I should do more than feed and house these children. I wanted to empower them with a sense of security, with education and eventually independence.

I was sure that if we raise and educate them properly, if we provide them the opportunity to be doctor, an engineer and a future leader, they can give back to Afghanistan. It's what we desperately need.

CNN: Let's talk about your childhood. Clearly, that had a huge impact on you and what your dreams and goals for the future were.

A hero to Afghan orphans

Farid: I was born in Afghanistan in 1983. The day I was born, my village was turned into rubble by Soviet airstrikes. We migrated to Iran and settled in a remote refugee camp. The closest town was three hours away. There was nothing there. People in the camp had no access to a clinic, school or even clean drinking water. We had to walk for miles to get water. There was such a sense of loss and despair. I saw a pregnant women die in labor and children dying from diarrhea, things that could have been easily prevented if they had access to a clinic.

We lived in that camp for a few years, before my family decided to go back home to Afghanistan in 1992. The car ride home turned into a tragic journey. Iranian border police opened fire on our car. My 12-year-old brother was shot and killed. My father and 3-year-old sister were injured. Losing my brother was devastating.

When we returned to our village in Afghanistan, nothing was left. Everything had been destroyed. Only a few families were living there, surrounded by land mines. The country was embroiled in a civil war. The country's infrastructure had collapsed. Women were not safe; many were kidnapped and gang-raped. Children were also vulnerable. They became victims of child trafficking, abuse and child labor.

CNN: Some of these kids have seen or gone through terrible ordeals. Some have lost one or both parents ... and might feel angry or bitter about their past. How do you make extremism an unattractive option? What do you tell these kids who've gone through so much to give them hope?

Farid: For me, the key is education. Equal education for boys and girls. Young boys are recruited by the Taliban because of poverty and lack of education. We believe in basic freedoms that every human being enjoys. We don't force or push any child to pray or not to pray, to fast or not to fast. Individual freedoms and tolerance are critical. Our motto is respect for others regardless of gender, language, religion, race or color.

We have children from all over Afghanistan from different ethnic groups. They all live together. They realize everybody is equal. We want our girls and boys to grow in a secure environment and we want to make sure that nothing is imposed on any of these children. When they come to us, most of these kids are so ready to bury their past and move on.

CNN: How did you finance your idea, to make this dream into a reality?

Farid: We started by teaming up with a nonprofit group, Charity Help International. The idea was to finance every child through sponsorships. Today, we have around 650 children and 11 orphanages in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We hope every child will be sponsored by the generous contributions of individuals around the world. Many kids are still without sponsors. Some of our dedicated volunteers have also helped us with music classes and the library.

CNN: What about security concerns?

Farid: There are always security concerns for the kids and our staff when you live in Afghanistan. We have security guards who escort the kids to school. Girls are taken back and forth in a van. We live in a male-dominated country and society, so when we promote gender equality, when we give opportunities for girls to become musicians or leaders in the community, there WILL be resistance. Many of our girls speak proudly about gender equality. They want to put an end to corruption in the government. These young girls want to become politicians and social activists and journalists. For women, that is not socially or culturally accepted.

CNN: How has running the orphanages changed your life?

Farid: For one, I have realized how fortunate I've been to receive an education despite all I I've gone through. It gives me hope. I knew there were two choices in front of me: one was to sit in a corner of a room and obey my husband and have many children. Or I could dedicate my life to help Afghan children get the same level education (I received). When I see how these kids turn their lives around, it makes me proud and so happy. My life has become sweeter, richer through the program. At 28, I also have a lot of gray hair, but this is something that I wanted to do for Afghanistan. I see it as a drop in the ocean. ... There are many other kids that still need help.