Jewish group worries about Afghans


NEW YORK, Sept. 30 (JTA) — Like many other charitable groups, the American Jewish World Service is collecting money to benefit the victims of the devastating Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

But in addition to helping those hurt by terrorism, the New York-based humanitarian group has faced another concern in recent weeks: fear that heightened tensions with Afghanistan will threaten people the AJWS helps in the impoverished country.

Since 1999, the AJWS has been one of a handful of American groups funding more than 30 secret schools for girls and women in Afghanistan. The Taliban prohibits girls from attending school and does not allow women to work.

The AJWS — which supports anti-poverty and community support projects in developing nations — is believed to be the only Jewish organization that funds projects in Afghanistan, a country controlled by the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime since 1996.

Ruth Messinger, the group’s president, said that in a U.S. war in Afghanistan, “the worst victims would be the people who we are helping, who are already victims of the Taliban.”

The women who teach in the underground schools do so at great personal risk, potentially subject to the death penalty if caught. They teach in private homes and assign girls different times to enter and leave so as not to draw attention.

Because of the longtime dangers of working in Afghanistan, the AJWS has never sent its own volunteers or staff there, although it does in most countries it assists. Instead, it works through a Western human rights organization whose identity cannot be disclosed for fear of repercussions from the Taliban.

The AJWS contributes approximately $100,000 a year for the schools, which serve over 1,000 girls. The group also provides some funding for health programs for Afghan women, as well as some aid for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

So far, the schools and health programs are continuing, and AJWS plans to continue its funding, Messinger said.

But as more and more Afghans and aid workers flee the country, the programs’ future is uncertain. And the AJWS is expecting heightened request for aid from the refugees in Pakistan.

Schools in the most jeopardy right now are those in and near Kabul, which is likely to be targeted by U.S. bombing, said Catherine Shimony, the AJWS’ director of international programs.

Already, an Afghan woman who lives in Pakistan near the refugee camps and usually travels several times a year to the United States to give updates about the schools had to cancel a planned visit to New York.

In the past, the group has not been shy about advocating on other issues that affect beneficiaries. Last year, it persuaded several other Jewish organizations to lobby for debt relief for developing nations.

As the situation heats up, the AJWS is not sure whether to take a specific position on how the United States should react to the attacks, or simply keep trying to support the schools, Messinger said.

However, she said, she will continue to urge Americans to step up grassroots, anti-poverty assistance to troubled countries as a way of “improving our international position.”

“It’s always better to wage peace than to wage war,” she said.

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