Plight of Afghan orphans prompts Americans to action

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2001

It was the empty look in the girl's eyes in the newspaper picture that caught Michelle Porter's attention.

Then the story about the Afghan child and her fellow orphans seized Porter's heart.

''She was cold and starving. I just wanted to pick her up and give her a hug, and tell her everything was going to be all right,'' said Porter, 36, of Newburgh, Ind.

So did scores of others across the United States who saw the Associated Press photo and story last month telling how hundreds of children live in a Kabul orphanage with no heat, no running water and barely enough food to last two weeks.

Many people were so moved they wanted to adopt the orphans. Others simply wanted to offer food or clothing.

But in a war-torn country where telephone and mail service is all but nonexistent, experts say trying to help specific people is difficult.

''It's just not realistic to try and help or adopt one girl who shows up in a newspaper,'' said Aubry Yost, program director of PARSA, an Afghanistan-based relief agency that provides aid to the country's women and children. ''There are millions of children starving. Sending a box of clothing or food to one child just isn't enough.''

Well-known child relief agencies, such as UNICEF and Catholic Relief Services, do help children, but do not single them out at the donor's request. Even America's Fund for Afghan Children, which sends donations from U.S. schoolchildren, can't single out a specific orphanage, officials said.

That didn't stop people from trying.

In Bremerton, Wash., Marianne Casson began writing to politicians and philanthropists, asking them to help. She also galvanized her co-workers at a regional library with a fund-raiser.

''But what do we do once we raise the money?'' asked Casson, 41.

Although most experts believe the Kabul orphanage will benefit from aid being brought into the area, they point to small relief agencies with specific missions as the best option for those wanting to help individual children.

Among those is PARSA, which began accepting donations this week for the Kabul orphanage after several people who read the AP article contacted the agency, Yost said.

A handful of other groups -- including Mercy Corps, Afghan Relief Inc. of California, the Catholic Archdiocese of Oregon and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- have pooled resources with PARSA to ship aid such as medicine to the orphanage, Yost said.

The first shipment was scheduled to leave Portland, Ore., on Jan. 2 and arrive in Kabul three days later, she said.

Those who were moved to bring one of the children into their homes face even stiffer challenges.

Leigh Yeoman, a mother of five in Charlotte, N.C., said reading about the dirty, hungry children kindled her maternal instinct. Quickly, she decided she wanted to adopt one of them.

''This child needs more than just food and a blanket to be all right. He needs lots of hugs. He needs a ball to play with on a safe street just like my kids have. I envisioned him right here in the mix with our five,'' she wrote in an e-mail.

Yeoman said her husband has been scouring the Internet for adoption information, and she called the Red Cross. So far, she said, they had found nothing.

''I figure there is more information somewhere. Maybe it's that we just have to dig and dig,'' she said.

But the State Department's consular affairs office said it is unlikely Americans could bring home an orphan because adoption does not exist under Islamic law. Also, there are no U.S. government personnel in Kabul to assist with adoptions.

While Yeoman and others try to give the orphans a safe home, some of America's youth are offering basic comforts.

In Citrus Heights, Calif., a blue-collar town of 85,000 near Sacramento, Mesa Verde High School students began filling grocery bags with children's clothes after reading the AP story.

''Out of all the bombing, and with Osama bin Laden killing everyone in New York, it's kind of nice to do something that will help somebody instead of destroying more things,'' said Phil Ditto, 17.

In Santa Clarita, Calif., north of Los Angeles, 14-year-old Kiersten Cosgrove did the only thing she thought would work: She wrote a letter to President Bush, enclosing $5 and a copy of the article.

''Please Mr. President, can you help these children? ...I would be happy to even send some of the clothes I have outgrown,'' the letter said. ''I'm enclosing my allowance for the week. Please be sure that it gets to the orphanage.''

Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Jim Wasserman in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.



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