The heat was blazing down in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan last week. 600 students were toiling away in our vocational training center. You could hear the sound of English verbs being conjugated, the banging of metalwork and the steady hum of sewing machines as the students followed instructions from teachers and doggedly learned their trade.
Staff and students alike walked in and out of the main gate on their way to and from lessons. The occasional motorbike or car whizzed by, generally carrying teachers, or graduates already showing signs of economic success.
But it quickly became apparent to them that this was not a normal day like any other. Cars with aerials and satellite dishes on the roofs slowly drove in, armed men in body armour took up position around the large compound and could be seen checking dark corners or peering through trees and bushes.
Students, however, have seen this all before: The arrival of a British Government security team generally heralds a visit from a VIP, on a whirlwind tour to meet troops and to check up on how millions of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money are being spent in Afghanistan.
This time, our team in Kabul had been planning for weeks with the British Embassy for the visit from Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development. Itineraries were carefully designed, security protocols agreed upon and media coverage negotiated.
When the Secretary of State arrived, he was greeted by hundreds of Mercy Corps’ students, who presented him with flowers and gifts that they had made. Mr. Mitchell spoke for an hour with students and teachers alike about their plans for the future and their desire to serve their country after graduation. He saw carpentry, metalwork, embroidery, tailoring, English and IT classes, and was keen to discuss with students the value of their courses, the real impact that these trainings have on their lives.
He was impressed to hear that there are now training centers in Lashkar Gah, Nawa, Nad-e-Ali, Garmsir, Greshk and Marjah, plus a new center opening this week in Sangin and another due to open shortly in Naw Zad. It is rare — and a huge challenge — to access these areas of rural Afghanistan where there remains little government influence. But the opportunity to provide education where none exists is too important.
The whirlwind visit was a huge success. Mr. Mitchell saw the value of the UK’s investment in our work especially during such a critical transition time; so far, more than 7,000 people have received training, 1,200 of them women. New educational opportunities lead to economic empowerment, which leads to a strong citizen base that can “take charge of their own future,” according to Mitchell.
As the convoy of armored vehicles drove off, heading for their next destination, there was that moment where we had to come back down to Earth. The adrenaline had passed, the trip went off without a hitch, and the students could now go back to their studies, oblivious to who the visitors were. Due to security concerns, we couldn’t identify Mitchell until he’d left the country.
We checked in with neighbors: Were there any problems or disruptions? Did anyone feel uncomfortable? Happily all was well, and there were no issues.
As dusk fell over the training center and the students departed for their homes, the call to prayer started and we heard that three British soldiers were killed the same day just a few miles away. Afghanistan is a complex place, with many challenges and many needs. It was a conflicted moment as I looked across the town towards the desert, but I was just happy that Mercy Corps’ small part in all of this had gone well that day. The next day there would be a whole new challenge…