By Michelle Tolson
At a busy restaurant in central Kabul this past July, Abdur Raheem Rejaey, a former injecting heroin user, met with colleagues to discuss launching a peer educator training program to protect the health of drug users. It was the culmination of an extraordinary personal journey, as well as evidence of new hope for everyone who uses drugs in Afghanistan.
The program would launch in fall 2016, he said. It would be delivered by Bridge Hope and Health Organization, an Afghan-led harm reduction initiative that Rejaey founded in 2015, with support from the National AIDS Control Program(NACP) of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health. It relied on just $15,000 seed money provided by Madawa, another Afghan harm reduction organization, and funded by the Czech Republic.
As we left the restaurant, Rejaey, a tall and thoughtful man in his 50s, observed the staff busily serving an Iftar dinner crowd during Ramadan.
“They are all young,” he said. “What jobs will they have when older?”
Unemployment and under-employment is a major problem in Afghanistan, with 81 percent of workers employed in “vulnerable work,” such as low-paying service industry jobs. Those who can typically migrate to other countries in search of better-paid work to support relatives.
Rejaey was once one of them. In 1978, at the age of 16, he migrated to Tehran, Iran to work in carpentry. But catastrophic misfortune led him to prison, homelessness and what he describes as his addiction to opiates.
According to a 2012 national survey of 2,000 urban households in Afghanistan, where the poppy crop accounts for over 90 percent of the world’s heroin, 5.6 percent of households had at least one person using opiates. (Of course, such figures are notoriously unreliable in any country, and the true number may be higher.)
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Thumbnail: Flickr CC United nations Photo