He wanted his business to be the Etsy of Afghanistan. Now he has a crucial new mission

Aseel started out as Afghanistan’s version of Etsy – selling jewelry, leather shoes and other handicrafts online to help artisans in the country earn a living.

Nasrat Khalid, an Afghan entrepreneur who lives in Washington, DC, came up with the idea in 2017. His goal was to allow people to buy beautiful items from his native country. The word “Aseel” is Afghani for “authentic”.

“We started with 11 suppliers and in the first year we sold $35,000 worth of items from Afghanistan to customers in the United States and Australia,” says Khalid – two countries with large Afghan diasporas .

“Then came August,” he added, referring to the Taliban takeover in 2021 – and Aseel embarked on a new mission.

Khalid saw the consequences of chaos and growing poverty as international aid was frozen and charities withdrew.

A feeling of helplessness, a moment of inspiration

“I think it was one of the most helpless moments in my life,” he explains, “but also the moment that inspired my team to radically change what we do.”

Using the company’s cash reserves, Asel started helping the internally displaced in big cities like Kabul – “providing shelter [tents to live in]clothes and food parcels,” says Madina Matin, Aseel’s media coordinator.

Fighting hunger quickly became a priority. Food shortages have become even more critical not only as a result of the Taliban takeover, but because of drought, unemployment, the ongoing pandemic – and the crisis in Ukraine which has affected grain shipments .

With fewer aid groups in the country, Aseel sought to fill the void. In early August 2021, the mobile app added a category for “Emergency Support” so that individual donors can help those in need.

A basic emergency food package, which costs around $85, includes lentils, rice, beans, flour, oil, biscuits, sugar and the quintessential Afghan green tea. Whenever possible, Aseel sources items from small businesses in neighboring countries.

In August, Matin says clicks on the emergency tab brought food deliveries to nearly 43,275 families and 302,925 people.

The app is now among the most trusted platforms for extending support to Afghans, says Jason Howk, a US Army veteran who co-founded Global Friends of Afghanistana nonprofit group that advocates for human rights and humanitarian issues.

He encourages supporters of his charity to use Aseel to bring food to those in need, highlighting how their network of people on the ground, stemming from their previous work with artisans from all provinces, has enabled them to set up delivery services. He is also donating recipes from his latest book, US war options in Afghanistanin Asel.

Women for Afghan women (WAW), another charity that operates in Afghanistan, turned to Aseel to address the challenges posed by the Taliban takeover.

“We have had to close services such as women’s legal aid, shelters for victims of abuse and also cut more than half of our staff in the country,” said Kevin Schumacher, deputy executive director of the group based in the United States, which deals with gender equality. – founded violence. They continue to provide medical services as well as humanitarian support to the women they have served.

But the banking crisis has severely hampered their ability to send funds to Afghanistan.

With the help of Aseel, “we were able to provide a few hundred packages to our existing beneficiaries, former customers, and even some former collaborators in difficulty”, he explains.

A family that suffered – then found help

As Aseel moves forward with his food program, he has expanded his reach by recruiting new volunteers. They not only help with deliveries “but also verify cases of families who need help that we can add to our program,” Matin explains.

One family that has benefited is that of Gul Makai, 48, a single mother of six from Ghazni province. “All my children were starving because I lost my income after the Taliban took over,” says Makai, who previously worked in a private office. “Women in our village are no longer allowed to work,” she told NPR.

The family relied on donations from relatives. Then, three months ago, she says her 15- and 13-year-old sons ate shrubs outside the house which turned out to be poisonous. She says both boys are dead.

Matin d’Aseel heard about her story through a volunteer, who verified the details.

“These food parcels saved the rest of my family,” says Makai. “They keep us alive while my eldest surviving son and I look for work to support ourselves,” she says. She hopes to find domestic work such as cleaning or sewing, which is not banned by the Taliban, although office work is.

Even as Aseel continues its activism, the group is trying to rebuild its Etsy-like role and bring new artisans, especially women, into the fold. Our sales were disrupted by the lack of operations in the early months of the Taliban; however, it is picking up and our sales numbers are increasing,” says Khalid.

Reflecting on the past year, Khalid says, “When we were taking this kind of leap of faith, I had no idea we were going to have such an impact. I’m grateful for the work we are doing.”

Schumacher, of the charity Women for Afghan Women, is also grateful: “Even with a limited budget, they are able to achieve much more than other international organizations. It’s clear how incredibly passionate their staff are about serving their country. »

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar

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