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5 Jul 2022 2:33
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  •   Home > News > International

    Australia's Afghan community, devastated by deadly earthquake, mobilises to raise funds

    Rescuers are digging through rubble with their hands, and the ripple effects of the disaster are being felt in the community in Australia.

    Afghans have described "doomsday" scenes in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake that claimed 1,000 lives in the war-ravaged country.

    Rescuers are digging through rubble with their hands, and the ripple effects of the magnitude-6.1 earthquake are being felt in the community in Australia.

    "It's a doomsday scenario at the hospitals," Abdul Bari, head of community group Khaberial Welfare Foundation, told the ABC. 

    "Some people have lost parents, some have lost all children and siblings."

    In Australia, Ezatullah Alam was going about his day in his office in Melbourne when he heard the news that the earthquake had struck near his hometown of Khost — one of the worst-affected areas. 

    "I got very upset and kept thinking about the people caught in the earthquake all day," he said.

    He said the entire Afghan diaspora in Australia has been in a state of grief due to grim scale of the losses.

    The south-eastern Paktika and Khost provinces are in rough mountainous terrain in the landlocked country.

    The area located is more than 200 kilometres from more well-equipped healthcare facilities in the capital Kabul.

    Rescue and relief operations have been hampered by untimely rain, rough terrain and poor communications.

    Sayid Mossavi is the vice-president of the Australian Afghan Hassanian Youth Association, an NGO that has a handful of volunteers in the country, who have made their way to Paktika in the wake of the disaster.

    "There are no resources. They're physically digging with their hands," he said.

    "The country was already suffering. And now it's even worse. There are a lot of people who are displaced — they have nowhere to go, they have no shelter."

    He said the news was "devastating" for the Afghan community and asylum seekers in Australia, many of whom have been in limbo in Australia for a decade and who still have family in the region.

    "Some people here, they don't even know if their family is OK there. They can't get in touch with them, they don't know if their children are alive," he said.

    Mr Bari said the earthquake has hit the poorest people in a community that relied heavily on remittances from the Gulf countries for survival.

    "There are literally no jobs around, the men from these communities go and do labour-intensive jobs in different countries of the world to support families back home, and now their homes got uprooted," he said.

    Ambassador calls for funds amid estimates deaths could reach 2,500

    Afghanistan's ambassador in Canberra said the Taliban's grip on power should not prevent the federal government or Australians from donating generously to help his country recover from the catastrophic earthquake.

    The Taliban, which overthrew Afghanistan's government last year, has urged the international community to help the country, which is already struggling with multiple humanitarian crises.

    Providing aid to Afghanistan might be complicated by the fact that Australia – along with several other countries — does not recognise the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of the country.

    Ambassador Wahidullah Waissi, was appointed before the Taliban seized power, and does not represent the militant group, saying he leads an "embassy in exile".

    But he said he was confident Australia could still send money to help Afghans struggling in the wake of the crisis without funnelling funds to the Taliban, largely by making sure donations were made to third parties, including the United Nations and international relief organisations.

    "Australia has already sorted this problem out through channelling funds to the United Nations. The UN is doing its activities through reputable NGOs, so this channel is already existing," he told the ABC.

    "The [challenge] is how to reach the area and make sure those who are affected are receiving relief."

    He said it was partially because of help from the local Afghan community that the Afghanistan embassy had been able to stay financially afloat.

    Foreign Minister Penny Wong has called the earthquake "heartbreaking" and promised to "work with partners to respond to this crisis".

    Mr Waissi said the suffering from the earthquake had been compounded by other natural disasters supercharged by climate change, including floods and heavy rains last month.

    He said reputable sources in Afghanistan estimated that the death toll could now have reached more than 2,500 people, and there was a desperate need for more help.

    "There is some relief and aid coming into these villages … [but] food and medicine is lacking. The terrain is very difficult and it's very difficult to reach," he told the ABC.

    "There are [many people] stranded under the rubble of houses."

    Diana B Sayed, head of the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights, said it was great to see well-wishing diaspora groups creating crowdfunding relief pages, but it was important to amplify the voices of those organising support, and coordinating relief and rescue efforts on the ground.

    "Turkey has pledged 50 million euros ($76 million) and we would love to see Australia pledge support and go through some of these aid agencies to circumvent the Taliban," she said.

    "Very real sanctions need to be imposed on them given the fact they are an illegitimate terrorist organisation that are terrorising the people on day-to-day basis."

    Community mobilises to raise funds

    Mr Alam said the community had sprung into action to raise money for the victims of the disaster, which he said would be distributed via local community groups in Paktika and Khost.

    "Our elders here in Australia immediately set up social media groups and started raising funds and spreading appeals around for help that is beyond our financial capacity," he said. 

    "We have close to 200 members joining our appeal group and we raised more than $5,000 in the first few hours for the earthquake [for the] affected people in Afghanistan," he said, adding they would collect funds for three days before sending the money to Afghanistan.

    He said special appeals would also be made in mosques during Friday prayers for the Afghanistan earthquake victims.

    At least $US15 million (more than $21 million) was urgently needed for the rescue efforts, according to the initial UN estimates.

    Sending funds to Afghanistan, which faces international sanctions in the wake of the Taliban's rise to power back in August 2021, is another major hassle.

    The country's fragile banking system is under strain and many locals said the only swift way to send money to the affected families in this remote corner of the country was the traditional hawala transfer, which is banned in many countries.

    Hawala is an informal money transfer system involving basic identity documents of the receiver and sender, but is banned in many parts of the world over suspicions of money laundering.

    Mr Mossavi said he would like to see Australians help the victims too. 

    "The Australian government has always played an active role in helping Afghanistan. It would be nice to see if they could help with the humanitarian aid, to provide aid directly to Afghanistan," he said.

    "I'm absolutely heartbroken for those Afghans there."

    A spokesperson at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the government was extending its condolences to the families of those killed or injured in the earthquake, and said Australia was already working with international partners on the ground. 

    The spokesperson said Australia had previously committed $140 million in humanitarian assistance, from 2021 to 2024, including $40 million disbursed in March, with those funds largely delivered through UN humanitarian partners, including the World Food Programme.

    "Consistent with our obligations as a United Nations member state, Australia implements all UN Security Council sanctions in relation to the Taliban in Australian sanctions laws," a DFAT spokesperson said.

    "Our UN partners have proven experience in accessing affected populations and in working with the Taliban, while ensuring compliance with relevant sanctions obligations."

    © 2022 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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