British-born nurse Kate Rowlands made an early choice to devote her life to working in war zones. Kate has spent the last 15 years in Kabul under the wing of La Chaîne de l’Espoir, a French non-profit organisation providing medical care and education to poor children. In the Afghan Chidren’s House, Kate cares for young patients suffering from very complex surgical conditions and hosts their families.
She now spends half her time in the UK, raising funds to build a second Children’s House. With endless energy, love and passion, she talks to Myriam Crété-O’Carroll about her engagement, faith in life and hope for the Afghans.
How did you end up working in warzone countries?
I was working in London and I wanted to see something different, so I went to work in the Middle East, in Bahrain, for a year. I saw incredible wealth and an incredible way of life. I spent a year there and then, fortunately, I went to Ethiopia. I worked for Oxfam during the famine in a camp, with children under 60% weight for height. It was a huge difference.
I was appalled and shocked, as I’d never seen anything like that in my life. It was from that time that I decided to continue doing this.
You worked for several countries in difficult situations like Rwanda, Sudan, Northern Iraq, Kenya, Eritrea and Cambodia and have spent the last 15 years in Kabul in Afghanistan. What took you to this country?
I went there with the British Red Cross for the first time in 1991, working in a hospital for war wounded in Kabul for a year, and I returned in 1999. In 2005 I joined La Chaîne de l’Espoir charity as Hospital Manager. Their mission is to provide free-of-charge medical care to children suffering from very severe conditions and they were building a brand new hospital in Kabul. They then asked me to start the project of opening a house for the children, which became The Children’s House project.
The house for children is also known as the Afghan Children’s house. How does it operate?
We provide free and holistic care to children, so we look after the children and their families while they’re having treatment. We are accessed by children from all over Afghanistan, even from the most inaccessible remote areas.
Picture The Children’s House for me
It’s a very funky house. We’ve tried to make it as colourful and gentle as possible. I work with a wonderful team and we’ve all done it together. It’s lovely because there are all sorts of ethnic groups there, from Pashtun, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and more… The house is really a happy place.
We have a little playground with swings and a seesaw and sometimes it’s actually the fathers that are playing!
Are you easily accepted by men in Kabul?
Yes and I’ve always had a lot of contact with men, even when working during the Taliban time. I also had contact with prisoners. When men come to The Children’s House they’re shocked in the first place by coming to Kabul and next when they realise it’s a lady who is in charge. But basically human beings are human beings; they see other ethnic groups, they see me, they mix with each other and they open their minds. I have never had anything but kindness in the house.
You survived a suicide bombing explosion two years ago. Two British female volunteers were killed in Kabul recently – how do you live with this constant threat?
Yes, I have lost friends, both Afghan and international, during the course of my time working in Afghanistan. I’m not religious but I do have religious faith. I always think about that suicide bombing – that I was in the same place at the same time. I ended up with very minor injuries and yet a mother, father and four children were killed in the same incident. That’s when you ask yourself why.
How do you re-energise in Kabul?
I have some very good Afghan friends and a few very close international friends. We also have an education project in the Panjshir valley and when I go there it just completely regenerates me.
What is this education programme?
La Chaîne reconstructs and supports five girls’ schools, with over a thousand pupils, and they’ve also recently started literature classes for women over eighteen. It’s proving very successful. The ladies are so motivated to learn that we’re getting requests from all over the valley to start more classes, so that’s wonderful.
What’s your biggest hope for Kabul?
That the country finds some serenity and stability because the people have truly suffered enough and in 2001 they expected a lot more. They want peace, they want prosperity and they want a life for their children.
What is next on your agenda?
The building of a second Children’s House on the same ethos, which we hope to start in 2014, because we’ve outgrown ourselves and, now, our capacity.
Do you have a personal word to leave us with?
I have two. One from my mother, who always said to me:
“Never give up, never feel sorry for yourself. If you’re in a bad situation, just pick yourself up, brush yourself off and get on with it.”
The other is from Winston Churchill and I’ve had it all the time in my office:
“Never, never, never give up.”