Divided by language and custom and by competition for farm and pasture lands, Afghanistan’s many peoples—Pushtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Nuristani, Hazara—warred endlessly through the centuries. In modern times, matters of religion and ideology divided them further and reinforced ancient habits of mistrust. Contained tenuously for decades by the dream of a unified Afghanistan, these divisive forces exploded in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded. The civil war that followed made Afghanistan one of the last violent crucibles of the Cold War. Yet long after the Soviets departed, the fratricidal bloodbath continues.
As a child in school, SIMA SAMAR learned what it meant to be a scorned minority in Pushtun-dominated Afghanistan; she is Hazara. She discerned, moreover, that as a female in a conservative Muslim society she was doubly “second class.” She strove to prove her own worth and embraced the reforming winds that released Muslim women from the veil. At eighteen she married and embarked on her medical education. By the time she completed her MD degree—one of the first Hazara women to do so—the Soviets had arrived and SAMAR had been politicized. As a doctor, she aided the anti-Soviet resistance movement, the mujahideen. When in 1984 her husband was arrested, never to be seen again, SAMAR and her small son fled to the safety of nearby Pakistan.
She landed in Quetta. Here thousands of refugees from war-ravaged Afghanistan lived in appalling misery. Especially wretched were the Muslim women, whose efforts to cope and care for their children were hampered by conservative mullahs who forbad them to visit male doctors and harassed those who ventured from their homes to work or attend school. Spurning a safe haven with her brothers in North America, SAMAR devoted herself to her fellow refugees.
With other women, she established a hospital for women. Later, she founded the Shuhada Clinic, which she now runs. In this small, fifteen-bed hospital, she and her staff deliver babies, perform surgery, operate a laboratory, and treat some 250 outpatients a day. Fees are low, medicines are free, and all refugees are welcome, male or female. Ariana School also founded by SAMAR, is the community’s first school for girls. Here, in a converted house, educated refugee women that she recruited lead hundreds of girls through grades one to eight; older women attend literacy classes and learn useful money-making skills. In spite of the hazards of operating in a war zone, SAMAR also runs a medical clinic in the Afghan capital of Kabul and has rehabilitated a hospital in Hazara-populated Ghazni Province, where she supports several primary schools and a high school for girls as well.
Although she is lauded by many, SAMAR’s independence and refusal to observe purdah are an anathema to religious fundamentalists. They also assail her schools for leading girls away from the cloistered women’s world of the past. SAMAR hopes to motivate other Muslim women to think and act for themselves, as she has done, but this is difficult. “Even the educated ones,” she says, “are fearful of the consequences.”
As the war in her native land grinds on interminably, SAMAR is aware that Western donors are tiring of Afghanistan. Pakistan, too, is weary of its millions of refugees. “Doctor SIMA” herself is also weary. Nevertheless, undeterred by fatigue and the mullahs and even threats to her own safety, she perseveres—practicing medicine, guiding her projects, and mobilizing international concern and financial support for Afghanistan’s many victims of war.
In electing Dr. SIMA SAMAR to receive the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her acting courageously to heal the sick and instruct the young among the Afghan refugee community in Pakistan and in her war-torn homeland.
I congratulate all the people of the Philippines upon the birth anniversary of the late President Ramon Magsaysay, the great hero and patriot of Asia. I believe that if all of us followed in the footsteps of the honorable late president, this world would become a cradle of equality and life would be worth living for all people.
It is a great honor for me to receive this prestigious and honored award. I consider my efforts to be too small and unworthy of this award; still, it is very encouraging to see my work recognized by the Foundation. It is an indication that Afghanistan and its unfortunate, war-stricken masses are not yet forgotten by the international community and still have some friends who bear sympathy for them and their cause.
It is the obsession of my life to serve the underprivileged of humanity, especially women, and to extend to them the recognition and the rights they deserve.
I accept this award on behalf of Afghan women who have been the most oppressed and forgotten people of the Afghan community. I have only done what I consider to be essential for the unfortunate people of Afghanistan. My attempts are too small to heal all wounds inflicted on millions of my fellow countrymen and women; I shall always need the support of others, especially the sisterhood of women, for the continuation of my work.
I thank all those who have promoted my nomination for this award, all those who have been supportive in my work, the kind donors who have made my work possible, and all the people of the Philippines for their warm hospitality.