Life is hard in Afghanistan, a country which ranks among the very poorest in the world. While cities like Kabul and Kandahar are relatively modern with their paved streets and concrete buildings, many of the smaller cities and villages probably haven’t changed a great deal in the last 1,000 years—food is scarce, the buildings are often made of mud, and clothing is rudimentary at best.
Seeing these living conditions first-hand can be quite a shock for the Canadian soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and understandably many of them want to help in whatever way possible.
When Major Pierre Huet, a reconnaissance squadron commander with the 12th Armoured Regiment, arrived in Spin Boldak, a dusty Afghan town situated on the Pakistan border, there was one thing in particular that struck him about the conditions there—a lot of the children had no shoes.
“When I first arrived here, I was amazed at the number of children without shoes. They had to walk on bare feet on the hard ground and rocks,” said Huet, who almost immediately began searching for a way to help. “Thousands of kids here are without shoes. Amongst the 150,000 inhabitants of Spin Boldak, there are easily 25,000 youngsters living in extreme poverty, walking around barefoot.”
And it’s not just the hard ground Huet was worried about. With winter approaching, he knew the temperature would dip to as low as -10 degrees Celsius, putting the kids in danger of frostbite, or worse.
Huet’s first thought was to get shoes from Canada and distribute them in Spin Boldak, but he soon understood that this idea had some drawbacks. “My initial project was to get shoes from Canada and distribute them here. But the risks were too high (that we would) lose the merchandise in the transfer. I then decided to raise funds and buy the shoes here,” said Huet, “which will also encourage local industry.”
To a Canadian, a pair of Afghan-made shoes is pretty inexpensive, about $2 or $3 for a quality pair. However, for the Afghans, this amount of money is huge, especially when families routinely have five to 10 children.
It didn’t take Huet long to find a solution. Back at home, his own children were attending the Dollard-des-Ormeaux Elementary School at the Valcartier base where he is stationed. At the school, Huet found a willing and capable partner in Claire Groulx, the school’s spiritual animator, who would go on to lead a fundraising campaign at Dollard-des-Ormeaux and four other English schools in the Central Quebec School Board.
While the Shoes for Afghans Project began with a request for donations from students and their parents, it quickly blossomed into a kids-helping-kids fundraising projects, with individual classes and schools coming up with novel ways to raise money. In addition, many of the children began doing chores around the house to raise toonies to buy shoes.
The school kids aren’t the only ones getting involved, as The Royal Canadian Legion branch in Lachute, Que., about 80 kilometres west of Montreal, also donated a solid $5,000 to get the project going.
“I let the word out at the branch and it just spread from there,” said Lachute Branch Past President Robert Todd. “We pledged $1,250 from the branch. We had another member give us $700 and another donor gave an additional $1,500. Finally, we had a banquet to present the cheque, and more money just kept coming in.” Huet accepted the cheque at the branch himself, accompanied by his wife, Stéphanie Patenaude, and their children Victor and Rafaël.
Back in Spin Boldak, Huet was amazed by the response. While the latest tally is approximately $8,000, that figure can be expected to grow.
To date, Huet has purchased more than 2,000 pairs of shoes from a local footwear contractor, including some rubber boots for those kids who prefer them for the rainy season.
Huet distributed the first 800 pairs of shoes during a village medical outreach clinic in Kandahar province on Jan. 20.
“You could not imagine how dirty, wet and cold they were but they still had a smile and a look that was worth a million dollars,” said Huet, of the children who received new shoes that day.
“It’s a really good, feel-good sort of project,” reported Kerry Ann King, a teacher at Dollard-des-Ormeaux. “It’s something kids can relate to.”
As for Groulx, she has found that the project has had produced results beyond shodding the feet of poor Afghans. Since many children currently have parents deployed to Afghanistan, Groulx discovered that this project has helped the kids to understand what the mission was about. “It gave them a positive outlook on what their parents were doing and not focusing only on the fighting. We’re (in Afghanistan) to help somebody out. That’s what the kids are doing with the project.”
While Huet is due to return to Canada in early March, the project looks set to continue indefinitely, at least if Huet has his way, as he will be searching intently to find an incoming Canadian soldier to take over the Shoes For Afghans project.