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Afghan-born Filmmaker Raises Awareness To Help Her Native Land

New documentary traces a day in the life of a hardworking Afghan boy

By Lauren Monsen | Staff Writer | 25 April 2007
Sonia Nassery Cole poses with Farouk

Sonia Nassery Cole poses with Farouk, the Afghan boy in her documentary film “The Breadwinner.” (Afghanistan World Foundation)

Washington -- When filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole first saw 9-year-old Farouk, an Afghan boy selling newspapers and calendars on the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, she was determined to share his story with audiences around the world.

Cole, an Afghan-born U.S. citizen who was forced to flee her native land in 1979 during the Soviet invasion, long has been active in fundraising efforts to facilitate the reconstruction of Afghanistan. As a philanthropist and a filmmaker, she has sought to focus the public’s attention on the severe problems facing the country.

Cole first spotted Farouk in 2004 when she was stuck in traffic in Kabul, where she had traveled with colleagues from the Afghanistan World Foundation (AWF), a nongovernmental organization she established in 2002 to address Afghanistan’s most urgent needs.

The child knocked on her car window and thrust a calendar at her, Cole recalled. She said she saw a small, solemn face, which suddenly lit up with a smile when she offered a $5 bill. Cole returned to the same traffic spot for three days in a row until she found the boy again and persuaded him to let her record a typical day in his life for a short documentary film.

As Cole discovered, Farouk was obliged to support his family because his father had been debilitated by electric shocks administered by the Soviets during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation. Her film, The Breadwinner, shows Farouk -- the sole wage-earner for his parents and three younger siblings -- rising at dawn to sell his newspapers and calendars. He then attends school with other Afghan boys before heading back to his neighborhood to buy food for his family’s dinner.

“Farouk’s story is hardly unique,” Cole told USINFO. “There are a thousand ‘breadwinner’ stories in Afghanistan.” But the film personalizes Afghanistan’s struggle, and Farouk is a symbol of the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of ordinary Afghans who face extraordinary challenges, she said.

HEALTH CARE FOR AFGHANISTAN

Cole traveled to Afghanistan again in April, along with AWF board member Marco Vincenzino, founder and director of the Global Strategy Project, a foreign affairs organization that promotes debate on public policy issues. They met with the Afghan minister of health to arrange for the purchase and maintenance of mobile hospital units to bring medical care to remote regions of Afghanistan. The project also entails the recruitment of U.S. physicians for two-week stints in Afghanistan to train young Afghan doctors.

Because Afghanistan has a high concentration of land mines dating back to the Soviet occupation, the teams of U.S. physicians will include reconstructive and plastic surgeons who can treat the disfiguring injuries of land mine victims.

“Eighty-five percent of Afghan patients in hospitals are mine victims,” said Cole. The mobile hospital units cost about $300,000 apiece, but by the end of 2007, AWF hopes to have five units in Afghanistan, fully staffed with doctors.

AWF also plans to raise funds to buy helicopters that can transport Afghan villagers to clinics, Cole said. “In small villages of 50-60 people, dozens die each month for lack of transport to health care facilities,” she noted.

The April trip to Afghanistan was Vincenzino’s first glimpse of the country, and he expects to return later in 2007. “I was impressed by the [Afghan people’s] determination and perseverance to overcome massive obstacles,” he said. “Children grow up quickly under such hard circumstances. But despite these obstacles, there’s hope. It’s a country that’s rich in human resources.”

PLANS FOR ANOTHER DOCUMENTARY

Cole is preparing to shoot another documentary soon, entitled The Black Tulip, about a 12-year-old Afghan girl in the Panshir Valley. She also will host a major fundraiser for the AWF in New York City, scheduled for 2008. By her own estimate, Cole has raised millions of dollars for Afghanistan over a 20-year period, with the proceeds being funneled through different charity organizations.

The Breadwinner was screened at the Milan Film Festival in March; that same month, the World Bank hosted a special screening in Washington, with Congressman Ed Royce delivering opening remarks. Screenings in other venues around the world are anticipated, said Cole.

Helping to rebuild Afghanistan is a great source of fulfillment to her, she said, adding: “I love what I’m doing, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s the only reason I wake up in the morning."

More information on the AWF is available on the organization’s Web site.

For more information on U.S. policies, see Rebuilding Afghanistan and Humanitarian Assistance and Refugees. For more stories on the influence of filmmakers and others artists in society, see The Arts.

movie poster

"The Bread Winner" movie poster (Photo courtesy of the Afghanistan World Foundation)

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