By Shelby Crosier | Rollings School of Public Health
When Shakila Ali was five years old, her family arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Afghanistan. As members of the Hazara minority, they left to escape the historical targeting of their people and a humanitarian emergency that was unfolding at the time. Ali’s family background and personal connection to Afghanistan and the disparities affecting the country’s religious and ethnic minorities has fueled her throughout her life, including during her time as a Rollins student and beyond.
While an MPH student in the Hubert Department of Global Health in 2020, Ali was inspired to take action to improve access to education for youth in Afghanistan. Using her network of friends, classmates, and peers, she started a grassroots fundraising campaign to provide scholarships for young people in underserved communities in the country. With over 40 volunteers, they raised over $5,000 in one weekend. After this success, she decided to make the campaign annual.
Everything changed in 2021 during the second year of Ali’s program when, on the same weekend as the fundraiser, the Taliban took over and a humanitarian emergency began. Many international organizations left the country in a rush, and it was no longer possible to send aid. Ali was left shocked and worried for her community, as well as grieving family members she lost. This grief, along with her desire to assist her homeland, led her to create Doste Afghan Foundation, meaning “a friend of an Afghan”.
“As the humanitarian situation worsened, I felt more inclined to continue directing support to my community in Afghanistan,” says Ali. “There’s nothing that we can do to change the systems of power, but we can help the families on the ground. This inspired me to turn the fundraiser into a nonprofit.”
Ali worked tirelessly throughout 2022 to develop the organization, recruiting a small but mighty team in the U.S. and Afghanistan and applying for 501©3 status. The latter was made possible through resources and mentors from The Hatchery, Center for Innovation at Emory University. Ali hopes that this status will allow them to expand their reach beyond her network alone and sustain more widespread support.
Doste Afghan Foundation’s mission is to provide humanitarian assistance to the most at-risk people in Afghanistan, with a special focus on women, children, and minority groups. Their model provides direct cash assistance to families to help address immediate needs, such as food insecurity. The organization also focuses on promoting education and economic development. They achieve the latter through a program that provides grants for individuals to develop a small business idea and purchase the equipment and materials needed to run it. The focus, says Ali, is on centering the real needs of the community and of each family to ensure sustainable impacts.
One way this is possible is through working on the ground in communities and conducting a thorough needs assessment with each family, a skill Ali developed during her time as a Rollins student.
“The needs assessment component of this is so crucial,” says Ali. “Almost every Afghan in some way has been affected by the war, loss, grief, and other circumstances beyond their control, but some identities are even more affected and at risk. I wanted to make sure that we reach those who are most in need and hard to reach. We do a full needs assessment and interview to give families the opportunity to tell us about their situation and what they need.”
Since the beginning of 2023, Doste Afghan Foundation has impacted over 80 individuals in Afghanistan. Over 50% were women, and the majority were children and youth under 16 years old. The foundation also estimates that their food stipend program has provided over 8,000 meals, and that their business grant program has increased participating families’ monthly income more than four-fold. Ali is now planning to scale up the foundation’s impact through further support from Western Union Foundation and Watson Institute.
Ali says that when it comes to getting involved with Doste Afghan Foundation, “raising awareness is one of our core goals.” Through their annual fundraisers, they provide volunteers with context, statistics, and graphics to share on social media and spread awareness of the humanitarian crisis. The next fundraiser will take place in 2024.
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