Q&A: Sarah Fane, founder and CEO, Afghan Connection

Q&A: Sarah Fane, founder and CEO, Afghan Connection

Sarah Fane, founder and CEO at Afghan Connection, talks to Capacity about the charity’s early beginnings and how it is now transforming the lives of thousands of children across Afghanistan.

Sarah Fane founded Afghan Connection in 2002 following a life-changing trip to the war-torn country, where she served as a doctor to the hundreds of refugee camps sprawled across Afghanistan.

Her passion for the region began back in her student days when she spent her elective from medicine at Bristol University in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

During this time Fane worked at the Red Cross Hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, where she provided aid to the war-wounded from Afghanistan, some of whom had travelled 10 days to get there due to the lack of hospitals.

Fane returned to Afghanistan in 1987 with some English doctors and was sent to a Mujahedeen (Afghan fighters) camp on the Afghani border where they needed a female doctor.

“They told me to dress up as a man and they put me in the back of a pickup truck,” Fane explains. “It was absolutely extraordinary. I lived alongside sixteen Mujahedeen and they looked after me beautifully.”

Fane ran clinics for women and children in the surrounding refugee camps where she says she was overwhelmed by the poor environment in which these people were living.

“I went home thinking ‘I’m determined to do something to help’, but I didn’t,” she says. “I had four children and I did a bit of medicine in Europe.”

In 2001 a number of ex-army officers invited Fane to oversee a clinic in the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan.

It was during the time of the Taliban and with four children, Fane said there was no way she would go. She did, however, agree to meet with the officers where she was then informed that they had already bought her ticket to Afghanistan and that her children would be very proud of her if she died.

“I should never have gone, but I did. And it was a life-changing experience,” she says.


At what moment did you decide that Afghan Connection needed to be established?

It was going to Afghanistan in 2001. I am a very optimistic person but everything I saw was so negative and I could find no hope in that country.

I was dropped off in Fayzabad in the north east of Afghanistan by the United Nations where myself and ex-army officer Roddy Jones were left to make our way across Afghanistan by whatever means possible.

We found that it was the most devastatingly awful place, something I could never have prepared myself for.

Wherever we went we saw weapons. There was no infrastructure, no functioning government and everywhere you looked there were refugee camps filled with a sense of utter despair.

The average life expectancy for women was 44, the maternal and child mortality rates were amongst the highest in the world and hardly any children were in school.

But what was extraordinary was that in this place with no hope, the people were amazing and they had this incredible resilience. Wherever we ended up at the end of each day we were taken in by complete strangers and they shared the very little they had with us. That made a huge impact. I’d never had hospitality like it.

After everything I saw as a doctor, as a woman and as a mother, it made me determined to try and do something, however small.


How difficult was it to set up Afghan Connection?

I came home and decided to raise some money for the hospitals that I’d visited. I gave some talks and ended up raising more money than I thought. When 9/11 happened, suddenly all eyes were on Afghanistan and I set up this charity. Very quickly we got the Sunday Times Christmas appeal and we’ve been running ever since.

Logistically it is difficult to set up a charity in England, you have to jump through a lot of hoops. But wherever I’ve worked in Afghanistan I have always been very welcome.

When we started I wanted to do medical projects so we tried to find projects that we, as a small organisation, could make a big impact with. We initially launched vaccination projects and medical training.

But more and more I wanted to get involved in education. I wanted children in England to understand children in Afghanistan and vice versa, so I started the twinning project with a handful of schools.

I went to visit schools in England and I gave them talks about Afghanistan and they’d raise money and make cards and write letters for the children in Afghanistan.

It grew from five schools to 20 schools and then four European countries got involved and we got European Union funding.

We had schools like Eton, we had schools in inner cities, we had special needs schools, a complete mixture, and the headmaster at Eton – who has just retired – is now a trustee of Afghan Connection.


How did you progress the education project in Afghanistan?

We used to see children studying in atrocious conditions. They would study whilst sitting on rocks in the dust and travel hours to get to school. They were so determined to have an education and it was very inspiring.

From this, we decided to start building schools and raised funds for their construction.

In Afghanistan it is important for girls to have a building to study in. It is difficult for them to go to school and their parents are very conservative. They don’t like them walking long distances, they don’t like them sitting outside and they don’t like them having male teachers after puberty.

We have now managed to fund 43 school constructions for over 50,000 children. We have largely focussed on rural areas of Afghanistan, providing them with science laboratories, libraries and computers to allow them to compete with children in the cities.

We have done this in 10 provinces in Afghanistan and have been helped by our implementing partner the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA), a NGO that has been there for 30 years.

We then wanted to take a more holistic approach in terms of teacher training, making sure children can access schools and helping them to complete an education.

We started this initiative in Worsaj in the north east of Afghanistan where barely a single woman of my age can read or write. We designed a project which built upon existing schools and as well as raising the standards of teaching in schools.

We also now support the education authorities in Afghanistan so we can sustain these projects in the future.

28 girls from one of our schools in the Worsaj region now go on to university and in this one area we’ve built 11 schools for over 7,000 children.


Do you run any sporting initiatives?

We started a cricket project back in 2008 after my son told me that we shouldn’t just be doing education, we should be helping the Afghan cricket team.

The team had been refugees in Pakistan and they’d come back, formed a cricket team and were beginning to do well but desperately needed support.

This year they played in the world cup and it’s an incredible story because they went from being the bottom in the world to the top 15 and it has brought real unity and joy to the country.

So my son wrote to all of the cricket counties in England asking for support, and he got back a pair of cricket trousers from Leicester and Matthew Fleming’s phone number.

Former member of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), Matthew said that the club was looking for ways to support cricket in Afghanistan so it was a match made in heaven.

Together we have designed a project to get kids all over Afghanistan playing cricket, and Matthew came out to open the first ever cricket pitch we built and attend the first ever cricket camp.

The camp was in the east of Afghanistan with 150 boys from 10 different villages and the whole of the Afghan cricket team also turned up, as a surprise, to teach them for three days.

The children didn’t own a pair of shoes between them but they went home in full cricket whites.

We’ve coached almost 4,000 children now because we’ve just been given a grant to do a lot more work by the end of the year. We’ve also done some girls camps in the cities and by the end of 2015 we will have built 80 cricket pitches in schools.


Hear more from Sarah Fane at the Global Carrier Awards 2015 this evening at Salons Vianey, Paris 

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