Former CBC journalist speaks about her experience in war-torn Afghanistan and freedom in the Middle East  

A group of over 100 globally-minded Calgarians gathered at Mount Royal University on Nov. 12, 2014 to attend a talk by former CBC foreign correspondent Mellissa Fung.

While on assignment in Afghanistan as an imbedded journalist with Canadian Forces, Fung inadvertently became part of the story she was there to cover when she was abducted and held captive for over a month by armed bandits.

Despite her struggles, detailed in her book Under an Afghan Sky, Fung has returned to Afghanistan twice since coming home to Canada and has another trip planned for spring of 2015.

“Like any journalist, I wanted to go cover a war. But what drew me back was the people,” Fung said.

In her presentation organized by Aga Khan Foundation of Canada (AKFC) and the Mount Royal journalism program, Fung covered issues facing the Afghan people that her colleagues were reluctant to cover.

Specifically, issues facing Afghan women.

“I said to (New York Times reporters), ‘You guys are not talking to women’,” said Fung. “You’re not talking to little girls in white head scarves who are going to school. You’re not talking to politicians, female politicians, who are running for cabinet positions. You’re just doing one side of the story.”

The crowd was captivated as Fung told stories about how far women’s rights have come in Afghanistan and the changing political landscape since military action began in 2001.

Fung detailed how the infant mortality rate has plummeted from one in 12 to one in 50, the number of women in the Afghan parliament is nearly 30% (lightly more thanin  Canada), and a school that not only allows girls to attend but also has a 100 per cent graduation rate.

Her most powerful story was of a women’s shelter that is home to 44 women and girls who have been the victims of physical and sexual abuse.

Fung says that their “stories are all heartbreaking and uplifting.”An Afghan girl in her white Hijab headdress smiles on her way to school. Fung said that women in Afghanistan have more opportunities to learn than when the fighting started.

Photo by Ryan Rumbolt.

“Twelve years ago, there were no such places as a women’s shelter,” said Fung. “Women had nowhere to go to run from abuse. They just had to live with it. So now there are shelters in 10 of the 12 provinces in Afghanistan and you can’t deny that too is progress.”

Part of that progress comes through non-governmental organizations and non-profits like the Aga Khan Foundation who say their main goal is to improve the quality of life in the developing world.

“Our approach, our philosophy to development, is that is has to be a holistic approach,” said Rosemary Quipp, public affairs officer for the AKFC. “You have to tackle poverty on many fronts. An example of that would be you have to tackle health care, you have to tackle education.”

Quipp says that the AKFC has hands-on development projects in Asia and Africa but uses events like Fung’s talk to help connect Canadians to global issues from a local level.

“The bulk of our work is overseas improving quality of life but we also see an important role to try to create platforms in Canada where people can come together and discuss global issues,” said Quipp.

Maehreen Kapadia, a MRU alumni and former employee of the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association who has attended a few events sponsored by the AKFC, said that Fung’s talk made her optimistic of the future of Afghani women and gave her one thing in particular — hope.

“Throughout everything that the Afghanis have been through, there is still hope for a better tomorrow,” said Kapadia. “There seems to be some kind of consensus where people are working towards that.

“And after everything (Fung) has gone through she still keeps going back so, kudos to her.”

Through her reporting of women’s issues in Afghanistan and by telling what she calls the “other side of the story,” Fung has given a voice to some of the country’s voiceless but admits that there is still a long way to go and that developmental change will be “generational.”

“It’s not over,” said Fung. “Our military mission may be over but we can’t say ‘Mission accomplished.’  That’s why I’m here.”

rrumbolt@cjournal.ca