Interview with a New Zealand expat in Afghanistan

Christopher Foulkes in Kabul interview

Christopher Foulkes expected to stay in Kabul for five weeks but a year and a half later, he’s still there. Most people see Afghanistan as a war zone. But even from behind bullet-proof glass, Christopher Foulkes sees the most beautiful country in the world.

 

What inspired your move, and how long have you been there?
In 2014, I was working in Bangkok at the Asia-Pacific Regional Office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). I was sent to Kabul for what I was told was a five-week assignment to provide support for one of our projects in Afghanistan. That was a year and a half ago.

 

What do you do there? 
I am the project development officer for IOM Afghanistan. The majority of my job is working with our project teams and liaising with donors to develop proposals and report on projects. At the technical level, I support the mission’s interactions with the UN, other international organisations, NGOs and INGOs.

 

What are the greatest advantages to living there?
It is probably the most beautiful country in the world. I know Kiwis are always saying that about New Zealand, but I reckon it has some stiff competition from Afghanistan. I have not been lucky enough to see that much of it (and what I have seen has largely been from behind bullet-proof glass), but when you get a chance to get outside of Kabul the landscape is just so stark, raw and dramatic that it leaves me in awe.

The Afghan people have a warmth that is so infectious that it doesn’t matter if you can’t understand them, you want to engage with them as much as possible.

 

Disadvantages?
It is obviously relatively dangerous in Afghanistan at the moment, and it doesn’t look like the security situation will improve in the near future. What that means for us is that we are very restricted in terms of where we can go and the security measures we have to follow. We can’t walk down the street, and sometimes that can be mentally tough.

This is particularly true for IOM. In 2013, the office was attacked and a number of staff were killed. As a result, the agency takes security matters particularly seriously.

 

How expensive is it compared to New Zealand? How much is a beer? 
You can’t buy beer in the shops in Afghanistan! However, we can get it through the UN and at some embassies. It’s about $3 per can, but suspiciously, they always run out in the summer months.

 

What do you do in your spare time?
We work a lot of the time. Luckily, I have awesome colleagues and the 12 international staff at IOM all live in the same compound. In the evenings and on weekends, we often find ourselves just sort of hanging out and pottering with a little work, listening to music, cooking large group meals and playing games. And, on rare occasions, karaoke.

 

What’s the local delicacy and would you recommend eating it?
Afghan food is delicious. We have a cook in the compound who generally cooks western food (and does it really well), but our local staple would probably be Kabuli pilau, which is slow-cooked lamb with intensely seasoned rice. I also love mantoo, which are little meat dumplings served in a yummy sauce.

 

Easiest way to get around?
There is only one way to get around – in armoured vehicles. Or choppers. But it is great to have easy access to cars and drivers; we just call the radio room and a vehicle is sent for you. Our drivers are also some of the nicest people you could ever come across.

 

What’s the shopping like?
We can go to two supermarket chains and they generally have a random variety like tofu in cans, personal products from Thailand, and Tesco fondant icing for cakes. But we are only allowed inside for 20 minutes and we have to take a security guy with us. Not your typical trip to the supermarket.

 

Best after-dark activity?
I have good mates at a few embassies and on the weekends they sometimes have get-togethers, which can be a fun thing to do at night. I used to like hanging out on the rooftop of the UNHCR accommodation compound, but late last year a truck loaded with explosives blew up and their compound was pretty badly damaged.

 

Best time of year to visit?
Conventional wisdom says the safest time to be in Afghanistan is in the depths of winter, or at least before the spring offensive is announced (usually around March or April). But the country is beautiful the whole year around. I think Kabul is prettiest in spring and I have never seen such beautiful roses.

 

What are the top three things you recommend for visitors?
1. Explore outside of Kabul. This is a fascinating country and it is a real shame that we see so little of it. It is one of the most photogenic countries in the world – not to mention the beautiful people.
2. Take time to talk to locals. The resilience and positivity of a people emerging from decades of hardship and conflict is truly astounding.
3. Always know how to get to the nearest bunker or safe-room.

 

Besides family and friends, what do you miss most about home?
I am a habitual expat so there things I love about New Zealand, but I can always go back to enjoy them. I would probably say double scoop hokey pokey ice cream.

 

How easy is it for you to get back to NZ?
Emirates have just started direct flights from Dubai to Auckland. I have not tried that yet, but it sounds like it makes it pretty easy: Kabul-Dubai-Auckland.

 

For Kiwis looking to move there, which industries are seeking fresh talent?

There’s a bunch of Kiwis I know here, all working for various UN agencies, international organisations, or INGOs. I reckon that is your best shot at landing a job in Afghanistan at the moment.

 

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