The West

Mission brings lessons for life
Pieta Sparrow on horseback, central Hazarajat, Afghanistan. Picture: Supplied

It wouldn't be everyone's choice for an overseas assignment but strife-torn Afghanistan has been home for Phil and Julie Sparrow for most of the past decade and it's a place they miss.

Over four separate missions, they experienced life behind the graphic images of death and destruction and came to enjoy the people and their culture.

"People say 'welcome home - you must be happy to be back in Australia' as though Afghanistan were some sort of penal colony we'd been sentenced to," Mr Sparrow, an aid and development worker, said.

"But we had friends and networks and pancake nights. It was our home.

"We miss Afghanistan greatly and on a regular basis our kids ask about going back."

The Sparrows first lived in Afghanistan in 1999, when the Taliban ruled most of the country.

Mr Sparrow worked for the International Assistance Mission, and from 2003 to 2005 they lived in the north while he worked on rural development projects.

From 2008 to 2009 he worked for human rights organisation Hagar to counter the sexual slavery of women and children and their last visit was a two-year stint in Kabul that ended in June.

Illness in their extended family brought them home to East Victoria Park - that and their desire for more stability. Afghanistan, with all its security issues and underlying threats, wasn't conducive to that.

Mr Sparrow is now working for another non-government organisation on improving development work in the Third World while struggling to come to terms with living once more in the First World.

"Material aspirationalism characterises our society," he said. "It distracts people away from the real core goodness and issues of life."

The family have grown to include three children, Pieta, 11, Elijah, 9, and Rachel, 3, who lived with them in Afghanistan.

The Sparrows argue Australians get a distorted view of Afghanistan from mainstream media and point out there are dangers wherever they live.

"It's not that there's no risk but there's plenty of risk here," Mrs Sparrow said.

Mr Sparrow added: "I agonise about them becoming secular materialists whose only aspiration is to own a bigger, flatter TV. There are risks here to kids' moral health and mental health. The threats here are to a child's moral wellbeing.

"In Afghanistan our kids grew up with a sense of meaning and purpose. They understand such issues as justice and violence and poverty and they were developing a social conscience. Those things are compelling reasons to live in a place like Afghanistan."

For similar reasons, they wish Australians would treat Afghan refugees more sympathetically.

"What matters to me is the people who come to this country as refugees are the really important people," Mrs Sparrow said.

"I feel like Australia's missing out because we've been led badly. We've been led to say 'why are these people coming?' But if we'd been led in the direction of 'people are really suffering and needing to come to Australia - let's welcome them and see what they've got to contribute' we'd have had a different debate.

"We tend to objectify Afghans because they look different or cover their head and people say they're strange. It stops people from feeling with their hearts."

Would they return? It wouldn't be a decision they would take lightly, Mrs Sparrow said. "But we'd never say never," she said. "We believe in the value of contributing to Afghanistan when we can."

The West Australian

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