How an Artisan Website Became a Grassroots Disaster-Relief Organization

Originally positioned as the "Etsy of Afghanistan," emerged as a vital tool to direct aid to certain places in the country.

On a July day in 2021, Nasrat Khalid was on the phone to his native Afghanistan when he got some awful news: “This whole city has turned into a refugee camp,” Kabulbased Mohammed Nasir told him, signalling a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

Nasir is the chief of operations for Khalid’s company, Aseel, which positions itself as the Etsy of Afghanistan. It allows artisans making things like blankets and jewellery to sell their products around the world via its app and website. Artisans may also receive training in handicrafts and business practices.

Khalid, who is based in Washington, D.C., worried constantly about Kabul that summer as U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan and city after city fell to the Taliban. His Afghan-based team struggled to ship products to buyers, while local artisans saw their incomes dry up. Plus, many of them were fleeing the increasingly dangerous provinces.

Khalid knew he had to help his people. He used some of the company’s savings to buy food, and Nasir delivered it to a refugee camp in Kabul. Hungry people attacked the truck, tearing Nasir’s clothes in their desperation.

It was clear that they needed to take a more systematic approach. Every aid recipient got an identification number, and Aseel’s tech infrastructure tracked every drop-off. “We created a whole new distribution system,” says Khalid.

An emergency-response page was added to the company’s website, allowing donors to give money or buy emergency packages of food or supplies. They can even select a special recipient, so that expat Afghans can send money and aid to family members.

Later, Khalid created a GoFundMe-style page on Aseel’s website that allows people to run fundraising campaigns for, say, giving food to people in a particular province or funding a vocational program for girls. As of early 2023, Aseel had raised more than US$750,000 from donors and helped some half a million people, in part through a partnership with the U.S.-based Women for Afghan Women.

Recipients include Fatima, a single mother in Kabul who lives with 12 people in a one-room house. “Aseel’s food packages helped me survive the worst days of my life,” she told Reader’s Digest through a translator.

Before she and her sister received Aseel’s packages, they had been going without enough food in order to provide for their kids and send them to school. “I remember the first day I received a food package. My kids played music and danced for the whole day.” Fatima joined an Aseel apprenticeship program; after she completes it, she will be able to find employment with a local handicraft company.

In November 2022, the Society for International Development gave Khalid a leadership and innovation award. Jason Criss Howk, director of the U.S. advocacy group Global Friends of Afghanistan, lauds what Khalid has done with both the charitable functions of Aseel and its for-profit arm.

“Aseel has become a vital tool to get directed aid to certain places in the country,” he says. “They buy and distribute locally, which is sparking the economy.” He thinks Khalid could help people in other nations, too, while keeping overhead low—something large aid organizations struggle to do.

Next, Khalid would like to work more in Turkey’s Afghan refugee camps, and he has plans for further expansion and collaborations with aid groups.

“When Afghanistan collapsed, initially I felt very powerless,” says Khalid. “When my country went through this disaster, Aseel became a lifeline to people in need.”

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada