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The Kiwi who risks her life in Afghanistan to keep the family charity alive

Naomi Brons-Harper in Kabul, in 2007. Photo/Supplied

Naomi Brons-Harper dodges bullets to continue charitable work begun by her father among the poor of Afghanistan.

Kiwi-born Naomi Brons-Harper returns regularly to the war-torn land of her childhood. She knows she’s risking her life but has faith, local knowledge, and even a warlord watching over her. In recent months, a new wave of violence has swept Afghanistan; an estimated 50 people were killed in a suicide-bomb attack on a meeting of top clerics in Kabul to celebrate the birthday of the prophet Mohammed in November. Dozens more were seriously injured in the attack, just one of many carried out by militants.

Despite the dangers, London-based Brons-Harper is planning another visit soon, accompanied by her mother, Monika, who is fluent in both Urdu and Farsi. Both women have committed their lives to helping some of the most disadvantaged people in Afghanistan by funding and overseeing a school that caters for Hazara boys and girls, an ethnic group that has suffered centuries of discrimination. Shokoh High School, on the outskirts of Kabul, established by the Lapis Lazuli charity, builds on the work of the late Dr Howard Harper, a New Zealand eye surgeon who, with Monika, lived and worked in central Asia most of his life. A revered figure among many Afghan citizens, he restored sight to tens of thousands of people in central Asia and rebuilt Tehran’s bombed-out Noor Eye Hospital. He started building Shokoh High School before his death from cancer in 2011.

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Howard and Monika Harper raised their three daughters, Naomi, Faith and Joy, in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, moving for a period to England to enable the girls, in their teens, to attend secondary school and then university. Naomi is the only one of the girls born in New Zealand – Dr Harper and German-born Monika travelled from Afghanistan to New Zealand for Naomi’s birth 55 years ago but returned six weeks later to Afghanistan. Once their daughters graduated from university, the elder Harpers returned to Afghanistan to carry on their work.

Brons-Harper graduated with a degree in theology and philosophy from Oxford University and became a fashion designer. She puts her creative flair to good use at the eclectic boutique she runs in Soho called Pop Up 38. The shop stocks its own brand of bags and accessories as well as jewellery and clothing donated by other designers. The profits from the shop go to the Lapis Lazuli charity.

Brons-Harper has three young adult children who have inherited their family’s nomadic urge and live in various parts of the world.

Students at Shokoh High School. Photo/Brons-Harper/Supplied

Heading the charity is not without risk. Was it tough deciding to take on that responsibility?

In the beginning, I was quite daunted and wasn’t sure I could do it, but Dad had this great faith that Mum and I were going to be okay. In the last months of his life, he spent a lot of time trying to impart his vision to me. It only clicked when I went out to Afghanistan in 2011 with Mum and Dad on his final trip, in July, just before he died. He’d also made a final trip back to New Zealand earlier that year. (Harper was honoured at the Kea World Class New Zealand Awards with the 2011 Supreme Award and funds raised at the awards dinner in Auckland went towards the completion of an eye clinic and the building of the school.)

What was it like returning to Afghanistan?

We stayed in the safe house used by our charity. All around my room were images of 10 aid workers who had stayed there the year before and were killed as they were returning from carrying out medical work (the Badakhshan massacre of August 2010). It was sobering getting into bed and looking at their photos. One that sticks in my mind especially is Dr Karen Woo, a young British doctor who came out just for a short time to work, and she ended up dying.

Brons-Harper in front of her store in London, in 2018. Photo/Clare de Lore

Do you have any good memories, or is the danger and fear overriding?

It’s strange, but returning brought back all the smells and feelings from childhood. I just felt at peace and at home – it was a wonderful trip. Any fear hits before I go, but once I’ve resolved to go I definitely feel like the peace of God settles on me. I call it my “blanket experience”. I feel a warmth from my feet up and, in the past few years, I haven’t felt any fear at all. Dad prepared the way for me in more ways than one because of his extensive contacts and friendships. The local warlord and his militia would never let anything happen to us if it is within his power. But, before I go, I always get everything in order just in case things don’t work out.

Your childhood was far from ordinary – does anything stand out particularly?

We lived in Iran for a few years as well as Afghanistan – those countries, and Pakistan, are the main backdrops to the first 15 years of my life. I knew about classical music and we read all the time. We made all our own things. Mum made absolutely everything in our house, she knitted our vests and pants and made our swimsuits. We visited New Zealand every five years or so, but had spent little time in Europe and England – only Joy was born in England. It was a huge culture shock to move there when I was 15 and go to Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar after having done New Zealand correspondence school. I hadn’t had a social life, I knew nothing about things such as pop music. It was a terrible, terrible shock. I’d never experienced such rejection. I had no friends, so the only safe place was the library. That’s how I ended up getting into Oxford; I studied so much just to get away from people. It was my defence mechanism.

Graduating from Oxford in 1984. Photo/Supplied

Was Oxford better?

Well, again, there was culture shock for me because I realised that some people thought they were something or someone because they’d been to a certain school. My parents were never impressed or swayed by who someone was. Dad looked after the King of Afghanistan and met all sorts of people, but he was never impressed by status. It was a mystery to me that people thought they were amazing and important because their father owned the Mars Bar company or whatever.

Where did the fashion designing come from?

Everything Mum made came from Burda Moden patterns or other German fashion magazines she was sent. I started designing my own things and when I met Natalie Hall, who was of a like mind, we formed our fashion label. London provides great opportunities and eight years on, we’re still doing it. We design skirts, coats and accessories and they are now under the Pop Up 38 label. That name comes from 38 Caledonian Rd, the first space donated to us for a pop-up shop.

With her mother, Monika, at the Band-e Amir Lakes in central Afghanistan. Photo/Supplied

And what is the significance of the charity being called Lapis Lazuli?

Lapis Lazuli is the charity we formed when Dad was dying in hospital. His hands were so swollen he could hardly sign the papers, but he wanted the school to proceed. We came up with the name Lapis Lazuli and, apart from the spiritual meaning of the stone, it symbolises beauty and truth. I think of the beauty that comes from the children – most of them have very sad backgrounds – 95% of whom are Hazara.

What is it like returning to Afghanistan in practical terms? What do you do to keep safe, what do you wear, how do you move about?

I have a close relationship with our head teacher who’s an exceptional man and I take his advice. When we dress, we have to completely cover ourselves. We even take Afghan handbags and footwear with us so we don’t stand out. We are careful how we walk – you’ve got to always walk behind a man or walk in a very inconspicuous way or you draw attention to yourself and you might be kidnapped. Arriving at the international airport in Kabul is one of the riskiest times. There is a place by the car park outside that you are supposed to go to meet your local people, but, as foreigners, we look very conspicuous standing in the car park. Phones don’t work there and Hazaras have lots of problems with the authorities. Usually, I phone from Dubai to say we’re getting on our flight and our friend says, “Yes, I’ll be there.” We have had one or two experiences where I would break out in a cold sweat, but in the end it has worked out okay. Bruce Markham, a Kiwi engineer who is on the Lapis Lazuli board, always gets about on a bicycle, even in Kabul. He knows what he is doing.

Two Afghan students at the school. Photo/Supplied

Have you had any really close calls?

On that last visit to Kabul with Mum and Dad, we had dinner with friends. We came out onto the street to be picked up by our friend and there was a really peculiar atmosphere and then there was shooting all around us – Dad was very slow because he was so ill, but he managed to get into the front of the car. I remember Mum saying to me, very pragmatically, “Darling, get into the middle of the car” – because you’re less likely to be hit there, so I did, and we made it to the house we were staying at, only two streets away. They had heard the shots so the door was open but Dad was slow so I had to run round and let him out. The car was hit, but we weren’t – a miracle. There was an explosion nearby during the night and we found out they’d killed the government minister who was staying a few houses down from us.

Your life is one of tremendous contrasts – how does Pop Up 38, with its philanthropic aims, fit in with the fashion boutiques, design stores and sex shops of Soho?

There’s good foot traffic and I really like the community there. They started supporting us at King’s Cross and we’ve got this big community that follows us around because they support the school. I’m not doing this shop and the school on my own, though. There is a whole group of us, all these wonderful women, everybody with their own gifts.

With two Afghan friends. Photo/Supplied

How do you unwind, either in Afghanistan, on those long flights or at home?

I am very interested in fashion so I often flick through Vogue. I like knitting and I enjoy cooking so I’m also always reading knitting patterns and cookbooks. I also read theological tomes; there is a fantastic range of Penguin books called The Great Ideas. Years ago, I read The Confessions of Saint Augustine and it was pretty heavy going. So I picked it up and read it again in that condensed Penguin form. I’m currently reading The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce by John Piper. My other big relaxation is art – I am a member of a large number of galleries and those memberships are the most worthwhile thing that I buy. I love art. It really enriches my life.

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.