Aseel started as Afghanistan's version of Etsy – selling jewelry, leather shoes and other crafts online to help the country's artisans make a living.
Nasrat Khalid, an Afghan entrepreneur who lives in Washington, D.C., came up with the idea in 2017. His goal was to enable people to buy beautiful objects from his homeland. The word "Aseel" is Afghan for "authentic."
"We started with 11 vendors and in the first year sold $35,000 worth of items from Afghanistan to customers in the U.S. and Australia," Khalid says – two countries with large Afghan diasporas.
"Then came August," he added, referring to the Taliban takeover of 2021 — and Aseel took on a new mission.
Khalid watched an aftermath of chaos and growing poverty as international aid was frozen and charities pulled out.
A feeling of powerlessness, a moment of inspiration
"I think it was one of the moments I felt the most powerless in my life," he explains, "but also the moment that inspired my team to radically shift what we do."
Using the company's cash reserves, Aseel began helping internally displaced people in big cities like Kabul – "providing shelter [tents to live in], clothes and food packages," says Madina Matin, Aseel's media coordinator.
Staving off hunger soon became a priority. Food shortages have become even more critical not only in the wake of the Taliban takeover but because of drought, unemployment, the ongoing pandemic –- and the crisis in Ukraine that has affected grain shipments.
With fewer humanitarian aid groups in the country, Aseel sought to fill the void. In early August 2021, the mobile app added a category for 'Emergency Support' so individual donors could help those in need.
A basic emergency food package, costing around $85, includes lentils, rice, beans, flour, oil, biscuits, sugar and the quintessential Afghan green tea. Whenever possible, Aseel buys the items from small businesses in neighboring countries.
As of this August, Matin says clicks on the emergency tab have brought food deliveries to nearly 43,275 families and 302,925 individuals.
The app is now among the most reliable platforms to extend support to Afghans, says Jason Howk, a U.S. army veteran who co-founded Global Friends of Afghanistan, a nonprofit group that advocates for human rights and humanitarian issues.
He encourages his charity's supporters to use Aseel to get food to those in need, emphasizing how their network of people on the ground from their earlier work with artisans across provinces has enabled them to set up delivery services. He's also donating proceeds from his latest book, U.S. War Options in Afghanistan, to Aseel.
Women for Afghan Women (WAW), another charity that operates in Afghanistan, turned to Aseel to meet challenges posed by the Taliban takeover.
"We had to close services like legal counseling support to women, shelters for survivors of abuse and also reduce more than half of our staff in the country," says Kevin Schumacher, deputy executive director of the U.S.-based group, which which addresses gender-based violence. They do continue to provide medical services as well as humanitarian support to women they've served.
But the banking crisis severely impeded their ability to send funds to Afghanistan.
With the help of Aseel, "we were able to provide a few hundred packages to our existing beneficiaries, former clients, and even some former staff who are struggling," he explains.
One family that suffered — and then found help
As Aseel moves forward with its food program, it has expanded its reach by recruiting new volunteers. They help not only with deliveries "but also in verifying cases of families that need support that we can add to our program," explains Matin.
One family that has benefited is that of 48-year-old Gul Makai, a single mother of six from Ghazni province. "All my children were starving because I lost my income after the Taliban takeover," says Makai, who used to work in a private office. "Women in our village are not allowed to work anymore," she tells NPR.
The family relied on donations from relatives. Then three months ago, she says her 15-year-old and 13-year-old sons ate shrubs outside the house that turned out to be poisonous. She says both boys died.
Matin of Aseel heard of her story through a volunteer, who verified the details.
"These food packages have saved the rest of my family," says Makai. "They are keeping us alive while my eldest surviving son and I look for work to support ourselves," she says. She hopes to find domestic labor like cleaning or tailoring, which isn't banned by the Taliban, although office work is.
Even as Aseel continues its activism, the group is trying to rebuild its Etsy-like role and bring new artisans, especially women, into the fold. "Our sales were disrupted by the lack of operations in the first few months of Taliban; however, it is getting back its pace and our sales numbers are growing," Khalid says.
Reflecting on the past year, Khalid says: "When we were taking that kind of leap of faith, I didn't know we're going to be this impactful. I am grateful for the work we are getting to do."
Schumacher of the Women for Afghan Women charity is grateful as well: "Even on a shoestring budget, they are able to achieve a lot more than more international organizations. It is clear just how incredibly passionate their staff is about service to their country."
Ruchi Kumar is a journalist who reports on conflict, politics, development and culture in India and Afghanistan. She tweets at @RuchiKumar