From the outside, Afghanistan can seem forbidding — a place marked with violence and fear, where education is poor and women stay out of sight. But looks can be deceiving.
In a classroom in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, women race each other to write out vocabulary words in Dari script, whipping small chalkboards in the air to show they’ve got it right.
At a girls’ high school, students trained in peace education use their new mediation skills to solve conflicts and dream of spreading peace across the country.
In another school that brings together male and female students, a grade one girl breaks into a grin as she talks about how math is her favourite class.
While Afghanistan ranks among the least developed and least peaceful countries in the world, many Afghans are working for change and MCC is supporting their efforts.
We are doing small things...but one day it will be a river.” — Mohammad Osman Hemat
In the process, women who never had a chance for schooling are learning to read and write. Children from marginalized, impoverished communities, including the Hazara ethnic group, a minority who face discrimination, are finding a path to education they would not have otherwise.
Other MCC partners work at what might seem an impossible task: creating a peaceful culture in a country with a past and present full of violence. But they know peace is essential for education and a stronger future. They are starting with students, hoping to change attitudes one person at a time.
There’s a Dari proverb that says, “Drop by drop, a river becomes a river.”
For Mohammad Osman Hemat, executive director of MCC partner Help the Afghan Children, that’s a good metaphor for the work to build peace.
“We are doing small things,” he says, “but one day it will be a river.”
Meet the students and teachers building a new future for themselves and their country with MCC support.
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
Masooma Hashimi, left, and Masooma Hussain practice writing Dari vocabulary at Adult Learning and Education Facilitation (ALEF), an MCC-supported literacy class for women in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hashimi, like many of the women in the classes, attended school as a child, but as she got older her family wouldn’t allow it anymore. That’s a common occurrence in Afghanistan because families either can’t afford supplies or don’t want their daughters in mixed-gender classrooms. Because ALEF is only for women and free of charge, it provides access to an education women couldn’t get otherwise. Hashimi is now in the fourth class, the highest level at ALEF, and has been hired as a teacher for newer students, adding to the income she can provide for her family.
The more informal setting at ALEF, like sitting in a living room with friends, is comfortable for older students who aren’t used to classrooms, says teacher Shaima Asifi. “Most of them are shy, and if it’s in a school way with rows, then it would be really difficult for them to speak. But because it’s a learning circle everyone gets a chance to share their experiences. It gives them the confidence to speak and to participate in the class.”
Aumul Banin is a grade one student at Le Pélican, an MCC-supported school in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Her father works selling snacks from a trolley and her mother is a homemaker. She comes to the school every day for lessons in Dari, math and drawing.
Banin had attended a public school before Le Pélican, but her parents found the quality of education was poor and sent her to Le Pélican instead. “My parents like this school because there is a good education,” says Banin.Government-run schools often have up to 45 students per class, and if families can’t afford private school a child’s education suffers, says Le Pélican administrator Saber Samim. Banin, in fact, started Le Pélican in grade two but went back to grade one to improve her math skills.
Le Pélican was started in 2003 in Dashti-Barchi, a neighbourhood mostly made up of people from the Hazara ethnic group who often face poverty and discrimination. The school has more interested pupils than it has space and selects students based on need. It has 300 students from grades one to eight, as well as dedicated classes for deaf and mute students. It offers literacy, math and tailoring classes for women in a dedicated women-only space. By offering tailoring alongside other classes, the school increases the chances families will permit women to get an education because they are learning a useful skill at the same time.
All classes are free of charge. Students receive the supplies they need as well as a healthy lunch each day. MCC support goes toward food for lunches and salaries for teachers and administrators.
Students at Le Pélican shoot baskets on the playground before lining up for lunch. The daily recreation time is important because many students come from poorer families and need to work before or after school, leaving little time for play. Le Pélican is unusual in Afghanistan because it has boys and girls in the same class until grade six. This helps promote a greater sense of gender equality in a country where segregation is the norm.
At Abdullah Bin Omar High School in Paghman District, Afghanistan, students such as Hasiba Hayati are part of a peace education program coordinated by MCC partner Help the Afghan Children (HTAC). Hayati joined the program wanting to learn why conflicts start and how to solve disagreements at home and at school — but also in her community which has experienced bribery and killings. “Peace is not coming to Afghanistan, so we need to change that,” she says.
The HTAC program operates in eight schools in the Paghman District of Afghanistan and will teach conflict resolution skills to 2,400 students over three years. Mohammad Osman Hemat, executive director of HTAC, says that teaching mediation to students will lead to a more peaceful country. “In a fragile country like Afghanistan this is a preventive strategy,” he says. “When they grow up, when they become a president, when they become (government) ministers . . . they will have grown up with a peaceful attitude.”
Teacher Mahnaz Qizalbash works with students during a peace education class.
“Teaching peace education is a complete joy for me. Every day I learn lots of things from the students,” she says. Qizalbash volunteered to teach two peace education classes twice a week on top of teaching grades 11 and 12 math and physics. “Our community needs peace, and through this program we predict that we can support the community,” she says.
Fida Mohammad Hikmat, left, Abdul Fawad Saded and Abdul Wahid Hujat talk about what their daughters have learned in the peace education program. Hikmat says his daughter is sharing her new mediation skills with her siblings and parents and that he believes peace education curriculum should be in all Afghan schools. “Children listen to the radio and also to the television, media. They see and they hear lots of violence exists in Afghanistan,” he says. “For lasting change we need (peace) in our school curriculum.”
At Abdullah Bin Omar High School, Aysha Hamidi, left, and Mihria Bemesh take computer classes supported by HTAC and MCC with computers donated by MCC. Technical skills are essential. “If you have a PhD and don’t know how to use a computer you will not get a job in Afghanistan,” says HTAC executive director Mohammad Osman Hemat. School-based classes are especially valuable for girls who often are forbidden to attend outside classes because they’re expensive or taught by men.