Schools seen as key to the future

Shaded by conifers, shadowed by doves, hundreds of women once forbidden from learning gather in the early evening at Herat’s Majuba Herawi High School.

A young girl at Maulana Aznab Sheberghani High School in Sheberghan

A young girl at Maulana Aznab Sheberghani High School in Sheberghan

“. . . in a way having an idea of the world is easy, everybody has one, generally an idea restricted to one’s village, bound to the land, to the tangible and mediocre things before one’s eyes, and this idea of the world, petty, limited, crusted with the grime of the familiar, tends to persist and acquire authority and eloquence with the passage of time.”

— Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Shaded by conifers, shadowed by doves, hundreds of women once forbidden from learning gather in the early evening at Herat’s Majuba Herawi High School.

Some of the women — more than 370 in all, most enveloped in brown, white-flecked burqas and hijabs, a few with children in tow — have travelled a half-hour by car to attend classes at the city’s only night school.

A product of Afghanistan’s 30-year descent into violence, illiteracy and ignorance, the night school offers education to women who otherwise would have little chance to learn to read, write and reason due to a lingering cultural bias against them.

Many of the women who attend it of their own accord are Afghanistan’s forced dropouts: the millions of girls banned from attending school by the Taliban regime that ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001.

Now married with children of their own, the students in Grade 7 to 12 study subjects ranging from biology to Pashto for up to three hours daily to catch up to their male peers and, perhaps, write the university entrance exam.

Visiting the night school was one of the highlights of Eric Rajah’s recent mission to Afghanistan, his fifth to the country since 2004.

The co-founder of A Better World, Rajah firmly believes the Lacombe-based international development agency can prevent the Taliban from creating future dropouts by investing in education, especially for girls.

The women studying Grade 10 chemistry applauded A Better World after a brief presentation about its work so far in Afghanistan. They encouraged Rajah to continue to invest in Afghanistan’s neediest children, not them.

“Our condition is not so bad. We are happy you came here, thank you very much, but we have some children in the bazaar. They are very, very poor. They couldn’t go to school. Please help them,” implored one student through a translator. “We give our chance to them, because they are the most needy.”

There is no shortage of needy Afghan students and schools that would be grateful for support, no matter how small, from A Better World. If anything, Rajah’s mission, which wrapped up on June 26, underscored the daunting challenges that lie ahead of the organization as it attempts to build on its success.

Chief among those challenges are A Better World’s size and resources, which are limited compared to some of its larger, well-heeled counterparts; the willingness of potential donors, in Bolaño’s words, to wipe away the grime of the familiar from their idea of the world and support projects in such a distant part of the world; and the Afghanistan government’s ability to provide safety and security if international troops withdraw from the country as planned in 2014.

Rajah admitted he was very nervous before the mission, his longest to date, due to concerns about Afghanistan’s security situation, as well as uncertainty about his partners on the ground and the direction of A Better World’s projects in the northwestern city of Sheberghan, the capital of Jowzjan province.

He is feeling much more confident that the organization can deliver on its commitment to donors after meeting with his partners and attending the grand opening of 16 classrooms at Arabkhana and Maulana Aznab Sheberghani high schools.

The classrooms were the first to be completed by the 100 Classrooms in Afghanistan Project, launched in 2009 by Azalea Lehndorff, an intern with A Better World who accompanied Rajah to Afghanistan.

Rajah and Lehndorff also identified the project’s next two beneficiaries: Tunika Hassan Tabin High School and Kinara Secondary School, both near Sheberghan.

They went on to establish solid local contacts in Herat during a whirlwind trip to Afghanistan’s third largest city, and they achieved their goal of exploring the teacher training program offered by the Afghan Institute of Learning.

“It was encouraging to see the success of what we’ve done so far, although it seems really insignificant compared to how much need we’ve seen,” said Lehndorff.

A Better World’s goal is to raise $500,000 over three years to cover construction costs for 100 classrooms. That barely dents the classroom deficit in a large city such as Herat.

Harivar Secondary School, for example, needs 120 classrooms alone for its 5,000 students, who are currently housed in three separate locations, including a crumbling historic building in the heart of the city.

Lehndorff said 100 classrooms felt like a big goal. After visiting Afghanistan for a second time, 100 schools would be a more appropriate target.

“Is (the 100 Classrooms Project) relevant? Yeah, it’s relevant to the (thousands) of students who will be sitting in those 100 classrooms, but much more needs to be done,” said Lehndorff.

Ideally, Rajah said he would like to build 24 classrooms in Sheberghan, 12 classrooms in Herat and organize at least one teacher training workshop by this time next year.

He would also like to buy some textbooks for the night school to support the women for taking the initiative to get an education and let them know that what they’re doing is important.

At $8,000 per classroom, the total cost of the projects would be about $250,000 ­— double A Better World’s commitment in 2011, which was double its commitment in 2010.

If keeping the momentum up in Afghanistan means making other volunteers responsible for running A Better World’s well-established projects in Kenya, so be it, said Rajah.

“When I’m talking to donors, I have to be absolutely confident that A Better World can deliver. I feel a lot more confident that we can deliver now, partly because we’re not just dependent on one organization,” he said. “Give us $100,000, we can deliver 12 good-quality classrooms.”

Maintaining A Better World’s momentum in Afghanistan will depend on Canadians’ willingness to make those larger donations, something they have been reluctant to do.

Lehndorff said she feels more confident asking for “big” donations now because, at least in Sheberghan, there is no doubt in her mind that A Better World’s partners on the ground can build quality classrooms.

“I was overwhelmed at the end of the last trip, and I should probably be overwhelmed now, too, because there is so much need, but I think I’m seeing other avenues of funds that could be available,” said Lehndorff. “I’m feeling my own commitment is stronger than ever to continue working in this direction in whatever ways are possible.”

Rajah said he will have to work much harder when he returns home to help Canadians understand the challenges facing Afghanistan have global implications if A Better World is to reach its fundraising goals.

It’s no longer enough for Canadians to protect their own borders. They must confront the desperation Afghans face on a daily basis to ensure lasting peace and security. Desperate people will take actions Canadians consider unreasonable if they feel they have nothing to lose, warned Rajah. All they are asking for are decent schools and some self-esteem to help them improve themselves.

“There is a saying that I remember: people are willing to move the piano bench when the piano needs to be moved,” said Rajah. “What I have to tell anybody who will listen is that there are so many hands willing to move the bench, now its time to move the piano. We’re going to need a lot more people and a lot more effort.

“I’m committed to doing everything we can,” he added.

Ultimately, the fate of A Better World’s projects and its donors’ commitment to them rests with the Afghans themselves. And they are still weighing competing ideas of the world: a hard-line Islamic state, a Western-style democracy or a mix of both.

From Kabul to Sheberghan and Herat, safety and security are foremost in people’s minds. Between sips of saffron tea or flavoured doogh, a salty yogurt drink flavoured with mint, Afghan scorn the Taliban and their limited interpretation of Islam. Many consider them to be little more than mindless killers, brainwashed in Pakistan’s religious schools, brimming with hatred toward the West.

But the Taliban have proven to be a resilient and insidious enemy with designs on the capital. Last month’s attack on Kabul’s Inter-Continental Hotel attests to their power and reach. That said, most Afghans would prefer a corrupt government led by Hamid Karzai than another five years of Taliban rule.

Javid Noori, a logistics officer with the Afghanistan office of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), spent most of his childhood as a refugee in Iran as a result of the civil war and the subsequent Taliban regime.

Now the father of two young children, Noori is very concerned about their future in a nation that seems to be preparing to tear itself apart once again.

If the United States left Afghanistan at 3 p.m., “man would eat man,” by 3:30 p.m. as the warlords attempted to seize control, explained Noori while jewelry shopping on Kabul’s Chicken Street. Afghans without connections to one of the many warlords would have a choice: become a refugee or die.

Where would the refugees go? That’s the dilemma Noori faces. Afghanistan’s close ties to the United States means refugees would no longer be welcome in Iran, he said. Afghanistan’s deteriorating relationship with Pakistan, further complicated of late by cross-border shelling, mean its unlikely they would be welcome there, either.

That leaves Afghanistan’s neighbours to the north, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Day labourer would be the best job an Afghan refugee could hope to land in either of those countries, said Noori.

Vinod Nelson shares his employee’s pessimism about Afghanistan’s future. Country director with ADRA Afghanistan for the past seven years, Nelson said many Afghans have a deeply ingrained “conflict mentality” that precludes them from doing any long-term planning.

As for the country, it’s a “mafia state” ruled by corrupt politicians who ensure most of the wealth and prosperity is concentrated in the hands of a select few allies, said Nelson.

He points to the construction boom sweeping Kabul as one of the signs of the mafia state at work.

Most of ADRA Afghanistan’s employees are considered to be middle class by Afghan standards, but none of them can afford to buy a new home, he said, motioning to the million-dollar homes under construction along the main road that leads to Kabul’s airport.

Where is the money coming from for those gaudy palaces of painted brick and glass gleaming in the early morning sun? “None of the right sources.”

“It’s not sustainable,” said Nelson. “They’re building castles on sand.”

Rajah said he is disappointed that the billions of dollars flowing into Afghanistan don’t appear to be going to the right places. He is particularly concerned that the Afghanistan government is putting so little money into education, especially in a country with such a young population. He questioned whether that’s part of a strategy by the government to ensure the population remains uneducated and easily exploited.

“I was thinking to myself this morning about the people who ask, ‘Why are you here in a country at war?” said Rajah. “We’re here because we want to stop the war. Either we support the political solutions that have not been working, or we support the local people’s desire to have education. . . .

“That’s one way we can contribute towards peace.”

Lehndorff is optimistic about the country’s chances of turning itself around because glimmers of hope abound.

“Coming back has revitalized my perspective of Afghanistan,” she said. “Even in a country at war, people have happiness. They go with their families on picnics; children enjoy ice cream when they’re walking back from school. . . .

“That cycle of life continues, and I have a longing more than ever to help make that normalcy more widespread . . . and less interrupted by these security issues that keep people under a thumb of fear that they seem to be really (tired of).”

Majuba Herawi High School’s buzzer sounds and hundreds of women, eager to beat the darkness home, emerge from their classes into Herat’s grey dusk. A few of them offer water to droopy children, fetched from the cribs of the school’s daycare; others gossip amongst themselves, chat on cellphones or work up the courage to speak with their foreign guests while arranging rides home.

The glimmer of hope in the courtyard echoes the words of one Grade 10 chemistry student eager to dispense with the Afghans’ conflict mentality, the petty, limited views of the world that have produced little but violence over the past 30 years, and explore new possibilities for her nation.

“I hope you will give a real picture of the Afghan people and Afghan women,” she told Rajah through a translator. “We are not terrorists . . . all the time we are thinking about peace, how to have a good life.”