The Paghman District of Afghanistan lies only 20 miles or so west of Kabul, Afghanistan's bustling capitol, but in many respects it is light years away. The District has suffered through several wars. Approximately 98% of the population has no electricity and there are not nearly enough schools to accommodate the District's children.
In one small part of this District there was a school, but it had no buildings, no facilities; not even chairs, or books or the most basic of supplies. All this school had was a few caring men and women who wanted to teach and share their knowledge with the children living in the nearby community. The only 'real school' in the area had been destroyed 25 years ago during one of several wars.
The word went out and amazingly, the children came. They sat on blankets and mats in the open air. A few lucky ones came with notebooks and pencils. Others came from families too poor to afford any school supplies. But they all had one thing in common; the desire to learn.
During the summer it got very hot and the only relief for the students and teachers was to conduct 'classes' under some of the large walnut trees nearby. Because there were no lavatories, the students would have to walk a long distance to find a facility they could use. When the Fall months arrived, the weather became cool, then cold, even in daytime. But the weather or lack of facilities would not deter these children. In November, the last official month of the school year, they came dressed in warmer clothes with many of them carrying blankets to wrap around their bodies as they sat shivering on the cold ground as their teachers (often shivering themselves), continued to teach lessons.
This same outdoor site became the inspiration for Help the Afghan Children's first model school. Thanks to the generosity of donors, both large and small, a new school was built that would not only transform education in this area, but represent a model for the future of schools throughout Afghanistan. After eight months of hard work, Abdulla bin Omar Primary School opened its doors for 850 students. It boasted 26 classrooms, 7 administrative rooms, 2 guardrooms, a deep well and 12 sanitary latrines. Also installed was a computer laboratory with fifteen computers, a network printer and a generator with fuel to power the equipment.
During the opening ceremonies, a group of students sang Afghanistan's National Anthem and HTAC's executive director, Suraya Sadeed along with the Ministry of Education's General Director delivered speeches. One of the teachers was beaming from ear to ear. Last year he conducted his classes on top of piles of stone and under the shade of trees. Now he would teach in a real classroom with a chalk board, chairs and desks for the students, books and ample school supplies. He glanced at some of the excited children who (before) had nothing, and there were tears running down his cheeks. "Now they have something" he said. "And I'm very proud to be associated with this wonderful school to teach them."
Abdullah bin Omar currently serves approximately 1,600 students in two shifts and has 41 teachers. HTAC relies on donors to help support this school..
It was the first day of school and Laila, an otherwise bright and energic 14-year-old girl, was struggling to recite the words in the old textbook that had been written for 4th and 5th graders. The more she struggled, the more frustrated and humiliated she felt as she heard the giggling among her classmates. Ms. Zarghona, her teacher, quickly recognized the problem and kindly asked Laila to sit. Laila was illiterate.
Despite a huge investment in building more schools, enrolling more students (especially girls), and training teachers, literacy in Afghanistan remains dismal. Recent reports suggest current literacy levels among all Afghans is somewhere between 34% to 38%; about 50% to 55% among men, but only 18% to 22% among women. While literacy rates are lowest in the underdeveloped provinces, many adults and children living in urban areas cannot read and write. Without literacy skills, most young men and women are doomed to a life of poverty, unless they belong to or marry into a wealthy family.
Even at many schools where reading is taught, there are serious barriers to literacy. A primary problem is that many Afghan textbooks are out of date and boring; another problem is that too many teachers emphasize memorization rather than comprehension. As a result, children are not sufficiently motivated to learn to read.
One of Help the Afghan Children's first projects was creating a program that would make reading interesting, engaging and instructive. "Read Afghanistan" is a series of original, illustrated, bilingual stories about present-day Afghanistan and feature characters that children can relate to and emulate. Our teachers are trained to (first) share the stories with their students who are asked to listen for comprehension and later discuss the meaning of each story, including specific themes and life lessons the stories contain. This process stimulates childrens' interest and motivation to learn how to read the stories themselves. To make the reading even more exciting, HTAC teachers will get their students to role play and re-enact key parts of the stories in class. Since their introduction at HTAC-sponsored schools, the "Read Afghanistan" program has benefited over 12,500 students with over 83% of enrollees demonstrating both reading and comprehension competency by the end of the school year.
Ms. Zarghona placed Laila in another class (she taught), where students like Laila were using "Read Afghanistan" storybooks. Laila was startled and overcome with joy when she saw one of the books they were reading: It was called "A New School in the Village" because the fictional heroine was a girl whose name was also Laila! After hearing the story read to her, Laila was motivated to learn to read it and with her teacher's kind help, she mastered the small book and proudly read the story to her classmates. But Laila's greatest pride was taking the book home to read to her illiterate parents who were overcome with joy..
Establishing a model school in a fragile country like Afghanistan is one thing; maintaining that school year after year is quite another when one considers the common challenges Afghan schools often face; especially those far from major urban areas.
Flash flooding can often wash away the only road that leads to the school or a bridge that once spanned a narrow, but turbulent river. Classroom desks and chairs break, windows are broken by vandals trying to steal computer equipment. A more serious situation can arise at girls schools when local insurgents post 'night letters' on the homes of school principals and teachers, threatening to kill them if they continue to allow girls to attend school.
Many schools faced with such challenges over long periods of time are forced to close their doors. At Help the Afghan Children, we establish, train and support Community School Committees who in turn support and protect local schools that neighborhood children attend. This community-based approach is essential in order for citizens to take an active role in the educational welfare of their children and since 2004, this partnership has strengthened the HTAC-local community school committee relationships.
These Committees have been instrumental at dealing with threats of violence by providing local armed security that protects principals and teachers, preventing break-ins and thefts of equipment, making repairs to bridges, school access roads and school propoerty, providing potable water to schools and supporting HTAC's enriched curriculum.
Committees are typically comprised of local elders, recognized community leaders, influential citizens, teachers and parents. HTAC's role has been to help mobilize committees, assist members in goal setting and decision-making methods, training committee leaders to become facilitators at meetings and orienting them to the new educational programs their children will be exposed to so they become comfortable about supporting these same programs in their homes.
In Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, HTAC-sponsored Community School Committees were so impressed with the peace education course their children were learning, they submitted over 700 unsolicited letters to educational officials lauding the benefits this program has given their children and families and requesting that it be continued in their local schools.
When you support our model schools, you are also helping to ensure the critical work of these community committees continues.
Since 9/11, one of the greatest challenges facing the United States and Western countries has been trying to bridge the polarization between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. In Afghanistan, the media has focused on the war between U.S./NATO forces (now being supplanted by Afghan fighters themselves), and the Taliban. But behind the headlines, there is a furious psychological battle being waged on both sides to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population. As one example, there are many Afghan youth as well as adults who view Western military forces as occupiers, rathe than liberators. The sources behind such beliefs feed on the ignorance and fear of Afghans to build their case.
In place of ignorance and fear, one of the best non-violent weapons we have is building cultural bridges of respect and understanding between Afghanistan and the Western world. Since 2005, HTAC's cultural exchange program brings together Afghan and Western students in creating, sharing and discussing meaningful and often life-changing projects and sharing their stories. Bonds between students, teachers, and schools are created, perceptions are positively changed, and the seeds for future collaboration and peace are planted in this next generation of children from both sides of the world.
One such partnership has been between Sorya (girls) High School in Kabul, Afghanistan and Jerome Case High School in Racine, Wisconsin, USA. The first exchange seemed benign (and safe) enough - sharing the geographical features and landmarks of their respective cities and nearby region. But what shocked the girls at Sorya wasn't geography, but the photos of girls and boys at Case High School together in the same class. In Afghanistan, boys and girls are segretated once they reach middle school. The geography project soon became a fascinating back and forth discussion about the mixing of girls and boys. The Afghan girls asked many questions and the American students (who had learned about Afghanistan's highly conservative society), responded respectfully. Shock turned to intrigue and the girls at Sorya became more comfortable communicating with boys and girls.
A second exchange project addressed a simple, but profound question- What does democracy mean to you? The American students were surprised to learn about Afghanistan's relatively new constitution, requiring a percentage of delegates to be women. They were also surprised at how passionately the girls spoke about women's rights; seeking higher education, participating in elections, having careers, and becoming productive members of society. Common ground was established when the Case students shared the history and the fight for women's rights in America.
Last month, the students and their teachers conducted a historical Skype broadcast with one another. In Kabul, the girls at Sorya arrived at their class one Saturday,morning at 9AM.in front of a computer screen. In Racine, Wisconsin, a group of Case High School students and their teacher sat around a large table in a restaurant on Friday at 11:30PM. Through the magic of technology, the students could see and speak with one another for the very first time and a 'forever' bond was formed.
Cultural exchange projects at HTAC-supported schools have become a powerful tool for students to appreciate other views and ideas that may be different from their own, while often discovering that they may also share common values and core beliefs. Over time, perceptions are changed for the better.
Although much has been made in the general media about the increased enrollment of Afghan children in schools, the sad fact remains that only a very small percentage of these children are gaining the kind of knowledge and skills they will need to become productive citizens in a country that remains a fragile democracy. This is especially true of girls.
HTAC-supported model schools like Sorya High School represent a bright spot in giving thousands of Afghan girls an enriched educational curriculum that all girls deserve, but only an estimated 5% receive.
This mostly girls school was established in 1961 as a middle school (grades 7 through 9), and ten years later, was enlarged to accommodate the educational needs of many older students in the surrounding neighborhoods. In 1992, during the Afghan Civil War, the school was burned and badly damanged and lay dormant until 2002. Two years later, an international non-profit organization made several structural and other renovations.
In coordination with Afghanistan's Ministry of Education and local school officials, HTAC began providing additional educational support and teacher training for Sorya High School in 2008. Since then over 10,000 girls have directly benefited from our programs- including peace education, computer education, environmental education, literacy and cultural exchanges.
Today, Sorya has an average yearly enrollment of over 2,500 girls and 270 boys from grades 1 through 12. The school boasts 65 classrooms, has 107 teachers, a principal and 8 administrative staff. For recreation, Sorya has a playground for both volleyball and basketball. Recently a team of girls competing with other schools captured first place in volleyball and third place in basketball.
HTAC has put a premium on establishing and supporting centers of learning that make it possible for Afghan girls to thrive and succeed. Supporting our model schools will allow HTAC to continue providing quality education to many thousands of girls and boys.
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