Community Voices Fellow Hassina Sherjan shares the most important lesson she’s ever learned in her quest for Afghanistan’s future.
When my father was on his deathbed, he said to me, “Live as you want to because I didn’t.” I was shocked. All my cultural, familial, and educational conditioning up to that point had taught me the opposite: to do what was expected of me.
After my father’s passing, I committed myself to search for what I really wanted to do in this life. Two months after his memorial service, I woke up in the morning with an urge to return to Afghanistan after 19 years of living in the United States and pursuing the American dream of making money, purchasing a house, driving fancy cars, and all the rest of it. I changed my car each time I felt depressed, which was often.
Going to Afghanistan in 1995 was impossible because there was a factional war after the defeat of the Russians. I decided to get as close as possible, which was Peshawar, Pakistan. There, millions of Afghans were taking shelter in refugee camps.
The day after I arrived in Peshawar, I met a lady who was holding literacy courses in a refugee camp. I asked her to take me on her regular visit the next day. We arrived at the Jalozai refugee camp, and within the first hour, it became clear why I was there.
In the first 15 minutes, a woman approached me with her newborn twins and said, “Which one do you think is healthier? Because I cannot keep both. I don’t have enough milk and no money to purchase milk.”
As soon as I turned around, I met a 14-year-old girl who was taking care of her siblings because their parents died on the way to Pakistan. She said, “If you can buy some sugar, we will be very happy to have sugar with bread and tea, which we eat every night.”
Half an hour later, I met women in their 30s and 40s who were learning to read and write for the first time. Their eyes were glowing as though they had discovered a precious treasure.
That’s when I realized I was there to witness a reality I was shielded from.
Many sleepless nights followed this visit, and I came back to the US two weeks later. After gathering with young Afghan professionals and having long discussions on the responsibilities we hold for those whom we left behind, Aid Afghanistan for Education was born.
In 1999, when I was in Peshawar to assist Afghan refugee camps with education supplies, I decided to go inside Afghanistan to see the situation of girls who were forbidden from attending school. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) agreed to take me on its flight to Kabul if I wore a burqa.
A changed Afghanistan
I felt a surge of emotion as I stepped out of the plane, struggling to walk with the unfamiliar garment. The airport that I had known and cherished had been reduced to rubble. I remembered how I used to greet or bid farewell to my relatives who traveled abroad at the airport, and how I enjoyed the French toast at the restaurant on the second floor with white tablecloths.
Someone came over and said, “You should not be here without a mahram,” which is a male guardian. The driver of ICRC saw the situation and ran over to rescue me. He told me to get in the ICRC car. As we drove away, I saw people sitting on the side of the streets, and they looked like ghosts. I remembered the movie, “The Day After,” depicting the aftermath of a nuclear bombing. The beautiful Kabul city that I grew up in was destroyed. I couldn’t find the Chara-hi-Turabaz Khan, a street I knew for the first 18 years of my life, and where I wanted to go to a distant relative’s house. The street name had changed, and it took me five trips through the short stretch to come to my senses and realize where we were.
Challenges that haven’t changed
In Kabul, I met with teachers who were begging on the streets daily. And I found a taxi driver who used to work at the Foreign Ministry of Afghanistan. He met me at 5 a.m. every day, and we went to the teachers’ homes to discuss the possibility of secret classes for girls. I had $3,000 with me and didn’t want to bring it back to the US.
So, we organized five clandestine classrooms for 250 girls in Kabul and purchased books, stationery, and all that was needed for classes to start.
During this visit, I also met with the Taliban leadership. I was asked to meet the Deputy Minister of Education at his home in the afternoon because everyone worked until noon.
“We can’t help you because orders come from up above, and we implement them,” he told me. After this meeting, I realized that there was another authority above the Taliban who was dictating to them. I was invited for dinner at the home of the Deputy Minister of Culture, and he said, “My wife and daughters came back from Pakistan today because my daughters go to school there, and this is their summer holiday.” His wife did not join us for dinner.
Ironically, 24 years later, girls and women in Afghanistan are still faced with the same situation. They’re excluded and unsupported.
Currently, 80% of school-aged girls and young women in Afghanistan are out of school. And nearly 30% of girls in the country have never had primary education. Children are also suffering from poverty and forced labor. They are on the streets working to survive. To build a better future for Afghanistan, we need to ensure that the next generation has the opportunity to learn and develop their skills. Education is the key to empowerment, peace, and development. We need to make sure our youth are literate and educated if Afghanistan is going to be a stable, prosperous country.
Creating the future
After the removal of the Taliban by the United States in 2001, I moved back to Afghanistan and registered AAE with the Ministry of Economics, the official body for all NGOs. We focused on our accelerated education program, which was designed by AAE for women and girls who had missed the chance to finish high school due to decades of war. They were not allowed to complete their education during the democratic regime of the last 20 years, given their age, marital status, and lack of documentation. Since 2004, we reached out to more than 7,000 students in 13 provinces, and more than 2,700 students graduated from high school with an official certificate from the Ministry of Education. Many of the graduates became the breadwinners of their families.
I felt alive when I saw how my presence was transforming someone else’s life. That was the moment when I grasped what it meant to live as I truly wanted to live. I experienced the joy of living a life that mattered, a life with deeper meaning, a life that could make a difference for someone else.
I felt I was fulfilling my purpose.
I wonder why education systems, from Afghanistan’s schools to Massachusetts’ Harvard Kennedy School, didn’t teach me to live as I really wanted to live. On the contrary, they taught me to do what is “right” according to others and accumulate information about how others achieved success in their lives.
All I needed to learn was how to listen to the voice inside of me that is continuously communicating. But I was too busy or distracted to listen. I didn’t even know how to tune in to that voice that is always guiding me toward my best life.
This is what I like to transfer to the most disadvantaged children in Afghanistan who are working on the streets with no hope of a better life. They also have this voice, and we need to provide them with the means and tools to allow them to hear the voice and act accordingly to find their highest potential for a joyful and fulfilling life.
Hassina Sherjan is the founder and CEO of Aid Afghanistan for Education. Support her work to unlock the potential of young Afghans through education.
About Community Voices:
GlobalGiving’s Community Voices fellowship aims to elevate and amplify the ideas of nonprofit partners in the GlobalGiving community. Six change leaders from Afghanistan, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, and Tanzania share their perspectives on challenges affecting our world and the solutions that exist in their communities. Each leader has embarked upon the eight-month fellowship with support from GlobalGiving and The OpEd Project to elevate their underheard, yet vitally important, viewpoints. Read more from Community Voices Fellows.
Featured Photo: Grow Peace in Afghanistan: Educate Women & Girls by Aid Afghanistan for Education