In Sheffield I became involved with a group called ‘Friends of Azzad Kashmir’ who wanted to build partnerships with the Kashmiri community in Sheffield and raise educational awareness as well as funds to help build schools in the Kotli district of Azzad Kashmir. At the same time I had been emailing Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) based in Afghanistan asking them if I could volunteer my services and help support schools/education in Afghanistan. I wrote to my Pakistani family of my wishes to make another journey to my ancestral village.
In April 2009 I arrived at Islamabad Airport.
The Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan (WADAN) arranged for me to visit more than 30 Community Based Schools in the rural district of Nangraha Province, Jalalabad. Mohammed Afzal and Nassema Khan (Educational Co-ordinators), and Ghulam Mohammed Safi (Interpreter) accompanied me.
One of the first schools we visited was Taran Community Based School, the school was situated outside on barren, dusty earth below a rocky hillside. I saw six ‘classrooms’ and groups of children sat on thin straw matting. Four of the classrooms consisted of recycled wood, a straw roof and one small-sided wall made from stones taken from the hillside. Two other classes were located outside in the open. Four classes were all male and the other two classes were all female. Each class had approximately 40 students and one male dedicated teacher. I thought I had mentally prepared myself for the trip to Afghanistan but to be actually standing on Afghan soil looking at schools and children I was shocked by the poverty. The children at Taran sat on the floor in rows. Most children at this school had textbooks and a satchel provided by WADAN. However children did not have paper or pens and pencils. Some children had small chalkboards but no chalk. The children were poorly dressed and had tired faces. I was told that all of the children would have either been working at home or working in the fields before they came to school. The cattle and goats grazing nearby belonged to the children. The school day began at 8:00 am and lasted three hours. After school the children and their livestock would go back to working in the fields.
My past history and experiences had made me very aware of the problems facing the tribal relationships in the North West Frontier Province. In the safety of my Sheffield home I would watch news reports and read articles directly relating to my Pushtoon community and became increasingly aware of the emergence of ‘Islamphobia’ in the United Kingdom and newly emerging Far Right groups such as the English Defense League. This particular global conflict was directly affecting how people responded to me, at this point in my own personal journey I choose to confront this issue head on. My experiences in Afghanistan marked a new beginning for me, as with all international news reporting the issues surrounding the conflict in Afghanistan, the actual every day experiences of people in Afghanistan were far more complex than could be communicated through media reports.
Rebuilding Afghanistan, after not just years of modern conflict but conflicts going back to the nineteenth century, can only be successful if we understand the dynamics of local tribal communities because there is an historical distrust of outside intervention. When I met with community elders they told me of their passion in establishing schools in their rural community areas. They were desperate for change wanting, as we all want, their children to have the education and opportunities that they hadn’t had.
A 21st century Afghanistan will only be successful if the building blocks to its emergence as a peaceful nation are built upon a strong educational foundation. Education removes barriers, allowing people to have a greater understanding of their differences whilst at the same time highlighting, nurturing and developing our shared humanity. Children share universal dreams, whether those are dreams of playing professional football, being a doctor or a scientist, lawyers or presidents.
The children I met in Afghanistan were all keen to learn; despite limited or no resources they understood the importance of education. A young girl called Iqra (‘Iqra’ is the first Arabic word written in the Qu’ran, it means ‘Read’) stood up and demanded that I should help build a school with a science laboratory. She wanted to be a scientist when she grew up and did not to want spends her life working in fields. I left Afghanistan with Iqras’ voice echoing in my head and a desire to help build schools, build people and build a nation.