Friday, January 26, 2018

How Afghanistan Can Save Its Children

An hour and a half earlier, the New York Times tweeted the following:
In the wake of the latest act of violence in Afghanistan to make major headlines in the United States, we asked contributors to the book Children of Afghanistan: The Path to Peace to comment on the impact of this tragic story in American news media, what conditions are actually like for children in Afghanistan, and how the country's own brain trust is working to take back the country after decades of war. 
More info

First we will hear from Wahid Omar, an Afghan political refugee who has worked in Afghanistan since 2001 in project development, implementation, and feasibility studies, and as an educational advisor for the United Nations Development Program. Wahid's contribution to Children of Afghanistan, an essay titled "The Parakeet Boys: Performing Education in the Streets of Kabul," is a salute to the street children of Afghanistan, who—through the art of performing classical poetrypreserve their cultural heritage but also improve their literacy skills in the absence of structured education. He dreams of developing "the Parakeet School" where street children could have the opportunity to use and train easily domesticated birds to earn income on the streets while at the same time receiving a formal education. Wahid returned from Afghanistan two months ago and is frustrated by the lack of improvement in early childhood education.

Education in a War Zone

Wahid Omar

Students recite prayers in a makeshift outdoor classroom in the Wakhan Corridor, a mountainous region in northeastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from India and Pakistan. Northeastern Afghanistan, September 2, 2007. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
As I was walking toward a classroom full of children, I had the impression of watching a play. The entire four levels of the school had no windows, no walls; the classrooms could be seen from the outside. Pieces of metal and shattered glass were were the sad décor of the courtyard. I stopped in front of one classroom on the ground level and prepared my camera to take pictures. Inside, a teacher was questioning a child, who could not respond. Angrily, the teacher asked another child to slap the unresponsive one in the face. The teacher then asked again for the child to say the answer. This was Afghanistan in 2002 right after it was liberated from the Taliban.

With international aid pouring into the country, one would think that things might have changed dramatically for the better since then. Indeed, in the following years, millions of Afghan children gained access to schools, and parents began to see hope rising.

In 2017, fifteen years since I witnessed that scene in the classroom, my neighbor’s son was in primary school. He came back from school with a big bruise on his left eye and swelling hands. The Koran teacher had beaten him because he could not recite the holy book correctly. I decided to go to the school with my neighbor to file a complaint. When I entered the school, I saw that each teacher was walking with a stick, and the school director had a bat in his hand. It was a lost cause. In such situations, you wonder what happened to the millions of dollars spent by the international community on improving primary education.

The story of my neighbor’s son is a small symptom of much larger problems. Corruption, ghost teachers, outdated methods of teaching, lack of infrastructure, lack of quality teaching and credentialing, and poor leadership are all impediments toward a healthy system. Many children are dropping out because of poverty or unsafe conditions. Private schools are offering better education, at least on the surface. Nice uniforms and nice school minivans with the school logo are standard featurese in private schools, but the quality of teaching remains very poor. Private schools are only adding to the problem.

Many schools around the country, especially in eastern and southern Afghanistan, have closed because of insecurity and rising attacks by the Taliban. Thousands of boys and girls returned home with no hope to go back to school. The streets of Kabul are full of children begging for money or food. Many of them are becoming drug addicts, or are abused by employers, if they are lucky to find a job. In almost every shop in Afghanistan, there is a child apprentice who works under extremely poor conditions. Children are still abused physically and mentally.

Aid organizations are increasingly targets of terrorism, which does not improve the situation in any way. The recent attack in eastern Afghanistan against Save the Children is one example among many. For the Afghan people, hope is fading as the security situation has worsened in recent years. After three decades of wars and terrorism, how much longer can the Afghan people suffer?

It is certainly important to acknowledge that Afghans are fighting for progress and winning positive change. However, the truth is that overall conditions for children have not improved significantly. Significant progress has been made in higher education, but not in primary education. In fact, many donors have retracted their assistance to the Ministry of Education because of corruption. When the system is bad, children face the consequences the most.

A girl looks through the frosted window of a restaurant, hoping to get leftovers. She begs after school to help out her family. Kabul, January 13, 2002. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
Next we hear from Esther Hyneman, whose chapter in Children of Afghanistan is titled, “Children Who Live with Their Mothers in Prison.” While her essay describes a grim side of the Afghan family in crisis,* she writes urgently in response to the Save the Children attack about how tragic news like this may contribute to a "lost cause" mentality and negatively impact policy-making here in the United States.

How We See Afghanistan Matters

Esther Hyneman

I am in the process of making a documentary about progress in Afghanistan. Although the country has a long way to go, describing its shortcomings does more harm to the country than good. Americans get their ideas about Afghanistan from the media, which is addicted to the sensational and the negative. Recently, the New York Times published an article about a young girl who had spent all eleven years of her life in prison with her serial killer mother. It is a terrible story, but the article contained information that was slanted in an even more negative way, making it almost dishonest. It failed to explain that this was an unusual case—or why it was unusual. The article claimed that there were more than one-thousand Afghan children living in prisons with their mothers. In fact, most children over five years old are removed from prisons and put in Children's Support Centersresident and educational centersrun by Women for Afghan Women (WAW).

A few weeks after this upsetting New York Times piece was published, the reporter Rod Nordland published a second article that describes the children's support centers that were omitted from his original story. However, I would argue that the first article did significant damage. In fact, he called the Children's Support Centersa name WAW chose very carefullyorphanages.

I am so upset about how the media writes about Afghanistan that I am in the process of making a documentary on progress in that country. Watch the documentary trailer here. How many Americans are aware that there are highly capable, intelligent, and thoughtful Afghans dedicating their lives to solving their country's problems. 
I don't believe in lying about Afghanistan's problems, but writing about the current situation as if nothing positive is happening isn't exactly the truth.

Finally, we hear from human rights activist Lauryn Oates, who agrees that media coverage in the West greatly skews stories from Afghanistan and affirms stereotypes. She writes,

We shouldn’t see everything through rose-coloured glasses, but we can’t frame it as all doom and gloom or people will give up and check out. At Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan we have aimed to do that here. We acknowledge that progress has been made, but we also point out that persistent problems prevent further progress. It is a call to action. It is a reason to raise the rallying cry and work harder. I think that’s the key message those of us who care so much about Afghanistan need to get across.

Educating for Peace 

Lauryn Oates

In Afghanistan, violence is so common as to have literally become a part of day-to-day life. For the past decade, I have begun every single day by opening my email and reading through security incident reports for areas of the country where my organization is working. Some days there are 50 alerts, some days 20, but usually not less than five on any given day. The violence doesn’t pause for holidays or weekends. It happens mornings, afternoons, evenings and nights. It happens on the street, in stores, in restaurants, at home, at work, in the city, in the countryside. There are robberies, bombs, grenades, rocket attacks, small arms fire, kidnappings, attempted kidnappings, vehicle hijackings, and threats. Every day, lives are stolen: women, men, and children who are walking, dreaming, breathing people one moment, and gone the next. In the language of a report, they are reduced to the language where they can be categorized: casualties, killed, critical condition, injured, missing. There is no getting around it: eventually it numbs you. I skim them, read the aggregated data to look for patterns and changes in the areas where we work, file them away, and move on to the next task on my desk.

However, as the Japanese Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa wrote after the death of his infant daughter,

This dewdrop world—
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet . . .
As a Buddhist, Issa was expected to strive for detachment from the material world. Death should be taken in stride, and not detract too much from meditating toward thoughts of nothingness. But his small daughter was dead, and the mourning crept over him. One cannot help but grieve.

Mahbooba stands against a bullet-ridden wall, waiting to be seen at a medical clinic. The seven-year-old girl suffers from leishmaniasis, a parasitical infection. Kabul, March 1, 2002. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
In this same way, sometimes an “incident” cuts through the numbness, and gives pause. Such was this week’s attack on Save the Children's office in Jalalabad, in which four staff were killed and several others injured. Perhaps this reflection stems from working in the same sectoral space as them in the education field in the country, perhaps it is the organization's decades long track record of work in Afghanistan, or perhaps it is from recognizing the cowardice of attacking an organization that works explicitly to serve the youngest and most vulnerable of society. By attacking those who try to lift up the children of Afghanistan to a better life, this is also an attack on the future of the country—and its best prospects for an eventual peace.

Afghanistan is one of the world’s youngest countries demographically, with the majority of the population aged under 25 years. Its youthful population is the source of both its woes and hope. It is a younger population—thirsty for education, opportunity, and jobs—who are a potential destabilizer as they now finish high school in droves but do not always find a place in the country’s competitive public higher education system, or cannot secure a viable livelihood, especially in the countryside. As a result, many of them are migrating, both within the country and from it, with some not surviving the perilous journey across an ocean, and others arriving with the clothing on their back, having given everything they had to smugglers. High fertility rates mean many families have more mouths than they can feed, pushing children into child labour, and girls into early, forced marriage. On the other hand, this unsettled, kinetic population of youth are also the people driving change in the country. They are changing the face of government, they are connecting their country to the outside world through technology and entrepreneurship, they are stimulating an exciting new era of music and entertainment. In Afghanistan, you will find children skateboarding, running their own circus, and generally beating the odds, as they excel in their educations, rising above their lot in life and making it.

More children go to school today than at any other time in Afghanistan’s history. They are sitting at the helm of a dramatic, profound, and irreversible transformation. One thing I’ve learned in working in literacy education is that literacy is intergenerational: literate parents do not raise illiterate children. So, every child who acquires an education represents future descendants who will be educated, too. These kids who have made it to a classroom—amidst violence, poverty, and uncertainty—are the tide turners. They will midwife a very different society to come. They will teach, they will heal the sick, they will build, they will mediate, they will design, and they will plan. They will win, and they will end terrorism. They will reduce their country’s dependence on outsiders.

But first, for now, they need those outsiders. Organizations like Save the Children have given this powerful infusion that has allowed so many of these kids to rise above their circumstances. It is their relentless, dedicated work to the idea that kids everywhere deserve to be kids—to play, to learn, to survive—that has helped fuel this powerful antidote to violence that I think will eventually prevail in the country—allowing these children to take their country back from those who would seek to destroy it.

A grief hangs over me on this day thinking about the three staff and the volunteer working for Save the Children who lost their lives in a senseless act of violence for the crime of working on behalf of children. But over that grief towers my unbreakable hope in the future that Afghan kids will create, as well as my appreciation for those who have made it possible, like the Afghans and their international colleagues who work for Save the Children.

A woman in a white burqa enjoys an afternoon with her family feeding the white pigeons at the Blue Mosque. Mazar-e-Sharif, March 8, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images, from Paula Bronstein's book Afghanistan.)
Wahid Omar was born in Kabul and left Afghanistan shortly before the Soviet invasion in 1979. He lived in France as a political refugee until 1987 and received his PhD from the University of Colorado in 2010. He has worked in Afghanistan since 2001 in project development, implementation, and feasibility studies, and as an educational advisor for the United Nations Development Program, training university professors and building capacity at the University of Kabul. Under his leadership, forty-five projects have been implemented, ranging from school and community centers, teacher training, water improvement projects, and microlending to humanitarian aid and relief efforts. He has won many awards for his teaching and writing, and his work in collecting and preserving Afghan folklore has garnered the attention of the Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of Afghanistan: A Nation in Performance—A Comparative Study between Medieval France and Contemporary Afghanistan.

Esther Hyneman is a professor emeritus of English at Long Island University. She received her BA from Goucher College and her MA and PhD from Columbia University. She often spends about six months a year in Afghanistan.

Lauryn Oates is a human rights activist focused on education in conflict zones. It was in 1996 that, at age 14, Lauryn read a newspaper article describing the new regime in Afghanistan called the Taliban, and their treatment of women and girls. She wrote up a petition demanding that the world respond to the Taliban’s misogynist policies, and has continued this work ever since, working in close partnership with a variety of Afghan women’s organizations and international charities. Lauryn is currently Programs Director with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, managing education projects including teacher training, village libraries, literacy classes, schools and training programs. Lauryn is a fierce proponent of the universalism of human rights, and frequently speaks out against cultural relativism and for global citizenship in the Canadian and international media. She is the recipient of several awards and distinctions, including a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal awarded by the province of BC in 2013. She holds a BA in international development (McGill University), an MA in human security (Royal Roads University) and a PhD in education (University of British Columbia), and teaches graduate students at the School of Humanitarian Studies at Royal Roads University. In 2008, The Globe & Mail named Lauryn as the first of Ten Canadians to Watch in 2009.

* In 2008, it was estimated that 226 children in Afghanistan were living with their incarcerated mothers, while at about the same period, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that two hundred children were being held with their parents at one immigrant prison in the United States. 
Child Rights International Network, “Afghanistan: Children in Prison with Mothers,” Associated Press, August 4, 2008,, and “ACLU Challenges Illegal Detention of Immigrant Children Held in Prison-Like Conditions,” American Civil Liberties Union, March 6, 2007, Of interest: Rickie Solinger, Paula C. Johnson, Martha L. Raimon, Tina Reynolds, and Ruby C. Tapia, eds., Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

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