Afghanistan + 1 more

Give us schools, not supplies, urges Afghan headmistress

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QUETTA, Pakistan, June 29 (UNHCR) - Jamila Abbasi runs "mini-Afghanistan" in the heart of Quetta, nurturing a generation of refugees - especially girls - from all over Afghanistan.

"I will teach Afghan children till the last breath of my life," said the 35-year-old, a mother of three and headmistress of three schools for more than 1,500 Afghan children in the southern Pakistan town of Quetta. "Even if I'm elected the president of Afghanistan, I will spend my free time in the classroom, teaching my students."

Her dedication is sorely needed. According to a recent report on the registration of Afghans in Pakistan, more than 70 percent of the 2.1 million registered Afghans in this country have had no education. Women and girls constitute less than a quarter of Afghans with primary education, and by the time they reach the levels of higher education they are five times less likely than their male counterparts to have the opportunity to study.

Jamila could easily have suffered the same fate. Her parents arranged her marriage in Kabul when she was just 14 years old. She became a mother at 16, but luckily her in-laws encouraged her to continue her studies and she went on to obtain a diploma in education from Dar-ul-Mualimin, a religious teaching institute in the Afghan capital.

In 1992, when the mujahideen took over Kabul, she and her family fled to Iran, where they stayed for about a year before leaving for Pakistan by train. "Unfortunately, the only person we knew [in Quetta] at that time had already gone back to Afghanistan. We spent the night at the station," said Jamila, her eyes reliving the agony of displacement. "In the morning, an Afghan man who had been observing us came and offered help, and we had to trust him."

The good samaritan helped them find a two-room rented house. Her husband found a clerical job in Quetta, and her children started attending school. "But I was not satisfied, I felt there was a vacuum in my life. My heart would weep to see small Afghan kids running on the streets, barefoot, collecting garbage," she said.

In 1999, she decided to set up a primary school with three Afghan women. Within a year, the enrolment of boys and girls increased from 25 to 400. Jamila paid the rent while the students paid token monthly fees of 30-50 rupees (50-80 US cents) for books. Fifty deserving students were exempted from school fees.

"The number of girls in that school was lower than boys, and that was pinching me the most," said Jamila. "I thought: Change will never come in the lives of Afghan people unless our females are given equal chances of getting educated. A woman is the bearer of a whole generation, how can we expect to have an educated generation without giving equal opportunities of education to girls?"

That was when she decided to establish a free middle school specifically for girls. In 2001, a visiting British journalist was so impressed by Jamila's vision that she promised to send funds to support female education. The journalist is now supporting 200 girls and six teachers in the school.

Today, Jamila runs three schools, including a high school established in 2002 with the support of Muslim Hands, an international non-governmental organization. All her schools are registered with the Afghan Ministry of Education. They teach the Afghan curriculum, so that when the students repatriate they will not face adjustment problems.

Jamila is also an active member of the Afghan Teacher's Association, which sets academic guidelines for all Afghan schools in the urban refugee settlements of Pakistan. To date, 45 Afghan schools with 25,000 students in Quetta have been registered with the association.

The UN refugee agency is supporting primary education only in Pakistan's camps. As funding decreases over the years, UNHCR has been encouraging long-staying Afghans to be more self-sufficient. Jamila's effort is a big step in this direction, but there is still a long way to go to make girls' education less of a taboo in Afghan society.

She hopes that education can bring a brighter future for Afghan children. "We no longer need rations or oil or even a few hundred dollars, because all these things will finish one day. What will we do the next day?," she asked. "If someone really wants to help us, please educate our people. Spend your money on education, buy us books, provide us with schools, and we'll never be a burden again."

By Duniya Khan in Quetta, Pakistan