In Afghanistan, a 16-year-old girl dares to learn

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—An Afghan girl must be strong to reach for a book instead of a broom.

She will suffer for wanting to learn.

Dare to walk to school here in the Taliban heartland and a girl must endure the cruel taunts of neighbours. Not wild-eyed terrorists, just ordinary folk who think a young lady’s proper place is hidden in the home. They question her morals, call her venomous names, do all they can to make life difficult for the whole family.

When the Talibs punish aspiring females, the pain is much worse. Sometimes insurgents throw acid to burn schoolgirls’ faces. They poison classes with noxious gas. Gunmen shoot students and their teachers in cold blood.

In one of their latest attacks on education, insurgents murdered Kandahar province’s deputy director for literacy, Ustad Abdullah, with a burst of AK-47 fire as he walked to the mosque for morning prayers on Nov. 4. It was another ruthless warning to girls like Roya Shams, who believe education is their birthright, a gift from the same god the Taliban say is telling them to kill people who want to learn and teach.

Cloaked in black, her delicate face framed by a wool headscarf, Roya looks at first glance like a shy schoolgirl, just the sort that Talibs, and the plain old-fashioned, think they can scare back into the shadows. She is 16. A fragile age. But a fire flickers in Roya’s steely brown eyes.

In a land three decades at war, awash in some of the world’s crudest and most sophisticated weapons, this Afghan girl is as brave as any soldier. Roya is not only determined to learn, to finish high school, go on to university and get a degree.

She then plans to stick her neck out even further: in a country where a woman is easily cut down for having the nerve to speak up, the burning ambition of Roya’s young life is to become a politician. “I want to serve my country as much as I can,” she says, her voice racing, as if time is short.

She’s rushing down a dangerous path, and perhaps more astonishing, Roya’s parents stand firmly behind her.  The neighbours, many of whom won’t allow their sons near a school let alone allow their daughters to learn, are disgusted by the cheeky girl with big ideas.  “They tell us we are not good people,” Roya says. “They are warning us. They tease us. They say bad words. They ask my parents, ‘Why are you letting your daughters go and get an education?’

“There are many problems. But we have no choice. I have to save my country. If every one of us should hide, who will save our country? Who will help us?” The words pour across her lips with the insistent force of a raging river. She has no time for doubt. Roya is anxious, in a hurry.  “We have to study,” she insists. “We have to show them the way.”

Roya is no teen dreamer. She is certain where she is going. She shoulders the burden of her courage every day.  “It hurts,” she admits, and nervously laughs off the torment of uneducated people who think a girl who leaves home so often must be impure, maybe even a prostitute.

Damn the risks: she wants the fighters, the backward, anyone trying to pull her and the rest of Afghanistan back into another century, to get out of the way.  But her country has many roadblocks, real and imagined. Roya has come to an abrupt halt at one that’s especially maddening.

She ran into it right where she thought the way was clear to a world of opportunity: the Afghan-Canadian Community Center, a rambling old house turned into a school, where hundreds of girls and women come to learn each day.

It was founded four years ago, after Ottawa residents Ryan Aldred and Andrea Caverly, now his wife, read a Toronto Star story about Ehsanullah Ehsan’s struggle to keep a much smaller school open and sent him some money.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) quickly gave its backing, and the centre grew as word spread among women and girls hungry for an education. Then men and boys wanted in too.

The steel gates opened even wider for Roya this year when Canada eSchool, whose online high school classes are accredited by Ontario’s Ministry of Education, allowed her to take, on scholarship, a civics course over the centre’s Internet connection.

The Canadian International Learning Foundation (CanILF), a volunteer-run charity that grew out of what Aldred and Caverly thought was going to be a modest donation to Ehsan’s cause, picked up the bill for Roya’s books. It was roughly $300.

On July 6, she went to the NATO-run military base for Kandahar’s Provincial Reconstruction Team and wrote her civics exam, supervised by a Canadian official.  To no one’s surprise, Roya not only passed, but then wanted to get started on her next class. She’s still waiting. There’s no money.  It wouldn’t cost a lot to keep Roya in class. Canada eSchool will offer a discounted tuition of $150, which CanILF will cover, along with the cost of textbooks, for a total cost of $500, Aldred says.

An assault rifle costs more. Yet in a war that’s burning an estimated $16 billion a month, with millions of that lost to corruption, somehow the small change Roya needs to realize her dream is out of reach.  The current CIDA funding runs out in February, and since it costs only $10 a month to keep a regular student in school at the centre, “we simply can’t afford to support Roya’s program,” Aldred says.

“We will need every spare dollar to support the less expensive courses.”

Giving ordinary Afghans the confidence that they won’t be abandoned to the insurgents is critical to winning this war. Yet worry is building in the halls of the Afghan-Canadian Community Center that all the hard work, the extreme risks — the faith — are for nothing.

The centre has proven itself many times over. It now has more than 1,900 students, mostly girls and women aged 12 to mid-30s, but also boys and men.  In the four years since the centre opened, 1,160 students have graduated from professional courses, with skills including word processing, graphic design and business communication.

Several women have started their own businesses. Scores more have jobs in the Kandahar offices of non-government agencies, the United Nations and construction companies or with other employers.

When the current CIDA funding runs out, the centre will be short about $8,000 a month, Aldred says. A request for support from the U.S. Agency for International Development has gone unanswered for four months.

“We had submitted a plan for expansion to CIDA in March 2010 which was declined, and they are currently considering a proposal that would allow us to sustain our current activities for the long term,” Aldred adds. Hundreds of Afghans’ hopes, and Roya’s dream of higher education, are riding on the decision.

Just the sound of the word university lights up her face. She aches to hold a diploma, her strongest weapon against those who want to beat Afghanistan back into the Dark Ages.  “Many families allow their daughters to become teachers or doctors, but they will not allow them to be political women,” she says, indignant.

“But Afghans should also have someone who can stand up for women’s rights.  “These criminals are using women just like animals. They don’t know the rights of women. Anything they desire, women should just tolerate that.”

The first time Roya remembers wanting to lead, she was a little girl. The World Trade Center’s twin towers were still standing in New York. The Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden was their new guest.

The youngest of nine children, Roya lived in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The Talibs were fast approaching in 1997 as they moved out of the capital, Kabul, past the Hindu Kush mountains, and across the open plains south of Mazar.

Roya was born to Pashtuns, the same ethnic group from which the Taliban draws most its strength. But her parents had a decidedly different view of the world than the mullahs with guns.

And if they were caught, they could expect to be killed. Roya’s father, Syed, was a cop, carrying a gun for the Taliban’s enemy, the Northern Alliance government.  Roya remembers her childhood epiphany as a moment when he came home from work and put his pillbox police hat on the table.

“I walked over and got my father’s cap and put it on my head,” she says. “I thought, ‘I will serve my country.’ ”  It may sound too perfect to be true. But her mother, Maghan, remembers it the same way. Her husband, now commander of a police substation in Kandahar, always insisted his children would be educated, she says.  And he taught them a sense of duty,

Maghan became his wife, in an arranged marriage, when she was a 15-year-old high Grade 9 student.  He was a trainee at the police academy. She took care of their growing family during the day and completed three years of high school at night.

“When I was going to marry, my parents said, ‘Ninth grade is enough for you,’ ” Maghan says. “But my husband was a nice person. He said to me, ‘You have to finish your high school education.’ ”  His logic was that having an educated wife would ensure educated children, she says. But learning was a family effort.

Each night, Syed gathered the kids around him on the carpet, taught the youngest to read Pashtu and Arabic, and helped the others with their studies.  When Mazar fell to the Talibs, the family left everything and fled south to Kandahar, the extremist militia’s spiritual capital, where it seemed wise to melt in among the illiterate majority.

“We acted like uneducated people, like all our relatives,” Roya’s mother says. “Even my eldest son at that time was a doctor, but we weren’t able to tell anyone our children were educated. We just sat there.  “If my relatives had known that my husband had worked for the government, the Taliban would have killed us.”

But enlightenment was stronger than fear. Defying the Taliban on their home turf, Maghan taught some of the trusted neighbours’ children, including girls, at her home.  She could leave her house only once a month to buy groceries, escorted by a sister, each careful that their burqas covered their bodies’ every inch.

“If our hands showed just a little, a Talib would beat us with a stick,” she says. “He shouted, ‘Why are your nails showing?’ I was so afraid then. After that, I didn’t want to go outside.”

She is able to laugh at the cruel absurdity now.  With the mullahs still fighting to regain power after nine years of war, and NATO helping the Afghan government talk with some Taliban leaders, Roya and her family know that knowledge might become a liability again.

Her mother stopped worrying long ago.  “One day we were born and another day we will die,” she says. “We are not afraid of this situation. If we are afraid — if all Afghans are afraid — who will rebuild?”

From the street, Roya’s school looks like just another house hidden behind high walls. There is no sign outside. The Taliban would probably read one as an invitation to attack.

The insurgency has many eyes, so no one is naïve enough to think the school is secret. If the women and girls arriving in threes and fours, anonymous under their flowing burqas, don’t give it away, the daily coming and going of 10 busloads of students must.

Still, it’s hard to imagine how much the world shrinks in the small, windowless classrooms where, in the dim glow of old laptop computers, Roya and other students work with teachers in Canada.  Girls sit in rows at computers, some whispering through headsets to teachers half a planet away, others hand in assignments with the click of a plastic mouse glowing red.

At 4 a.m. in Calgary, Tom Kozma, a teacher at the SAIT Polytechnic, is in front of his webcam, his image flickering to life on a screen in Kandahar, as he starts teaching his afternoon business communications class the finer points of writing a letter of complaint.

Early last year, when Ottawa-area resident Tara Bisonette got up each morning around 5:30 a.m. and checked for email and message board notes from students, she came to know Roya, the new kid in class from Kandahar.

Over several months, Bisonette, 29, taught Roya about Canada’s Parliament, how the federal system works, the mechanics of voting, things that make many a Canadian kid’s eyes glaze over.

Roya couldn’t get enough of the stuff. She craved information about democracy and politics, taking it in like an energizing transfusion.  “I think what I noticed most about Roya was that she’s so respectful, and she’s so thoughtful of other people, which is huge,” Bisonette says.  “She even emails me now to say, ‘Hi Miss. Just wondering how things are going with you.’ And that’s after she’s done the course with me.”

In the six years that Bisonette has taught international students, few have made the impression Roya has.  “She always wanted to focus on how she could do better — (how to) make her answers better in my course, but also just how to be a better student in general,” Bisonette says.

Things were only getting worse in Kandahar during those months. More car bombs, more Afghans killed in the crossfire of insurgents and NATO troops, more fear of what the next day would bring. But Roya never brought it up, Bisonette says. She never strayed from the goal in front of her.

“I absolutely see potential in her because I think that as a student, but also as a person, she has some really strong values, and that she’s really dedicated to doing well and being successful,” Bisonette adds.  “She’s pretty phenomenal.”

Roya will have to be if she is to hold on to what’s she’s gained, and fight for more, not just for herself but for all the Afghans she wants to represent. The stakes couldn’t be higher as talk, and fear, of negotiations with the Taliban builds.

If the mullahs regain power, even a share of it, will girls and women have to surrender theirs, Roya and her mother wonder?  “I have the habit of freedom now,” Maghan says. “I can’t live without it.”  Roya interjects: “It will be harder than before because they will have information about educated people, about the ones participating in the government. It will be so hard for us.

“If they make peace with the Taliban, they will never allow us to live. I am sure about this.”  Stern in thought, she looks down at delicate hands folded in her lap, and shifts uneasily in the chair.

Roya doesn’t seem afraid, but impatient. She needs to get going.

Amid huge military budgets, no money for schools

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—Eshanullah Ehsan was at wit’s end when hope arrived in the form of a Canadian reporter.

It was the spring of 2006, and the school Ehsan had opened to teach girls and women English, basic health, computer skills and other courses in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar was fast running out of money.

He was on the brink of shutting it down when the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter happened by, wrote about the looming disaster, and touched the hearts of two readers in Ottawa: Ryan Aldred and Andrea Caverly.

They reached out halfway around the world, planning to give Ehsan a donation. But they quickly realized how enormous the need was and helped him found a new school to give his students a safer place to learn in defiance of the Taliban.

“I said, ‘This was just an angel that blessed us!’“ the irrepressible Ehsan recalled this week.

His Afghan-Canadian Community Center (ACCC) opened at the start of 2007, and what started out as support from Aldred, Caverly and a few friends soon swelled into major aid from the Canadian government.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has contributed $313,773 to the project that supports the centre, says Katherine Heath-Eves, a Canadian foreign affairs spokewoman here. She did not say how CIDA plans to handle the application for more aid when the current support runs out in February.

“As with all projects, CIDA is in regular contact with the partner to discuss current and future plans, and to ensure the sustainability of the project.”

Aldred and Caverly created the Canadian International Learning Foundation (CanILF) to help Ehsan expand his school. The agency’s 40 volunteers are now “involved in every aspect of the ACCC, from curriculum development to project evaluation and grant writing,” says Aldred.

The foundation has also raised almost $1 million in grants, donations and scholarships for ACCC students. The current request asks CIDA to back CanILF as well as the Afghan-Canadian Community Center.

The agency needs a full-time staff member to coordinate volunteers’ work, Aldred adds.

“We do not even have enough funds to issue a press release. If the situation does not change, we too will need to make serious cutbacks, which will also affect our projects in Uganda and Yemen.”

Like many who’ve seen what the Kandahar centre is doing to free Afghan girls and women from generations of oppression, Ehsan can’t understand why more support doesn’t come quicker from countries fighting for peace.

“It’s taught me pessimism,” he says. “A penny here at the centre works so big, and there on the military base, a billion dollars doesn’t work at all. So it makes me sad.”

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