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Afghan teacher describes the risks

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Albany second-grade class learns what it’s like to grow up in a culture of insurgents and terror

By Lisa Fernandez
Contra Costa Times
November 23, 2007

The words she chose weren’t the typical way to begin a second-grade presentation.

“I come from a country where there are wars and blood,” Fatema, a 36-year-old educator from Afghanistan, told the rapt 7-year-olds last week. “The Taliban are people who believe girls shouldn’t go to school.”

Girls shouldn’t go to school?

The children, who sat cross-legged on a rug in an Albany classroom, couldn’t believe what they were hearing. The second-graders fired questions at Fatema: Why doesn’t the Taliban want girls to be educated? How much money would it take to get girls back in school? Do children have playgrounds in Afghanistan?

What Fatema didn’t tell the children about was her campaign to educate girls in Afghanistan and even her tour of the United States to highlight the problems that endanger her and her family. The resurgent Taliban — the fundamentalist Muslim group that once ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist — have left threatening letters on her husband’s car.

Her hair covered in a simple chador, or loose veil, as is Muslim tradition, Fatema tried her best to educate a class full of American children about what it’s like to be a child in Afghanistan and study in a tent with no books to read.

“You are so lucky,” she told Kerry Dunigan’s class at Marin Elementary School, just one of her stops of mostly private gatherings in the Bay Area on her first visit to the United States.

Fatema, who asked that only her first name be used because of the Taliban threats, also visited schools and homes in Hayward and San Francisco.

She had hoped to meet with Afghan leaders in Fremont, which a large population of Afghan emigres now calls home, but scheduling difficulties made that impossible, said Humaira Ghilzai of San Francisco, president of Afghan Friends Network, which organized and paid for Fatema’s Bay Area trip. Afghan Friends Network has a membership and donor base of about 700 people, Ghilzai said, including “Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini of San Jose.

“We wanted her here to have her share what it’s like to be an educator,” said Ghilzai, who was born in Afghanistan and moved to the Bay Area in 1979 after the Russian invasion. “And to have her story told first-person. We hardly ever get that kind of opportunity.”

Fatema, who also didn’t want the name of her province or other identifying factors broadcast in the media, said the Taliban leave “Night Letters” on her husband’s car threatening to kill her or kidnap her six children because she is considered a leading educator in her country. She used to run secret underground girls schools when the Taliban were officially in power before 2001. And in the past two years, she said, the secret and abusive factions of the Taliban are again strong — and growing. The Afghan constitution allows for boys and girls to study but, in reality, the Taliban make equal education increasingly difficult and dangerous, she said.

Fatema told only her immediate family that she was flying to New York — her first time on a plane — for a world gathering Nov. 8 at UNESCO — the education branch of the United Nations. She told the rest of the townspeople that she was at a “teacher workshop in Kabul.” She said she spoke for about 10 minutes at UNESCO’s unprecedented international gathering called “Educators Under Attack,” convened for an Afghan teacher who was killed in September 2006.

She gave them a personal account of how her 9-year-old daughter studies in a tent, with only a blanket and no heater, in the winter. She told them of the colleagues who have been killed and the students injured by the Taliban. The UNESCO gathering also invited educators from Colombia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand.

But Afghanistan leads the pack in atrocities, according to the UNESCO report. In 2006, militants killed 85 students and teachers and destroyed 187 schools in Afghanistan. In the same year, Human Rights Watch documented 190 bombings, arsons and shootings on teachers and students in Afghanistan, up from 91 in 2005.

It’s also the small differences for Fatema between classrooms in Afghanistan and classrooms in the Bay Area that define the vast gaps in educational systems.

While touring Marin Elementary, Fatema marveled at what many here take for granted: the colorful murals on the walls — and even the walls themselves, which many schools don’t even have. Schools simply mean hundreds of children sitting outside trying to learn without books or computers.

Fatema also said the children in Afghanistan don’t start school until they’re 7, and then they’re dropped off in a classroom of 70 students, with no preschool or kindergarten preparation. Many of the children are poorly behaved and certainly can’t read. She was impressed with Ghilzai’s 5-year-old, Sofia, who attends school in San Francisco and can already print her letters and sound out words.

“I’m just so impressed at how she is so young and can already think and use her mind,” Fatema said. “When I think about how far away we are, using computers and the Internet, we’re at least a century away from where you are in this country.”


Written by afghandevnews

November 24, 2007 at 4:49 pm

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