Teaching in Kandahar requires bravery
Afghan-born teacher, Canadians teaming up to open schools that give Afghan
girls a future
The Toronto Star (Canada)
June 23, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan–An Internet café for Afghan women only: What a concept.
Ehsanullah Ehsan, with the help of some benevolent Canadians, took the idea
from concept to reality. Just as he fashioned a vocational training academy out
of little more than personal initiative, with seed money from an Ottawa couple
looking for a charitable project that had “special meaning.”
Today, there are 700 students, mostly female, attending school at the
Afghan-Canadian Community Center in Kandahar city, and the Internet café inside
its learning compound is constantly bustling with online activity.
“Tell Canada that your money is being spent in the right place, at the right
time,” says Ehsan, an Afghan-born educator who has opened private
not-for-profit schools in Kandahar, Zabul, Helmand, Uruzgan and Pakistan.
But it is this facility, behind protective gates in Kandahar city –
incubating locale of the education-loathing Taliban – that has been his most
The school opened in January 2007, originally with 200 female students. Since
then, it has expanded more than three-fold, opened its courses to male students
– whose modest fees help pay for the free education available to girls – and
will soon move to larger space.
That relocation has been made possible by the announcement last month that
Canada, through the Canadian International Development Agency, was donating
$60,000 to the facility. It is a visible and vibrant CIDA “capacity-building”
project, and the widely criticized funding agency can point to few of those.
“The security situation in Kandahar is not good and girls have difficulty
getting an education,” says Khatera Kaker, 17, a student at the academy for the
past year. “Here, I feel safe. And the school is giving us all an opportunity to
become something. I want to be a doctor because Afghanistan needs doctors,
especially female doctors who can examine female patients.”
There are about a dozen women in the Internet café this afternoon, peering at
the screens of donated computers, many provided by Canada’s Provincial
Reconstruction Team, participating in online courses offered by
distance-learning institutions, including the Southern Alberta Institute of
Technology. Twelve students have enrolled in their online business management
“Nobody bothers us at this school,” adds Amina Haidary, 19, who also wants
to be a doctor. “In other areas of the province, the Taliban burn down schools,
threaten the students and the teachers. Families are afraid to send their
daughters to school even if they want them to get an education.”
The grim facts: Instability and an expanding insurgency in the south is
keeping 40,000 children out of school in Kandahar province. Out of 360 existing
schools, most built since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, only 232 were
open as of last month; the rest were either put to the flame by anti-education,
anti-government militants, shut down because parents fear exposing their
children to violence, or closed due to the absence of teachers, themselves
routinely threatened with death, often enough slain to make the bloody point.
The situation is particularly wretched for girls: only 35 per cent of
enrolled students in Afghanistan are female. Currently, one-third of schools
operated by the Ministry of Education are boys-only. Further, many parents don’t
want their daughters being educated by male teachers, yet only 28 per cent of
teachers are women.
With fighting now a daily occurrence in the five southern provinces –
bombings and improvised explosive devices on the roads and gun battles – it is
simply not safe to attend school, though many districts struggle on, holding
class for hundreds of students at a time under outdoor tents.
“It has been very hard, but we are trying to give ourselves a future,” says
Sadia Rochi, who has been teaching English at the centre for the last 18 months.
“You have to be very brave to be a teacher in Kandahar these days.”
Ehsan, centre director, adds that it’s not just the Taliban who thwart
educational objectives in Afghanistan. “The warlords, including some in the
government, don’t like the idea of enlightenment either. For them, it’s better
to keep Afghans in the dark.”
It was a story about a Kandahar school two years ago by Star foreign
correspondent Mitch Potter that prompted Ryan Aldred and Andrea Caverly to do
some good – directly.
“I’m just a private citizen who wanted to get involved,” Aldred explained in
an email this week.
“I’m also a reservist, so doing a charitable project for Afghanistan has
special meaning to me. I used to donate to larger organizations but became sick
of not knowing where my donations actually went.
“I admit, a project of this size wasn’t on my radar when I first spoke to
Ehsan. I was just going to help him purchase computers or pay some additional
salaries, but once I became aware of what the need was over there, I just wanted
to do more.”
What Aldred and Caverly did was set up the Afghan School Project, partnered
with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, to raise funds that initially
allowed the school to operate for six months. Aldred is program director for the
project; Caverly is its chief operations officer.
Although the project is still awaiting charitable institute status, donors
have continued to contribute, stabilizing the centre’s existence until finally
CIDA came aboard with funding through the Kandahar Local Initiatives Program.
But even before CIDA’s involvement, the lively centre was one of the most
successful development projects in Kandahar.
The school offers post-secondary courses in health care – training for
student nurses – information and computer technology, business management and
English language studies. With these skills, graduates have secured good-paying
jobs with international development organizations and prominent Afghan companies
such as Roshan, the cellphone provider.
“Already, more than 90 of our students have obtained jobs where they are
earning up to $1,000 U.S. a month,” says Ehsan proudly.
Soon, he hopes to offer a new course: “Journalism. It appears to be very
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