Archive | September, 2013

Najib Afghan – Afghanistan – A visit to Kabul

10 Sep

“Mountains never meet but human beings do”

“Mountains never meet but human beings do” is a proverb here in Afghanistan. It means that societies only function effectively if people are willing to help each other. I always thought America as being at the other end of the world and that a son of cobbler like me would never leave the village where I grew up, let alone travel to another country. Jerome Starkey changed all that and is the director of my story. He is the Africa correspondence for The Times newspaper and we met 4 years ago in Helmand when I was only 14. Jerome witnessed a rocket explosion fired by the Taliban which killed my 11 year old brother and left me seriously injured. The Afghan doctors did what they could, but Jerome contacted Solace for the Children, a non-profit organisation which looks after injured Afghan children, and I was sent to America for further treatment. After 6 months and four surgical procedures, I was feeling much better – especially after the consultant ophthalmologist, Dr Nasrollah Samiy, removed the shard of shrapnel that had lodged behind my retina (although sadly the doctors could not restore sight to my injured eye).

CBEC children, Kabul

Smiley pupils at the Children in Crisis run community based education centre (CBEC) in Kabul which Najib visited.

On my return to Kabul, I enrolled at a high school and was looked after by Ted Achilles, the inspirational founder of the School of Leadership (Sola), and learned to read and write. In 2011 Sola was forced to stop teaching boys as there had been complaints about co-educational classes. Jerome contacted his old school, Stowe, to enquire about the possibility of a scholarship and a chance for me to study in the UK. After the ordeal of a 50 minute telephone interview with the Headmaster, Dr Anthony Wallersteiner, I was astonished to receive the news that I would be given the chance to become a Stoic. Within two weeks of the interview, I had a passport, visa, transport papers and the prospect of a new life at one of the UK’s top public schools.

At Stowe, as well as studying Biology, Maths and Chemistry (I dream of a career in Medicine), I take English as a second language classes. I have tried to get involved in all aspects of school life – taking part in house and school sports and joining the community service programme, Service at Stowe, which allows me to make regular visits to elderly people who live locally. I particularly enjoy football and athletics and specialise in the steeplechase. What makes me, perhaps, unusual is that I am asked to talk about my background more often than the average Stoic! I have told my story on the BBC World Service and have given talks about life in Afghanistan at Asia House and at Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank as part of the Alchemy Festival. During the Alchemy Festival I met Koy Thomson:  “very good speech, Najib! I am chief executive of Children in Crisis, can you please give this card to your headmaster, Anthony Wallersteiner?” He handed me his business card and talked to me as though he had known me all my life.

Children in Crisis (CiC) is a charity which was founded by Sarah, the Duchess of York, twenty years ago to give children in some of the world’s poorest countries the education they need to transform their lives and inoculate them against future poverty and resurgent conflict. I was eager to find out more about their work, particularly in my own country of Afghanistan and visited the Children in Crisis offices in South London. A month after my initial meeting with Koy, it was announced that Stowe would be adopting Children in Crisis as the school charity for the coming academic year. Fundraising was launched at a concert by legendary Old Stoic and singer-songwriter Roger Hodgson of Supertramp, to celebrate Stowe’s 90th anniversary. Before the concert, I was honoured to meet CiC’s founder and president, Sarah, the Duchess of York and her daughter, HRH Princess Eugenie, and with the CiC team we managed to raise almost £6,000 for the charity. As part of the school’s partnership with CiC I was asked to visit some of their projects in Kabul this summer when I returned home to visit my family.

Najib CiC t shirt

Najib meets CiC Founder Sarah, Duchess of York and HRH Princess Eugenie at the Roger Hodgeson concert. The man on the right is Stowe’s headmaster Dr Anthony Wallersteiner.

Kabul streets are a huge contrast to those in London. There are no rubbish bins, the roads are unlevelled with  open sewers and stagnant pools of waste water in front of many houses. 5 million children in Afghanistan are unable to attend school and will be condemned to the same poverty trap as their parents. I was very moved when I saw CiC’s educational programme working in such a poor communities.  CiC’s community based education centres (CBECs) offer mainly ‘catching classes’ for children who have missed vital stages in their primary education so that they can join state schools at the grade appropriate to their age. Some of these children have missed 3 or 4 years of education or may not yet have started school. In the UK, it might be compulsory for every family to send their children to school, but here in Afghanistan it does not always work like that and matters were not helped when the government tried to prevent overcrowding in primary schools by passing a law which forbids the enrolment of any child over the age of nine. As a result, thousands of children were unable to access an education because they were unlucky enough to be born into conflict.

CBEC 2 Kabul

A pupil leading her class at a (CBEC) in Kabul

The past 3 decades of civil war in Afghanistan have caused the country’s economy to drop dramatically. We now have a free market and there is no minimum wage for workers. Latifa, aged 11, used to make carpets and is now in her “catching class” at the CiC educational centre. This bright girl lost her father during the war when she was only 2 years old and missed two years of her primary school education when she was asked to contribute to the household income by joining her mother and sister in making carpets. She is happy to be enrolled at one of CiC’s educational centres and spoke confidently when I asked her which lesson she enjoys the most: “I enjoy all my lessons”.

The classes at CiC’s education centres provide amazing opportunities for more than 300 state school children to boost their knowledge in subjects in which they experience difficulties. Through intensive teaching and learning they can cover the complete Afghan primary school syllabus and compete for places at state secondary schools. As we came out of one catching class, we encountered a group of young children who are learning Pashto as a second language (Pashto is one of the two official languages in Afghanistan, the other being Dari). CiC is topping up their educational attainment to prevent them falling behind any further or, worse still, dropping out completely. This is particularly important for girls who have been deprived of any education because of traditional attitudes or fears for their safety. 
Lastly, CiC education centres provide extremely valuable adult literacy and vocational classes. The mother or older sister who has remained uneducated is given the opportunity to learn how to read and write for the first time. Alongside literacy classes, they can take cookery classes or learn tailoring skills so that they can open up their own businesses. You would be surprised to see how many people turn up for these classes.
Najib talks to a pupil at the centre in Kabul

Najib talks to Madina about her experience of being at the CBEC in Kabul

Madina is a mature student who walks for an hour to get to the educational centre to attend literacy classes. I asked about her background: “we lived in the country and there was no school when I was growing up and later when one was built, it was only a boys’ school.” I asked how she felt now that she can read and write: “When I could not read and write, I always felt I was missing something very important in life. It is a very hard life if you cannot dial a number in your phone or cannot read the signs or notices in shops”. Madina thanked her teachers and CiC  for opening a world of new possibilities and hope.

Unfortunately, however, the numbers of educational centres in Kabul are limited and the CiC funding is only for three years, and it has now passed the half-way stage.  Towards the end of our visit to the education centre, a group of literacy students turn up at headmistress’ office to implore us to find the funds to continue CiC’s work. There are many issues surrounding illiteracy in Afghan communities and I have been extremely fortunate to benefit from a fully-funded education in the UK. I don’t feel that I am a different person – I am still the same Najib, son of illiterate cobbler and an Afghan – but I do have choices and can access a world of knowledge that other children can only dream about.

Showing pictures from the day to children from the centre

Najib shows pupils his photos from the centre visit

Unfortunately, my homeland is still a dangerous place: returning from a family visit, I was in a minibus which was stopped by a terrorist road block on the Helmand to Kabul Highway. I was asked get out of the vehicle and a search began. As I was carrying a computer, camera and school text books in English, I feared the worst as the Taliban strongly disapprove of western education and those who collaborate with the British or Americans are condemned as Translators. Terrorists threaten all intelligent people in Afghanistan, from politicians to civilians and it is impossible to predict what might happen if you fall into their clutches. On this occasion, I was lucky as they were distracted by another car and the search was not completed. You never know what will happen tomorrow, whether you will be alive or not. I am fortunate as I have survived and all I want to do now is to raise as much money as I can to help educate the poor children in my beleaguered country and I can only do this with your help. I hope that something can be done to continue the fantastic work of Children in Crisis in Afghanistan: even if you only donate a little, it all adds up and the transformational effect can be profound. Please give generously to the Afghan education project so we can make a difference to the lives of children trapped in war.