Monday, March 23, 2009

The Power of Potential

First thing this morning we headed west out of Kabul for Deh Subz. It’s only 8 miles outside Afghanistan’s capital, but the roads and traffic are so bad that it takes 45-minutes. Still, it’s a big improvement from three years ago when the Zabuli School was being built. Then, there were no roads here at all – and none of the many vegetable shops and homes we now see lining this new street. “Sometimes when there was three feet of snow, we’d get stuck,” Razia Jan reminisced on her first trip back to her school since winter break. “People would have to come and literally lift the car up to rescue us.”

The new road, the shops, the houses – they are all, Razia says, a sign of progress—a sign that although Afghanistan is a land of broken systems, somehow these systems work. Another sign that the system is working is that the Zabuli School exists at all.

Deh Subz is a conservative Pashtun village (despite this fact, the Taliban have never gained a stronghold here). The village elders (all men, of course) make the decisions. Women here rarely venture outside the home, and when they do, they wear a burqa.

Still, the Zabuli School is thriving. Every day 200 girls between the ages of 5 and 16 walk through the school’s bright red gates, up a flight of steps, and into a world that is different than one they have ever known. During registration over the past two weeks, families flocked here in the hopes of getting their girls in. Class size is limited to 35, three languages-including English -are taught, and the school day is 5 hours. The only other option is a school farther away with 3,000 students – nearly equal numbers of boys and girls. There, 120 students are stuffed into each class, English is not part of the curriculum, and children only go to school for one two hour shift a day.

It occurs to me that trying to educate impoverished and underprivileged young girls around the world is a popular thing to do these days. Never mind that it’s always been the right thing to do – from Oprah to best-selling author Greg Mortensen, girls’ schools are a hot topic.

Pictured: Razia Jan greets students at the entrance of the Zabuli School.

“But what happens once the schools are built?” Razia wants to know. As founder of the Zabuli School, she knows first-hand how easily things can start to go wrong. “You can’t leave. You have to be there to make sure everything works.”

And “making sure everything works” here means gaining the support and the trust of men—in the families and in the community. “The first thing girls learn to write here is their father’s name,” she says. “That means a lot in the home.” Tomorrow she plans to schedule a meeting with the village elders to update them on the school’s progress.

“What’s your name?” Razia asked the other girls one by one. Her next question: “Are you engaged? No? Good.”

Razia is even more shocked to learn that one of her second graders has been engaged to a 9-year-old boy. It is the latest in a series of tragedies for this child and her sister. Their mother murdered their father after years of horrific abuse, and fled to Pakistan, leaving the two girls behind. They now live with their aunt, their father’s sister, who is as abusive as their father was. Two months ago the aunt sold one of the girls into marriage. In exchange, she received a teenage girl to marry her older son.

“That’s the way it works here,” Razia says in resignation. “It costs a lot of money for families to get their sons married – as much as $10-15,000. So either you give the money or you sell your daughter.”

Razia is so concerned about the welfare of these two girls, that she has confronted the aunt, and provides groceries to the family in the hopes of earning the girls’ some good will. This week she plans to confront the aunt for a second time. “The girls only come to school when I give the food. That’s not the way it’s going to be. They need to come to school all the time or no more groceries. I want them here so much, but if they can’t study, there are two other girls in the community who will.”

There are so many hurdles when it comes to educating girls in Afghanistan, but that’s part of what makes the potential so enormous. “I would give my life to keep this going,” Razia tells me over our rice and dahl dinner. “The potential. It’s so hard to explain – but when you see it, you know.”

I left there today knowing.

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