When I left my home country of Afghanistan to pursue a college degree in the United States, I was the first one in my family to do so. Education transformed my life, and I knew that it had the power to do the same for the people in Afghanistan who didn’t have the same opportunities I did.
As I began my work with Afghan refugees in Pakistan in 1992, I found that the people there were not the same people I had left when I came to the U.S. The proud, self-sufficient people I remembered now only knew war and suffering, and didn’t have access to the schools or health services they needed.
I knew that rebuilding Afghanistan as a peaceful country would mean doing so from the community level upwards. People didn’t need an outside force telling them what to do or what to memorize to pass a test — they needed self-reliance, a sense of community inspiring them to work collaboratively, and a vision of what they wanted Afghanistan to be in the future for themselves and for their children. This required a grassroots, community-driven, culturally-sensitive approach built on trust, high standards, and high expectations.
I started at a very basic step, by asking people what they needed. The answer: education for their children. I told them that we could start a school at the refugee camp, but it needed to be for both boys and girls, with at least 50% girls. We also asked people to contribute what they could to the project, whether that meant a tent to hold classes in or their teaching expertise to instruct the children.
Finding teachers was challenging. Many of the teachers in Afghanistan had been communists and weren’t trusted by the community. We found a mullah, or religious leader, who people trusted, and so we trained him, his wife, and their daughters and started with them teaching 30 children. Within a year, we had 25 schools with 15,000 children.
When the Soviet War in Afghanistan ended, I started the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) to continue my work and expand it into Afghanistan. At this point, people in Afghanistan had learned about our work in the refugee camps and trusted us with their children, especially their girls. But then the Taliban invaded Afghanistan from Pakistan and closed down girls’ schools. This was a dangerous time, and again we turned to the community. We required that everyone in the community be in agreement about their support of a home school for girls before we started one. Soon, we were supporting 80 home schools for 3000 girls. When the Taliban left in 2001, these students continued their education, graduated from university, and are now doctors, teachers, and engineers.
We never would have seen the success we did if we hadn’t followed the same core principles:
- Involve the community
- Allow communities to define their own needs
- Listen to the community
- Provide high-quality and culturally-sensitive trainings and programs
- Whatever you promise, deliver
- Take the time to cultivate trust, and work to maintain it
These principles have proven invaluable in our work. Over the years we have supported over 340 learning centers, and now support 44 in seven provinces of Afghanistan. Each one is community-driven and supported. All have become Women’s Networking Centers — places for women and children to come to learn to read and write, to develop skills, and to access information about peace, health, human rights, gender equality and violence against women.
It has taken time, but Afghan women, men and children are rebuilding their communities around our centers. These are the places where people have learned to trust one another and to keep their communities safe together. These are the models for the country we want to see, and know that Afghanistan can be — one of peace, equality and harmony.