Tag Archives: Kathy Kelly

A Teacher in Kabul

zekerullah going to school in Bamiyan

by Kathy Kelly

August 26, 2014

Here in Kabul, one of my finest friends is Zekerullah, who has gone back to school in the 8th grade although he is an18-year old young man who has already had to learn far too many of life’s harsh lessons.

Years ago and miles from here, when he was a child in the province of Bamiyan, and before he ran away from school, Zekerullah led a double life, earning income for his family each night as a construction crew laborer, and then attempting to attend school in the daytime.  In between these tasks the need to provide his family with fuel would sometimes drive him on six-hour treks up the mountainside, leading a donkey on which to load bags of scrub brush and twigs for the trip back down. His greatest childhood fear was of that donkey taking one disastrous wrong step with its load on the difficult mountainside.

And then, after reaching home weary and sleep deprived and with no chance of doing homework, he would, at times, go to school without having done his homework, knowing that he would certainly be beaten.  When he was in seventh grade, his teacher punished him by adding ten more blows each day he came to school without his homework, so that eventually he was hit sixty times in one day.   Dreading the next day when the number would rise to seventy, he ran away from that school and never returned.

Now Zekerullah is enrolled in another school, this time in Kabul, where teachers still beat the students.  But Zekerullah can now claim to have learned much more, in some cases, than his teachers.

Zerkrullah reading in his spare time

Zerkrullah reading in his spare time

Much to the surprise of his environmental studies teacher, Zekerullah has a strong grasp of issues related to the environment.  For the past two years, living with the Afghan Peace Volunteers, he has occupied himself with presentations and conversations about global warming, climate change, and environmental degradation.  He cares deeply about the issue.  Last winter, I was with him as he watched the entire BBC Blue Planet series of videos, and realized that he hungers for more information and deepened understanding about issues hitting far beyond his own beleaguered country.

When his new teacher, a teacher accustomed to beating pupils, asked the class elementary questions about the environment, Zekerullah had definitely done his homework.  But among his other recent studies were the history of nonviolent movements, led by people like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, to resist oppressive forces.   So without calling any attention to his plans, Zekerullah decided to join the line of students singled out for punishment, in his environmental studies class, even though he wasn’t at fault and didn’t deserve to be punished.  The teacher was befuddled.  Zekerullah so clearly knew the answers.

Zekerullah calmly explained to the teacher that he also knew, from experience, that beating students doesn’t help them learn, that he himself had lost four years of studies because he could no longer bear the beatings.  He respectfully asked the teacher to beat him instead of the next seven students in the row.

The teacher obliged, administering blows to Zekerullah while his fellow students began to wonder about and admire Zekerullah’s unusual stance.  Perhaps for the first time in a long while, everyone in that class was learning something.

For several weeks, the teacher was confronted with Zekerullah’s quiet insistence that he be allowed to take the blows in place of students who hadn’t studied.  The teacher tried to ignore him and belittle him. Once, the teacher punished him and a few others with the escalated punishment of using a rattan cane to inflict the blows.  Adding salt to the wound, the teacher even failed Zekerullah in the mid-year exams, though Zekerullah said he knew the answers and had no trouble finishing the exam.

I asked him what other students thought about his choices.  He said that some of them wanted to spare him from being punished, and so they began to study more and complete their homework. He isn’t sure what impact his actions have had. Zekerullah isn’t inclined to brag.  But he surely has affected me.

He is also affecting other vulnerable young Afghans.  Over the past two years, Zekerullah has worked hard to improve his studies, and with the literacy he has acquired, he now volunteers to teach a literacy class at the APVs Borderfree Center for about 20 street kids who have not had the opportunity to go to school regularly.  He and several companions have organized other aspects of the “Street Kids” program, visiting children in their homes and helping distribute oil and rice to each family so that the children can stop working on the streets.

Zekerullah tells me that the current education system in Afghanistan is not a good learning environment. His story alerts educators, officials and the international community to understand that the relatively small funds spent on badly-constructed new school buildings won’t suffice to provide a good education for the young Afghan population. Moreover, the predominantly militarized approach of aid and development, even in the field of education, reinforces the prevalent methods of teaching by force and punishment.

Zekerullah yearns for knowledge as well as justice, and he’s willing to sacrifice for both.  I want to learn from him.

Zerkruallah and Faiz on tidy up Friday shaking out the carpet

Zerkruallah and Faiz on tidy up Friday shaking out the carpet

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Locked in Winter

Kathy Kelly with Shuba, young girl saved from the fire

Kathy Kelly with Shuba, young girl saved from the fire

by Kathy Kelly

Photo credits:  Abdulai Safarali

Kabul–The fire in the Chaman-e Babrak camp began in Nadiai’s home shortly after noon.  She had rushed her son, who had a severe chest infection, to the hospital. She did not know that a gas bottle, used for warmth, was leaking; when the gas connected with a wood burning stove, flames engulfed the mud hut in which they lived and extended to adjacent homes, swiftly rendering nine extended families homeless and destitute in the midst of already astounding poverty. By the time seven fire trucks had arrived in response to the fire at the refugee camp, the houses were already burned to the ground.

No one was killed. When I visited the camp, three days after the disaster, that was a common refrain of relief. Nadiai’s home was on the edge of the camp, close to the entrance road. Had the fire broken out in the middle of the camp, or at night when the homes were filled with sleeping people, the disaster could have been far worse.

Zakia with bruised cheeks

Zakia with bruised cheeks

Even so, Zakia, age 54, said this is the worst catastrophe she has seen in her life, and already their situation was desperate. Zakia had slapped her own face over and over again to calm and focus herself as she searched for several missing children while the fire initially raged. Now, three days later, her cheeks are quite bruised, but she is relieved that the children were found.

Standing amid piles of ashes near what once was her home, a young mother smiled as she introduced her three little children, Shuba, age 3 ½, and Medinah and Monawra, twin girls, age 1 ½.   They were trapped in one of the homes, but their uncle rescued them.

girls

Now the nine families have squeezed in with their neighbors. “We are left with only the clothes on our body,” said Maragul. She added that all of the victims feel very grateful to their neighbors. “We cook together,” she said, “and they offer us shelter at night.” Three or four families will sleep together in one room. Asked if their neighbors were all from the same clan, Maragul, Nadiai and Zakia immediately began naming the different ethnic groups that are among their neighbors. Some are Turkman, some Uzbek, some from Herat or Kabul, others are Pashtun, and some are Kuchi. The women said that they begin to feel like brothers and sisters, living together in these adverse circumstances.

View of the camp

View of the camp

The Chaman-e Babrak refugee camp spills over the grounds of a large field formerly used for sporting events. With 720 families crowded into the camp, it is second in density and size only to the Charahi Qambar refugee camp, on the outskirts of Kabul, which is twice as large and more than twice as full as the Chaman-e Babrak camp.

Years ago, before the Taliban originally captured Kabul, some of the families in this camp had rented homes in the area. They had fled to Pakistan to escape the fighting, hoping to find a future with security and work. After the U.S. invasion, with President Karzai’s accession to power, they’d been urged to return, told that it was safe to go back. But upon their return they’d learned their old homes and land now belonged to victorious warlords, and they learned again that safety is painfully elusive in conditions of poverty and the social disintegration that follows years, and in their case decades, of war.

Asked about prospects for their husbands to find work, the women shook their heads. Nadiai said that her husband has occasional work as a porter, carrying materials in a wheelbarrow from one site to another. Sometimes construction projects will hire him, but in the winter months construction projects are closed and already scarce work vanishes altogether. And war, in a sense, brings its own winter along with it: Next to the camp is a construction project that has been dormant since 2008. It had been intended to become an apartment building.

Refugees who lost their homes, standing among the burnt debris

Refugees who lost their homes, standing among the burnt debris

There was never any plan announced to house these families, even before the fire. And since the fire, there has been no offer of aid aside from those seven fire trucks, rushing in to contain an immediate threat not only to the camp but of course to neighboring businesses, several wedding halls and a plastic surgery hospital, up against which, in a city no stranger to glaring contrasts of wealth, the camp finds itself pressed. I came to the camp with young activists of the Afghan Peace Volunteers there to distribute heavy coverlets, (duvets), manufactured with foreign donations by local seamstresses, precisely for distribution free of charge to Kabul’s neediest people in the winter months.  This week VCNV UK will be present when £3,200 worth of aid will be delivered to the camp in the form of flour, oil and sugar. Funds have been raised by UK peace groups and fundraising activities, the supplies will see families at the camp through the toughest months of the year.

Kathy Kelly and Maya Evans with new friends at the camp

Kathy Kelly and Maya Evans with new friends at the camp

We’ll never know who the fire might have killed, because when the old or the young die from the pressures of poverty, of homelessness, of war, we can’t know which disaster tipped the balance.  We won’t know which catastrophe, specifically, will have taken any lives lost here to this dreadful winter.  Many will be consumed by the slow conflagration of widespread poverty, corruption, inequality and neglect.

As many as 35,000 displaced persons are now living in the slum areas in Kabul alone.  “Conflict affects more Afghans now than at any point in the last decade,” according to Amnesty International’s 2012 report, Fleeing War, Finding Misery. “The conflict has intensified in many areas, and fighting has spread to parts of the country previously deemed relatively peaceful. The surge in hostilities has many obvious consequences, among them that families and even entire communities flee their homes in search of greater security. Four hundred people a day are displaced in Afghanistan, on average, bringing the total displaced population to 500,000 by January 2012.”

The vast expenditures of the U.S. government and its client here simply can’t be designated as contributions toward “security.” These funds have contributed to insecurity and danger while failing to address basic human needs. The realpolitik of an imperial power, as utterly disinterested in security here as it seems to be in its own people’s safety at home, will not notice this camp. As we pull together in our communities to enkindle concern, compassion, and respect for creative nonviolence, we are in deep winter hoping for a spring.  We are right to work and to hope, but faced with the spectacle of winter in Chaman-e Babrak I can’t help remembering Barbara Deming’s lines:  “Locked in winter, summer lies; gather your bones together. Rise!”

Hope, circle of peace

Hope, circle of peace

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