Today in Afghanistan people feel an unnamable horror lurking just below the surface of their everyday lives. It has been described as a tension, a feeling of pressing apprehension, as if a breaking point is about to be breached. People wake each day with this feeling; it accompanies them through their dreams each night.
Driving through the streets of Kabul I watch people set about their business deliberately. There is little laughter, the absence of joy as palpable as the heavy brown dust swirling through the streets choking off the sun.
We turn down a pock marked dirt road. Reminded of a video game my son used to love, we swerve from side to side to miss as many obstacles as possible, including oncoming traffic of all varieties, crashing through spine-jarring potholes with regularity. We spot the large pink building behind a huge steel gate. The guard points to a door and tells us to call inside.
We have arrived at the New Learning Center, a school serving the children of Afghanistan. It was founded and directed by Andeisha Farid, a young Afghan woman, who was herself a displaced person during the Soviet war and grew up in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. Andeisha had one simple idea. If she could help one child, that child would return to her family and influence the family. In turn, the family would influence the village, the village would influence the province, the province would influence the country. This simple idea has turned into 11 orphanages, serving 700 children, and the New Learning Center, newly opened in May 2011.
The school curriculum teaches boys and girls grades 6 through 12. The school is a model of diversity, accepting children from every province in Afghanistan. About 50% of the children are truly orphans, the rest are from families struggling with dire poverty, conflict, displacement, or drug addiction (a new and significant problem for Afghans). Their parents let the children travel to Kabul so they have an opportunity to learn and an opportunity for a better life.
Ian, an American working at the school (and in fact the only westerner working there), gives us an introduction to the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO) in the rose garden. We ask about the threat of terrorism. He says the most pressing problem is the current Afghan government, which has elements that oppose teaching girls that match the Taliban’s position. Recently the school had experienced a raid, prompted by rumors and innuendo in the community, by Parliamentarians and armed security men. When they were unable to substantiate the rumors they apologetically left the grounds and the school returned to teaching the children.
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In a land where ethnic diversity forms barriers and racism is rampant, where girls are 2nd class citizens at best, religion often teaches intolerance, and war has torn at the very fabric of life, the learning center is an oasis of peace, respect, understanding, and love. Walking through the center I am astounded by the polite, smiling children moving from class to class with enthusiasm and a sense of empowerment and pride I have not seen on the streets of Kabul.
Visiting with Ian’s 8th grade girl’s humanities class, the thirst for knowledge is striking. Reading about Amelia Earhart in English, the girls help each other with difficult passages. There is a twinkle in the girl’s eyes as they read with confidence and steal glances at the strangers watching them. Amelia is quoted as saying, “I did it because I wanted to do it.” Ian emphasizes this passage for the young girls, saying this is the one passage from the reading to never forget.
We meet with Nasrin, the director of the Learning Center. An intelligent, poised young woman, Nasrin gives us a tour of the center and explains the education in Fine Arts, Music, Computers, Humanities, Math and Sciences serves as an adjunct to the public school system and guides the children to a path of higher education.
We interrupt a class in portraiture to look over the shoulders of young artists as they sketch a fellow classmate. As we sit in the lobby and pepper Nasrin with questions, a classical sonata for piano wafts through the hallways from the music room below.
Nasrin reminds us why she loves her work at the center, “The children of Afghanistan are our future. We provide them with opportunities so the future will be better.”
See a short video clip at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cqiRzrhw4o