looking back, looking forwards – celebrating 15 years in Afghanistan

Text books arrive at Salman e Fars School

By Ali Reza Yunespour, Partnership Coordinator

At our Sydney dinner in April, we celebrated 15 years of partnering with schools in Ghazni Province in Afghanistan. It was a fabulous night for our Sydney volunteers and supporters; and a time of personal reflection for me to look back to the emergence of the partnership and the educational and socio-cultural changes in the Borjegai community.

from mosque education to madrases to the right to education

Mosque education has historically been the dominant form of learning in Borjegai, and indeed throughout Afghanistan. Borjegai villages used to hire Mullahs for community-administered mosques to lead prayers, provide basic religious education for adults (mostly men) and teach the Quran, Hadith, basic Shi’a jurisprudence (Fiqh) and exegesis of the Quran (Tafseer) to young boys. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the monarchy government established a state-run village school in Borjegai. The teachers, who were from outside of the Borjegai community, worked with the local people to provide a building but the suspicions that this school would push Communist ideology meant many families did not enrol their children. Prominent elders and Mullahs also helped families to get some of the enrolled students out of the school.

Following the ‘Coup/Revolution’ of 1978, the village school was closed and the ‘Holy Wars’ against the Soviet Union-backed regime in Kabul introduced the ideology of Jihad in communities like Borjegai. As one elder told me during my E trip to Borjegai in 2016, “It was hard to find any family that did not have guns and were not party to one of the Shi’a Mujahidin groups” in the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the widespread ‘gun culture’, mosque education continued in this community –local Mujahidin of Borjegai establish a madrasa  in the existing village school building. Different factions of the Mujahidin brought in school textbooks, which were produced with the help of US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and distributed them to Borjegai mosques. As such, in the 1990s, most mosques in Borjegai had a Mullah for basic religious education and a teacher (known as Muallim Kilasi), who taught primary school maths, science, geography, history and Dari language to young boys. The teachers were mostly former students of the village school. The content and quality of education varied significantly in local mosques and were largely dependent on the level of education of the Mullahs and Muallim Kilasi, and the abilities and efforts of each student.

For most of their history, Borjegai villages were self-sustaining and autonomous communities. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, ongoing wars forced people to move to major centres or take refuge in neighbouring countries of Iran and Pakistan. Since then, remittances have been integral to the local economy and the Borjegai community has always been a very poor community and subject to systemic discrimination from the central government.

After the toppling of the Taliban regime by the US-led international community in 2001, the new Afghan government, UNESCO and other NGOs made significant efforts to open the existing schools and help communities to establish and register new schools. The Borjegai community registered nine schools between 2001 and 2003. Apart from Borjegai High School, which was established in the same place as the village school of 1960s and 1970s, the other eight schools operated in the UN-provided tents, open spaces, mosques and empty houses. All teachers were male (mostly former students of the village school and then madrasa) and the overwhelming majority had equivalent of Grade 6 qualifications.

from little things …

The partnership between Borjegai community and indigo foundation launched with small beginnings in 2003. The partnership came to us through our connection to the Hazara refugee community in Sydney and a man called Salman Jan. Salman, a former refugee from Borjegai living in Sydney, had been approached by Borjegai community elders and asked if he could help with textbooks and a school building for girls. And so, a partnership was born.

From initial funding for textbooks to building the first girls school in Borjegai to training teachers, the program has grown over the past 15 years – initially working with nine schools in Borjegai and, in 2013, branching into neighbouring provinces of Jirghai and Behsud. I took over as Partnership Coordinator from Salman Jan in 2009 and feel privileged to see the changes in my home region:

School buildings and furniture: In Borjegai, we supported four new school buildings for Golbona School, Wali Asr School, Koshkak High School and Salman-e Fars School and renovated the roof of Borjegai High School. Encouraged by these works, the community built new buildings for Sayyid Jamaluddin High School, Abi Talib High School, Abuzar Ghaffari High School and Al-Zahra High School which we supported with doors and windows. We have worked with all nine Borjegai schools to ensure there are desks and chairs and access to clean drinking water and hygiene facilities;

Student enrolments: In the past fifteen years, nearly 6,000 students (35-40% girls) have benefitted from Borjegai schools. The gender ratio in primary levels is nearly 50% in most Borjegai schools (a very high rate for rural Afghan schools). However, girls continue to leave school at a higher rate than boys at secondary levels due to the male-dominated culture and economic difficulties facing families.

Higher education: Borjegai schools graduates have a success rate of over 75% in the annual university admission exams (known as Kankor). A key change is that university and non-university graduates have returned back to the community as school teachers and principals. Since 2010, most Borjegai teachers have higher education degrees; and no teacher is without Grade 12 qualifications. There are currently 12 female teachers, who are former graduates of Borjegai schools.

Primary centres of learnings: While limited madrasa education still exists in the local mosques (providing religious education to about 100 students), Borjegai schools have become the primary centres of learning and pathways for higher education and employment opportunities. As most Borjegai schools run in double shifts, all madrasa students also attend schools. Enayatullah is one such student, from Golbona village of Borjegai.

Enayatullah simultaneously attended Golbona School and a madrasa in Borjegai.  He graduated from Borjegai High School three years ago and participated in the Kankor in 2017 where he got a score of 328 out of 360 – he was amongst the top 10 students of Ghazni Province for that year. He received an offer to study Political Science and Law at Kabul University. In 2018 he secured an Indian-government scholarship and now studies at Goa University.  

Changing education norms: There has also been a significant change in socio-cultural norms towards education. Where girls were historically excluded from mosque-based education, it is now a social norm for school-aged girls and boys in Borjegai to attend schools. Resisting the state-run village schools in the 1960s and 1970s, the Borjegai elders, Mullahs and families have embraced the rights of their children to education and promoted and supported education for boys and girls. These socio-cultural changes have impacted every family in Borjegai – like this example from Rahima.

“I, Rahima, completed my primary school (Grade 6) in 2007. My family took me out of the school at the time because of fear for my safety and economic difficulties. Our school at the time didn’t have a building and most families were not happy to send their girls to attend high schools in open spaces. I regret how I and many girls at my age were denied the opportunity to attend high schools. However, I have worked hard and convinced my family that the same thing does not happen to my younger sister, Jamila. She was partly lucky because she got to high school when indigo foundation provided a building for our school. Despite that, my family really wanted to take Jamila out of school when she got to Grade 10. I opposed their decision and encouraged my sister to complete her high school and attend Kankor. I am so happy because Jamila attended Kankor this year, and we’re waiting for her Kankor results.”

The success of this partnership in Borjegai can also be seen in the influence it has had in neighbouring communities. Since 2013, we have worked with the Jirghai and Behsud community to train teachers, build four school buildings and provide furniture for seven schools. Thanks to support from our partners and volunteers in Australia, we are working to extend our support to eight new schools in rural Afghanistan by the end of 2019.

With many thanks to our donors who have given generously to this project over the past 15 years – your ongoing commitment has created a stable base for the project to grow and match the community’s ambitions. Thanks as well to the Rotary Club of Ryde, a significant funder in the early phase of this partnership in Borjegai, and to the Planet Wheeler Foundation who currently give their generous support.