Education shaping lives of uprooted children

Community-based classes bring learning, structure, and hope to displaced Afghan children

Zainab, 10, attends a community-based school in a returnee settlement in the eastern Laghman province of Afghanistan. ©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

By Aziz Froutan with reporting by Nicole Foster

LAGHMAN, Afghanistan, 20 April 2017 — More than ten kilometres away from the nearest village in the arid Gamberi desert in eastern Afghanistan, Zainab, 10, sits on the floor of a tent surrounded by 50 girls who are learning to read and write.

The wind has taken its toll on the tented classrooms and dust burrows into every corner of the crowded space, but Zainab doesn’t want to miss a single moment of the classes she attends at this community-based school.

“I love to come to class and learn. I am here with my friends and this also the only place where I can have fun with them,” she says, a bright blue scarf framing her determined gaze.

Zainab is among hundreds of thousands of returnees who came back to Afghanistan last year. They are Afghan but nearly all of them had never set foot in their homeland before: they were born and raised in Pakistan, often with limited access to education.

Children leave class in the Gamberi returnee settlement for Afghan families displaced Pakistan where they attend a UNICEF-supported community-based school. Eastern Laghman province, Afghanistan. ©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

“Other children were going to school in Pakistan and I wanted to join them. But because we were refugees and my family could not afford to send me to school, it was not possible for me to attend,” she remembers.

To meet the educational needs of returnee children, UNICEF supported the government to establish 12 classes in the remote Gamberi returnee settlement in Laghman province. About 600 children are currently enrolled in the community-based education programme. One teacher oversees each classroom with two shifts of students per day.

Community and family support

The Gamberi settlement is home to around 1,000 displaced families who returned from Pakistan seven months ago. It is these families who, through their community elders, expressed their need and desire to have learning spaces for their children.

Hasan Khan, 48, with his ten-year old daughter Zainab (left) and other children at a community at a community-based class in eastern Laghman province, Afghanistan. The Gamberi settlement is home to nearly 1,000 displaced Afghan families who returned from Pakistan. ©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

Zainab’s father, 48-year old Hasan Khan, has 11 children. “I will help my sons and daughters to continue their education. I spent almost my whole life in Pakistan where I could not go to school,” he says.

“I won’t allow anyone or anything to deprive my children of education, here in my country” — Hasan Khan

When they arrived in Afghanistan, the community identified educated people from within their ranks to teach the younger children.

More than a classroom

Ayub Khan, one of the teachers and a returnee himself, undertook the arduous journey together with many of the families in Gamberi.

He is convinced that the classes are much more than a simple learning space for displaced children.

“The schools have brought a new mind-set and structure to the children’s lives. I can see the changes since they started,” Ayub Khan says.

Three girls proudly show off how far they can count while their teacher keeps a watchful eye on the rest of the classroom in the Gamberi settlement for returnees in eastern Laghman province, Afghanistan. ©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

With limited access to water and sanitation and few opportunities for entertainment amid the parched landscape, the classes have become the centre of the children’s lives.

For now, the community-based education programme in Gamberi covers only a younger group of children aged 7 to 10 years old, but there are more than 100 children aged 10 to 15 years old in the camp who are need access to education too.

Children attend a community-based school in the Gamberi settlement for returnees in eastern Laghman province, Afghanistan. ©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

“My elder sisters and siblings can’t come to this school [because] they are older. I also want to continue my education and I don’t want to stop here,” Zainab worries.

UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education to explore options to expand the number of classes for older children in the camp, and continues to facilitate learning opportunities for returnees, especially girls, through the establishment of Community-Based Schools across the region.