“I don’t want to stop here”

From the cities to the remote settlements of eastern Afghanistan, displaced children are joined in their desire for education

A young girl attends a community-based school under a tent in a returnee settlement in Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan, following her family’s return from Pakistan. ©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

Photo essay by Aziz Froutan and Nicole Foster

For young uprooted Afghans, education is a need, a priority, an obsession.

More than 680,000 Afghans have crossed the border from Pakistan back into Afghanistan since the beginning of 2016. A large number of them are children. Born and raised in Pakistan, the return journey is often a reluctant one; the experience abrupt and distressing.

But from the more wealthy to the most disadvantaged communities, children of all ages have the same message: We want to go to school.

But how they get that education varies widely. Some returnees have been been absorbed into state schools; others attend community-based schools in remote settlements; others are not registered at all.

In the cities

©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan
“I miss my friends and classmates back in Pakistan.” — Basmina, 11, attends a public school in Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangarhar. She has never lived in Afghanistan before.

Having lived in Pakistan for decades as refugees, uprooted families who return to Afghanistan often end up joining the ranks of the internally displaced, as conflict and lost community networks prevent them returning to any ostensive place of origin.

©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan
“It was hard to adjust. And it’s hard to express our views in school in Pashto. In Pakistan, we studied the technical materials in Urdu and English, but here we are just memorizing.” — Shahed, 18, Jalalabad. He was held back two grades when he returned to Afghanistan.

Youth need support to reintegrate into a country already struggling with widespread conflict and displacement. They find it difficult to adjust to a new curriculum. The lack of electricity, internet, lab spaces, and materials for practical exercises in schools only make the transition harder.

©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan
“They let me take the exams but I don’t have an ID, so I don’t know when or how I will get my results so I can apply to university.” — Esmatullha, 19, Jalalabad

For undocumented returnees, challenges are compounded as they are unable to register for state examinations and, if they are allowed to take the exams at all, they cannot officially receive their results and have them recognized without the proper documentation.

UNICEF works with the Ministry of Education to prevent any delays in school enrollment of returnee children who don’t have an ID card.

©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

Students mingle as the school bell rings. Large numbers of returnees have joined schools in Jalalabad and other cities in eastern Afghanistan, putting a strain on already stretched resources. The number of undocumented Afghan returnees is expected to increase throughout 2017.

In remote settlements

©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

Nearly 600 children aged 7–10 are enrolled in a UNICEF-supported community-based education programme in this returnee settlement in the Gamberi desert in the eastern province of Laghman.

©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

The nearest state school is about ten kilometres away. With limited access to clean water, sanitation and health services, these community-based classes have taken centre stage in the children’s lives.

©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

A class for boys takes place in a tent under the scorching heat in the Gamberi settlement in eastern Laghamn province.

©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan

Girls show off their counting skills during a math class at a community-based class in the Gamberi desert settlement.

©UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Froutan
“I don’t want to stop here. I want to continue my education.” — Zainab, 10, Gamberi returnee settlement, Laghman province, eastern Afghanistan.