Promise of education takes hold for new generation of Afghans
Stars and Stripes
KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan — For Americans, the 9/11 attacks stir feelings of sorrow and great loss. But for 29-year-old Sara Omerzai, a student in Kandahar City, 9/11 marks the day the international community turned its eyes toward the suffering in Afghanistan.
“On 9/11 the world changed,” she said. “This was a positive change in our culture.”
Omerzai is among a growing population of Afghans who came of age after the attacks. Increasingly educated and cosmopolitan, they no longer want to be defined by the struggles of their parents: the Soviet invasion, civil war, abject poverty and the rise of the Taliban.
They have grown up surrounded by an international coalition and believe education and openness is the way forward.
“We are the new generation. We always want to see improvement,” Saeedullah Taraky, 21, said. “We are very tired from war.
“In the time of the Taliban, no one was going to school, no one was going to work. Now everyone is going to school, everyone is working,” said Taraky, who serves as the administration and finance manager for the Kandahar provincial government.
“In my opinion, the U.S. and other countries, when they came to Afghanistan, they brought many changes for the better,” he said.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jerome Pionk, a provincial media liaison who speaks Pashtu and works closely with the Afghans in a variety of advisory roles, has seen the transformation.
“While these past 11 years have still been violent, as a whole this generation has had relative peace compared to the generations of their fathers and their grandfathers,” he said.
Technology is among the driving forces for change, he said.
“The youth have definitely seen bigger things and they know that there is more out there for them,” Pionk said. “In terms of technology and social media especially, Pandora is out of the box here in Kandahar. The young are increasingly interconnected and they want to be able to participate fully on the global stage.”
Especially notable, he said, is that it is happening in the former Taliban epicenter of Kandahar where, according to the International Security Assistance Force, violence is down nearly 70 percent.
Even as protests turned deadly in Kabul and other Middle Eastern cities last week over the film “Innocence of Muslims,” Kandahar remained calm. While Pionk attributes much of that to strong local civic and religious leaders who called for peace and restraint, he also credits the younger generation for understanding that violence doesn’t serve them.
Like many of Kandahar City’s youth, Taraky and fellow student Parvana Ziah feel education is paramount.
“We, the new generation, want to change our country, to bring the latest technology,” Taraky said.
“We don’t have a factory here in Afghanistan. We don’t know how to create, how to make. We don’t have any idea. But if you get an education, you can get an idea and create something,” he said.
“Education is like gold,” said Ziah, 19. “It can improve our lives.”
She has childhood memories of women being beaten in the bazaar by the Taliban for simply trying to buy something.
“Nothing was for women, everything was for men,” she said.
Few Afghans embody the belief in education more than Taraky’s uncle, Ehsanullah Ehsan, who for years risked his life to teach girls in underground schools during the Taliban reign.
Now the director of the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies, Ehsan oversees the education of about 1,600 students, half of them female. While the basics are taught to the younger students, the institute primarily functions as a vocational school and offers courses in business management, computer technology and leadership. He stresses critical thinking, especially among female students.
Like Omerzai, who attends classes at the institute, Ehsan also believes that 9/11 was a watershed moment in Afghan history.
“Those attacks were aimed not only at the American people, but the whole world,” Ehsan said. “They attacked a way of life: Prosperity, development, tolerance, coexistence.”
“[The Americans] came to defend themselves and the world, but in doing that, they support me, they support world peace,” he said.
Ehsan said he recognizes the opportunities his students have been afforded because of the presence of NATO forces, and he urges the global community to stay invested in Afghanistan.
“We understand that they are war weary and tired,” he said. “But they shouldn’t forget the sacrifices they made. They shouldn’t forget the attacks. Don’t leave this in the middle.
“Use a different strategy, don’t use an expensive war. There are many other ways that can be very effective,” he said.
Ehsan said that education is the fastest way forward.
“You can build a road. But if you don’t teach me why the road is important, why I should take care of the road, then what does it matter? Education matters more than infrastructure,” Ehsan said.
While his students inspire him, change still comes slowly in the conservative south and he struggles daily. Ehsan is still threatened by the Taliban and their supporters and many of his female students are forced to hide their attendance at the school from family members or neighbors.
“It’s still bad. You still can get punished for bringing civilization, for bringing light,” he said. “You still have people that are against good things.”
While many of Ehsan’s students argue that it is every Afghan’s duty to earn an education, they acknowledge that it’s much harder in the rural areas, especially for women. The solution, they say, is for the government and the global community to not retreat, but rather to double their efforts to advance literacy and technical training.
When Ehsan speaks to members of the older generation, the ones who cling to the notion that Afghanistan should remain the graveyard of empires, he has a message.
“Yes, you always defeat them, but you always have poverty. There is no pride in misery,” he tells them.