School helps Afghan street kids work toward dreams
KABUL, Afghanistan — In 1995, engineer Mohammad Yousef was walking the war-torn streets of Kabul when he happened upon a young boy in rags who offered to shine his shoes.
Engineer, as he is called, accepted and began to talk to the boy, who impressed him with his intelligence and wit.
“I told him, ‘if you go to the school, you might be able to be a doctor, or a teacher,’ ” said the 37-year-old Kabul University-trained engineer. “ ‘You will be able to support your family.’ ”
At this, he said, the boy flew into a rage.
“He said, ‘I am educated. My family is educated. I was the first in my class in seventh grade in Mazar-e Sharif,’” Engineer said.
But decades of war, the boy explained, had torn his family apart. His father had been killed in a rocket attack. His mother fled to Kabul with the family and leaned on her son’s meager shoe-shining income to support the family.
With that conversation, Engineer said, the Aschiana school was born.
The charity-funded organization, which he started in Kabul with 100 students in 1995, today has 10,000 students all around Afghanistan. It gives free education to street children from ages eight to 18. In addition to basic education, the school offers training in trades: painting, plumbing, hairdressing, calligraphy, tailoring, welding and computers. The school also teaches similar skills to adult family members.
Currently, students naturally segregate themselves by skill: no boys are studying hairdressing, and no girls have chosen to take up welding. Several disciplines, such as painting and computer skills, are co-educational. Engineer said he welcomes further integration in the future.
“If a girl came and did carpentry, I would have no problem,” he said. “Girls and boys are the same for me. … We are all human.”
Engineer thinks the school has a meaningful impact.
“If you help the school, this will be the future of the country,” he said. “In the country, if there is safety and security but no knowledge, what will be the meaning of this safety and security?”
That belief is supported by the Camp Eggers-based Volunteer Community Relations committee, chaired by Army Maj. Lori Sessano, of Arlington, Va., and the South Carolina National Guard’s 228th Signal Battalion.
The group successfully lobbied for $130,000 in Commander’s Emergency Relief Project funds to build new classrooms and facilities for the Kabul center. The funds were approved two weeks ago.
“These are the future of our world,” Sessano said of the students. “If we don’t take care of our children and teach them wrong from right, we’re going to have some issues.”
The struggle for funds is one of many hurdles for the school.
During Taliban times, much of the school’s work was conducted underground. Engineer was able to convince the Taliban that he should educate girls, although the regime told him he could only teach those who were under 7 years old. But he accepted girls as old as 10.
However, once the Taliban discovered his deception, “they took me to the military high court,” he said. “Then after some time they released me.”
When pressed for details, he defers with classic Afghan rhetoric.
“That time was so short,” he said, “but it was longer than my lifetime.”
Students say they’re grateful for the chance to learn.
Fourteen-year-old Rayana, a painting student, hunched over an intricate watercolor painting, lifting her black scarf to reveal a shy but radiant smile.
“I love it,” she said, through a translator, of the school. “This is really useful for Afghan children.”
School graduate Hashmatullah, 19, said he was able to use his skills to continue doing what he loves.
“Now I am teaching here,” he said, through a translator.
And what of that young shoeshine boy so many years ago?
He became one of the school’s first students, Engineer said.
“He went to the university. And he graduated.”