I Study Hard for a Better Afghanistan
The moment 14-year old Shila returned home after she had sneaked out in the morning – yet again – to attend class, she set to work: sorting and packing large amounts of local herbs for sale in retail shops. “If I did not escape from work and insist on coming, I would become illiterate like the other Afghans here”, she says.
Shila is one of many Afghan children who are taking daily classes organized by the Association for the Protection of Child Labourers, an NGO working in the slum areas of southern Tehran. Often, she has to steal away to go to the APCL, leaving her sisters behind with the herb packaging chores. “My mother would not let me go every other day. She kept saying that I have to work, but I was determined to continue my classes”, Shila says.
With such dogged determination, Shila has managed to participate in the activities of the association for close to seven years. She cried and begged, working at night with only the television to shine some light on her books, but nothing could deter her. And she is not alone. Ameneh Rezaei, a teacher who joined the project six years ago, decided to dedicate all her time to the NGO. “On the first day I thought I would just be able to tolerate this for one week, but now I am used to the children, and to this place and its problems,” she says.
The NGO started its education project in cooperation with UNICEF in July 2008. Its main “clients” are child labourers and refugee children, mostly Afghans. It provides them with a basic education, although Shila’s example shows how hard it can be for some of them to prise themselves away from their jobs and spend their days behind a school desk.
Ms. Rezaei thinks that education is not only about literacy but also about self-confidence and being ambitious. “This has helped some children to find the courage to ask for more money from their employer, or demand break hours to participate in their classes”, she explains.
While the NGO prioritises its basic education project, other services and classes are also available for children. Art classes, vocational training and various collective fun activities are included in the children’s programmes. Upon arrival, children receive a medical examination and if more in-depth checks are necessary, they are sent to a pediatrician.
The NGO’s services do not stop with the children that participate in their activities and classes. To support their families, it offers consultation services to help the cope with their often difficult economic and social situation, and the problems they experience after having had to leave their homeland and integrate into a new society with a different culture. Social workers frequently work with the children to help them throughout their life journey.
As it is, kids like Shila have precious little time to benefit from all these services. Most often, they struggle to be at the association from 8 am to 2 pm. The rest of their days are filled with work and more work. But the project does something more important to them than just help service their present lives – it opens a window of opportunity, giving a tantalising glimpse of what their future could look like.
“I want to become a cardiac surgeon”, says Shila, beaming an optimistic smile. “If more people got educated, then Afghanistan would become a better place with no suicide bombers.”