Looking to the future and envisaging my abilities
I made up my mind to take this hard path ahead and get an education to be like other children.
UNICEF Afghanistan’s Media Officer, Feridoon Aryan, sat down with 16-year-old Sheela Sadat to better understand the challenges she faces as a girl with visual impairment in Kabul, Afghanistan, and find out how Sheela’s ‘can do’ approach to life is changing mindsets.
“I made up my mind to take this hard path ahead and get an education to be like other children. And with all the ups and downs of life, I don’t ask for anyone’s helping hand or sympathy, but I do ask everyone to treat me fairly and not to dismiss children like me with negative actions or attitudes, and unkind names.”
Kabul, Afghanistan, 14 January 2020 – In 2005, Sheela was born to a poor family of four in the western city of Kunduz. Visually impaired at birth and without access to healthcare facilities or education, Sheela dreamed of going to school and becoming an eye doctor.
Now 16, Sheela is in grade 9 of Surya High School in Kabul. She’s one of the brightest students in her class and one of the most helpful in her school. This is all the more remarkable because at 4 months old, a doctor operated on her eyes and gave her too strong an anesthetic which, to this day, affects her health and, critically, her ability to sleep.
“I asked nothing in my prayers but for a little eyesight so that I can attend school,” says Sheela. “After six operations and specially made eyeglasses, I can read and write to some extent.”
In 2010, her parents found it increasingly hard to live in Kunduz with escalating conflict. Her father, a driver at a local hospital, didn’t earn enough money to support his family, so he moved to Kabul in search of a better life.
“When I turned seven, all my friends went to school, but I was left alone for most of the day until they came back. Every day, I asked them what happened at school, says Sheela. “I was desperate to go.”
“I could only imagine living my childhood. The other children in our extended family home ran around and played all the time. I could only turn my head when I heard their voices.”
When she turned eight, Sheela pleaded with her father to take her to school – not a school for children with disabilities but a mainstream school, where her friends went. Enrolling in school wasn’t easy -- but Sheela convinced the principal to admit her.
“I’ll never forget that day for two reasons. One, I was finally in school and my life’s dream was being fulfilled. And, two, the teacher was unkind and said that all children with disabilities were sent to my class. But I was the only child with a disability.”
“I could feel the class staring at me when the teacher said those unkind words, yet, I didn’t say anything. The happiness to be in school overtook the humiliation I felt.”
Somehow, the teacher’s words and her own strong will aroused in her a determination to show everyone how capable she was. After three years of studying under the same teacher, Sheela became first in her class, and she has stayed in that position proving her mettle daily.
It wasn’t easy to keep pace with the teacher’s lectures. She jotted down notes from the board frenetically and copied questions for assignments that the teachers would dust off all too soon. The extra time that she needed to use her magnifying glass was not afforded to her. Yet, she persisted.
Sometimes when she explained to teachers that she had some challenges and needed support, they would give her an address for a school for children with disabilities. But, says Sheela, “they misunderstood me. I was determined to stay in the same school as my friends.”
Her hard work paid off. Today, Sheela is the one to whom others go to for help when they don’t understand a lesson.
But in March 2020, Afghanistan was gripped with COVID-19. It hampered every aspect of life, especially education. Sheela says it’s been tough for children with disabilities – more so than for other children.
“Before COVID-19, I would sit close to a classmate and ask her what the teacher was writing on the board. I was able to follow the notes. But when schools reopened last year, social distancing meant the chairs and desks were far apart. This made it hard to write from the board, and I felt too self-conscious to raise my voice and ask a classmate what’s being written.”
With the onset of Afghanistan’s bitter winter and the second wave of COVID-19 closing schools, Sheela feels more isolated than ever. Not only can she not see her friends, she can’t spend time studying.
“Without school, books, friends and chats, I’ve been stressed,” says Sheela. “But I know that school will open in March, and I’ll see my friends again. And prove to my teachers what I can do and how my disability won’t hold me back. I hope that when they see me working hard, and doing well, they’ll understand the importance of giving all children a fair chance. I feel that if I can do well in school and in life, I can change people’s mindsets so that they see children like me and focus on our abilities. We have so many.”