Piecing together shattered dreams in Afghanistan

Temporary learning centres are giving internally displaced children a chance to learn – and reason to hope.

By Murtaza Mohammadi
Afghanistan. A child stands by a tent.
11 March 2019

BADGHIS, Afghanistan – Safia and her children couldn’t sleep last night. The heavy snowfall meant they had to spend much of the night clearing the snow off their tent while trying to keep it dry inside. This tent, with its cold and wet floor, is their home, for now.

Safia has been the head of her household for the past seven years, since her husband died. Forced to flee by the ongoing conflict, Safia and her family are now staying in the Zaimati IDP settlement,  a camp for internally displaced persons in the western province of Badghis. “I’ve tried to be both a mother and a father for my children, but there is a limit to what I can do, especially as a woman,” Safia says. “I wish I could do more for them.”

The eldest of Safia’s children, Hawa, 13, spends most of her day helping her mother with household chores, preparing food for the family and taking care of her younger siblings. But she says she would rather be going to school.

I’ve tried to be both a mother and a father for my children but there is a limit to what I can do, especially as a woman.

Afghanistan. A girl sits at the Zaimati IDP settlement.
Hawa, 13, has been staying with her family at the Zaimati IDP settlement in Afghanistan since they left her hometown in 2018.

“My sisters and brothers attend classes at the temporary learning space every day. I get to see their books when they get back, and I try to learn what they are being taught,” says Hawa, who adds that she rarely goes out, except for when she visits her aunt in an adjacent tent.

“I don’t like living like this,” she says. “I’m not making any progress. I wish…”

Her sentence tails off as she gazes ahead, tears rolling down her cheeks. 

Hawa says things were tough back in their village after her father died. “A lot of people abandoned the village because of a drought and the fighting. I remember one day I was with my friends outside the house when a rocket landed in a garage beside the house,” she says.

A glimmer of hope

Safia’s family is just one of many that has been uprooted by the protracted violence in Afghanistan, which has been exacerbated by last year’s drought. As a result, thousands of children have been denied the basic right of quality learning.

As part of the efforts to ensure that children at least have an opportunity to learn, 13 temporary learning spaces and three child-friendly spaces have been established in the Zaimati IDP settlement. The spaces give children a chance to learn, as well as to spend some time with friends. In short, they offer a sense of normality – and a glimmer of hope – in extremely difficult circumstances.

Safia’s four other children go to classes at the temporary learning space established in their settlement. They spend the first half of the day in class and the afternoons in a child friendly space. 

Afghanistan. Children leave class at the Zaimati IDP settlement.
Students leave class at the Zaimati IDP settlement in Badghis, Afghanistan.

“It’s colder here than it is in my village, but I enjoy learning new things,” says 11-year-old Mahtab. She likes playing jump rope and having snowball fights, but it’s too cold today even for such fun activities. “We have to keep ourselves warm. I don’t want to go out now. We would have made a snowman if we had a warm house.”

“I miss my grandmother. I miss my friends. I wish I could go back,” Mahtab says of life in her old village. “But I like the school here and I feel safer here.” She says she likes her teacher, and that he’s a good role model. In fact, she says she would also like to be a teacher one day.

Seven-year-old Ahmad, though, has other ideas for what he wants to do for a future career. “We already have four people in our home who want to be a teacher,” Ahmad says. “So I want to be a doctor.”

Afghanistan. A child attends class at Zaimati IDP settlement in Badghis, Afghanistan.
Seven-year-old Ahmad attends a temporary learning class established at Zaimati IDP settlement in Badghis, western Afghanistan.

Ahmad says he likes the doctors in the camp where his family is staying, and that he appreciates what they’ve been doing. “I visited them when I caught cold. I didn’t like getting an injection, but I felt better afterward. So, I want to be able to cure other children when I get older.” 

Safia’s family is a reminder that education is not only a right, but that in situations of emergency or chronic crisis, it provides a sense of normalcy stability, structure and hope that can be both lifesaving and life sustaining.

Read more about UNICEF’s work in Afghanistan.