As the sun sets behind the mountains, young boys ranging from nine to 16 sit on the floor of an empty classroom in Bara tehsil, some of them adorning a scarf and hat to keep warm.
“My mind does not grasp what is being taught in class,” says Asif Khan a student and resident of Bara Khyber Agency, expressing his disappointment at the time spent out of school.
Although he is not shy about reading aloud in front of his classmates, Asif says at times the pace of the lecture feels as if it’s in “slow motion.”
“The golden time for learning has almost passed,” he says, referring to the years long interval in his studies due to the conflict in his hometown.
Several children have recently enrolled in Alternative Learning Schools (ALS). The project is part of the ‘Literacy for All’ campaign under the Annual Development Program (ADP) which has been initiated to bring education to militancy-hit Fata.
Among them is 13-year-old Khalid Khan. A resident of Bara, Khalid is sitting at a Hujra (council of elders) now turned into a school. Much like other official buildings and gatherings in the community, the Hujra designates a minimum of two rooms which can be used as makeshift classrooms.
Before enrolling at his school, Khalid and many other children relocated to safer ground due to a rise in militancy and subsequent security operation. He now attends classes at a school a few meters away from what was previously a militant base.
“I had left my home due to their [Lashkar-e-Islam's] influence. During the military operation mortar shells were fired by unknown miscreants causing a lot of displacement,” he recounted. From 2009 to 2014 Khalid and his family took refuge in Zakha Khel in Landi Kotal.
After returning home, Khalid enrolled in an ALS school, established by the Fata Education Foundation (FEF) aiming to enhance enrollment of children who were displaced during military operations.
Despite being a progressive initiative, Asif feels that the school lacks facilities. “We need a bathroom, dustbin, furniture, big black board and other facilities so as to continue learning,” he says.
Laying the groundwork
Javed Iqbal, Manager Planning and Development of FEF, says arrangements have been made for the provision of desks and stationary. He claims they will “arrive over the next couple of months.” Iqbal also adds that checks will be conducted on each school via the Village Education Committees (VEC) before and during their operating hours of 2pm to 6pm..
According to FEF more than 76 schools for boys and 61 for girls have been established across tribal regions.
The aim of community-based schools is to bring education to children who have suffered as a result of mass displacement. Iqbal is confident that they will manage to increase enrollment in schools across the tribal region and provide employment to youth.
This delights parents like Mumtaz Afridi, whose children do not have to travel great distances to attend a government school. Expressing his joy on their proximity, he hopes the children getting educated here “will become doctors, engineers, teachers and other professionals in the future.”
Having established a total of 137 out of a planned 175 schools along the militancy affected tribal belt, FEF also hope to trigger employment opportunities.
Due to a dearth in educators FEF and ALS encourage young local community members to come teach at their schools. Young locals like Zara Jan, who is busy taking courses during the day, has been teaching in an ALS school since its establishment.
This initiative helps teachers achieve employment and their students gain 5th grade certificates that will be acceptable at private and government schools.
Earlier this year, Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa initiated an education enrollment drive to register 400,000 children of Fata in government schools under a three-year ‘Emergency Education Plan.’ The goal set for the current calendar year is 150,000 children.
Restoring dreams through education
“I am happy to be enrolled in a newly established school close to my home, where I am actively learning. I come in at 2pm and leave around 6pm,” Khalid joyfully exclaims. He reveals that even though he was out of school for so long his will for education is undeterred.
Having access to education for children robbed of their adolescence is paramount for them to achieve their dreams.“Our miseries have eased to some extent,” Asif points out, looking to a brighter future, much like Khalid who dreams of becoming a doctor.
All photos are by the author.
Farid Shinwari is a freelance journalist with 'The Frontier Post', 'Afghanistan Today' and 'Centre for Research and Security Studies' (CRSS).