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Khalid Khan standing before the whiteboard to read out a lesson at an Alternative Learning School at Bara in Khyber Agency.—Dawn
Khalid Khan standing before the whiteboard to read out a lesson at an Alternative Learning School at Bara in Khyber Agency.—Dawn

PESHAWAR: As the sun sets behind the mountains, young boys with age ranging from nine to 16 sit on the floor of an empty classroom in Bara tehsil, some of them wearing 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 Programme (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 now turned into a school. Much like official buildings in the area, the Hujra comprises a minimum of two rooms which can be used as makeshift classrooms.

Before enrolling at his school, Khalid and many other children relocated to safe ground due to a rise in militancy and the subsequent security operation. He now attends classes at a school a few metres away from what was previously a militant base.

“I had left my home due to their (the banned Lashkar-i-Islam’s men) influence. During the military operation mortar shells were fired by 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 enrolment 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 blackboard 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 stationery. 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 the Fata Education Foundation, more than 76 schools for boys and 61 for girls have been established across tribal regions: North Waziristan 30; South Waziristan 25; Khyber Agency 24; Orakzai Agency 17; Kurram Agency 15; Bajaur Agency 14; and Mohmand Agency 12.

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 enrolment 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.

According to it, around 24,000 children across the tribal belt will have access to education and 200 young male and female teaching staff will be employed. Children aged from 9 to 16 will be enrolled in ALS schools

Due to a dearth of educators, FEF and ALS encourage young local community members to teach at their schools. Young local people, 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 get employment and their students gain 5th grade certificates that will be acceptable at private and government schools.

Earlier this year, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra initiated an education enrolment 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.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2016