Mahbooba teaches students in a class.
Mahbooba teaches students in a class.

QUETTA: Mahbooba, a 22-year-old Afghan refugee girl in Pakistan, has often struggled to continue her education while also helping to provide for her family.

For over 40 years, persistent conflict and instability in Afghanistan have forced millions of Afghans to flee their homes in search of safety. Today, some 4.6 million Afghans, including 2.7m registered refugees, still live outside their country, mostly in Pakistan and Iran.

Pakistan hosts over 1.4m Afghan refugees. Among them are Mahbooba Afghan and her family, who live in Quetta. Although Afghan refugees have access to education in Pakistan, financial pressures and prevailing cultural norms can prevent refugee children from attending school.

Narrating her family’s ordeal, Mahbooba says: “It has been 30 years but my parents still share the memories they have of the most dangerous journey of their lives. Due to incessant armed conflict and bombing, they had decided to flee their home in Baghlan in the north-west of Afghanistan. They walked for days under enormous fear to find refuge in Balochistan, Pakistan. It was cold and they did not have proper clothes to keep warm. They were also starving, the leftover food provided to them by the mosques that they passed on their way helped them survive.”

Despite odds, Mahbooba has obtained an education and set up a school in her home

Mahbooba continues: “Our family has found safety here in Pakistan, but we have faced many challenges. I was 12 years old and in Grade 4 when my father was paralysed in an accident. He was our family’s only breadwinner. Along with my mother and siblings, I started doing anything and everything I could to help support our family. Together, we were able to make enough to get by, we never begged for help.

“It was important to me, as well as my parents, that I continue to stay in school and study hard. The idea of ‘education’ is beautiful; it is a sweet-sounding word. But the reality of trying to be educated was challenging. It took a lot of work and sacrifice to pursue my education and support my family at the same time.

“When I was in Grade 7, I started tutoring younger students. I would tutor them until around noon each day, and then grab my school bag to rush to school. Most of the time I barely even had a moment to wash my face. I also skipped meals to save time. Even with these efforts, I was usually late for school. It was always disheartening to be punished and reprimanded for my lateness, but I couldn’t give up. At nights, I helped my mother carry out tailoring and embroidering jobs.

“Despite these difficulties, it was worth it. Education is one of life’s basic and essential needs. Education enables us to sense the meaning of life. It is the only source of enlightenment and self-development. I am proud that the informal school I’ve set up in my family home is now the place of learning for around 50 Afghan children. There are 32 girls and 12 boys currently enrolled in my school. I was so happy when the school was approved by the Afghan Consulate, as it means that my students’ academic certificates are not just recognised but are issued by the Afghan government.

“As I tell my young students, education is a treasure and every human being has the responsibility to find this treasure. It is education that has allowed me to help my family and community. Individually and collectively, we cannot prosper without education.”

Mahbooba says she has now gained admission to the University of Balochistan, where she would be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration. Depending on the Covid-19 situation, her classes would start this month. She hopes that in the future, more young Afghans would be able to pursue their studies.

“Where I live, many children are deprived of education due to poverty,” she says. “I saw for myself that some families were reluctant to allow their sons to attend my school, as these little boys were bringing in a bit of money each day by working odd jobs. It was even harder to convince some parents to enroll their daughters in school, given the traditional roles associated with women and girls. There has since been some improvement, but the process of change is always slow.”

However, Mahbooba deplores: “Even with a good education, the life of a refugee is very tough. Our degrees do not necessarily help us to get jobs, and we don’t live with the same sense of freedom that others have. Sometimes taunts and other acts of discrimination make us feel isolated and alienated from the society where we live and which we were born into.”

On the prospects of her going to Afghanistan, she says: “I have been listening to the news about the ongoing war in Afghanistan ever since I was a child. Yet, the name ‘Kabul’ feels tasty to my mouth. I am desperate to visit my homeland like any other Afghan living outside the country. It is disappointing that law and order have never been restored there. This discourages us from going back. Young Afghans around the world are talented and have a lot of potential, but they cannot return and benefit Afghanistan until there is peace and security.

“My family and I are fortunate that we have found refuge here in Pakistan.But as refugees, we have more than just basic needs. We have other desires, too. We long to participate in the communal life of the societies that we live in, including in terms of job opportunities, music and the arts. We want to travel without fear. We have our talents, but fear doesn’t let us benefit society.

“I want to say to the world: respect and care for refugees; we were forced to leave our homes and trusted you to help ensure our safety and dignity.”

Mahbooba is a UNHCR outreach volunteer in Quetta. Outreach volunteers assist the UNHCR and partners in communicating and sharing information with refugees. They also help refugees access the services available in their areas, and play an important role in the identification of refugees who are particularly vulnerable and in need of additional support. Today, the UNHCR works with an estimated 1,400 outreach volunteers across Pakistan. Their numbers continue to grow steadily.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2021

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