Education

Her school torched by Taliban when she was a girl, Afghan educator sets out to teach others

By Khalid Zerai

A young Afghan woman, Maryam Amarkhil, 25, who survived Taliban violence when the militants burned her school 14 years ago is now determined to fight back extremism by providing education to Kuchi children. [Khalid Zerai/Salaam Times]

LAGHMAN -- Maryam Amarkhil still remembers when Taliban militants burned down her school in Maidan Wardak province in 2007 when she was in the sixth grade.

"When I came to the school in the morning, the carpets were burned and everything had turned black," she said. "All my hopes for getting my bachelor's and master's degrees burned up too."

Prior to destroying the school, she said, Taliban militants sent her father many letters "warning him not to send his daughters to school because they [the girls] would be misled".

"Because my father was illiterate, I would throw these letters in water or hide them in the walls," she said.

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Maryam Amarkhil, 25, April 10 shakes hands with students for whom she has provided education in Qarghayi district, Laghman province. [Khalid Zerai/Salaam Times]

"But things got worse; the Taliban torched my school, and I had to move to Kabul."

"Around 1,200 girls had studied in our school, all of whom stayed home after the school burned down," she said.

Defying the Taliban

Amarkhil, now 25, refused to let the Taliban extinguish her dreams.

"I was the only one who went to Kabul, completed school, getting my bachelor's," she said. "I then pursued my master's in Pashto literature."

Now Amarkhil, who hails from the Kuchi tribe, operates a school for tribal children in Qarghayi district of Laghman province.

Students of "the mobile tent school" are becoming familiar with books and pens and are learning English letters.

"I established this school here two months ago because more than 100 Kuchi families live in the dry desert of Qarghayi," she told Salaam Times on April 10. "Right now, 235 boys and girls study up to 3rd grade."

Amarkhil runs the school using her own salary as well as financial support from Afghans living inside Afghanistan and abroad.

With more funding, she intends to start similar mobile schools in Logar, Nangarhar and Ghazni provinces in the current solar year.

Seeing these Kuchi children in school reminds her of her childhood and of the difficulties she had to overcome during her school days, she said.

Mujahid Khan, 16, picked up a book and a pen for the first time when he started at the school two months ago.

"I used to herd sheep, but I am now in the school studying in the first grade," he said. "I learned a lot in two months and am very happy for the school."

His younger sisters are also delighted to see a school established in their village.

One male and two female teachers oversee three classes covering all subjects including religious studies, science and English.

"My father and mother have not studied," said Rahima, 11, who studies in the first grade. "I used to get very upset seeing other girls going to school. Now I am very happy to be in school and studying."

Rahima's mother, Gulnar, said she is grateful her children have the opportunity to study.

"We are Kuchis; we have not studied and grew up without an education," she said. "We are happy now that if these children study, they will be able to correct our mistakes in prayers and reciting the Koran."

Education 'under fire'

Amarkhil's former schoolmates are not the only ones whom the Taliban have blocked from obtaining an education.

Attacks on schools in Afghanistan almost tripled in 2018, cutting children's access to education, UNICEF said in May 2019.

Attacks on Afghan schools jumped from 68 in 2017 to 192 in 2018, the first increase in such incidents since 2015.

More than 1,000 schools were closed by the end of 2018, UNICEF said, depriving some 500,000 children of their right to an education.

"Education is under fire in Afghanistan," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement at the time.

More recently, in Herat province alone, Taliban violence and threats have kept more than 320,000 children out of schools in the current school year, according to local officials.

In recent years, the Taliban have destroyed dozens of schools in Shindand, Adraskan, Ghorian, Kohsan and other districts.

The Taliban seek to keep youth illiterate so that militants recruit them more easily as foot soldiers, officials and analysts say.

"There are many illiterate individuals among the Taliban" who are unaware of Islamic and human values and just kill innocent civilians and launch terrorist attacks, said Abdul Qader Kamel, a political analyst in Herat city.

"Illiteracy and lack of knowledge are key tools of the Taliban's war, and one can hardly find someone educated among the Taliban fighters," Kamel said.

"The more illiterate youth we have in society, the more the Taliban avail the opportunity to recruit them," he said. "The Taliban recruit uneducated and unemployed youth and make false promises to them."

The Taliban have deliberately created barriers over the past 20 years to prevent children and youth from going to school. Literacy rates in areas under the Taliban control are extremely low, according to Kamel.

"Undoubtedly, this action of the Taliban has ruined Afghanistan's new generation," he noted.

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Education and going to school are very important for the prosperity of a country, because it is literacy that builds the backbone of a country's economy. The better the educational quality of a country, the better will be its economy. I hope that the Taliban also have realized this and will allow girls to study under their future government so that they will become teachers and doctors and serve their people and the country. You know that Afghans spend millions of dollars every year in India and Pakistan for their treatment, and if there are better health services in our country, they will spend all this money inside the country. Even a number of people lose their lives because of the lack of health facilities inside the country, because there are no intelligent doctors and better health services in the country and because they cannot go abroad.

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I hope that the scope of literacy and education will become wide and extensive so that our young compatriots find wisdom to rationally take part in the decision-making affairs of the country. The move made by this lady is commendable; we wish her success and prosperity.

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It is a matter of pleasure as such deprived children are provided with the opportunity of an education. Usually, whenever the international aids arrive, its distribution begins from Kabul and gradually they spread to the districts of Kabul and then to the other provinces. Mostly, these aids end in Kabul, and they do not reach the areas, especially to the remotely located regions. The international aid agencies may help Maryam Amarkhila and similar other intelligent youth and organizations to provide facilities of education and health to the children of Pashtuns, especially to the children of the nomads. The reason I mentioned the children of Pashtuns is because, luckily, children of other Afghans, especially those of the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek Afghans, live mostly in secure areas and they have more educational possibilities; however, when it comes to the Pashtun populated areas, on one side, the Taliban and other terrorist groups funded by Pakistan destroy the infrastructures, and on the other side, the government gives it little attention because of insecurity there. Thanks to Mr. Khalid Zerai and in general to Salaam Times magazine for writing on such an important topic. Hope they will echo the issue of the deprived areas, especially those of the Pashtun populated areas.

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