Monthly Archives: August 2009

Why Last Week’s Afghan Election Matters

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slide_2463_33579_large“I know the Taliban threaten people not to vote, but I am coming and using my vote,” said Bakht Muhammad, 24, after he voted in Kandahar. “I want change. I want security. I want to live my life in our country.”

<http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/21/world/asia/21afghan.html?hp&gt;

Despite rocket attacks in Kandahar and an insurgent gun battle in Kabul, Afghans came out to vote last week in the country’s 2nd ever presidential election.   The Taliban has intimidated the Afghan people through warnings and attacks, but this has not deterred them from reaching the voting booths.   The people want to see change and a better place for the younger generations.  The response from the Afghan people shows their support and desire for democracy and their bravery for standing up for what they believe in even in the face of terrorism.

Voter turn out in the North is stronger because of greater security and less Taliban presence.  The regions where our schools are located (also in the North) are most likely to have their voices heard through voting, a positive sign for the citizens seeking change.  The Southern region however, has seen considerable action by the Taliban in closing poll stations and stepping up violence, with 26 killed on election day related violence.  But there are positive signs there too.  Even with considerable violence, some voters still showed up, surprising US soldiers and Afghan officials.

These are all great positive things to take away from the election, but one has to remember that this election is not about electing a candidate to lead Afghanistan’s Government.

This election is about showcasing who has the power in the country.  In many areas, particularly in the rural regions and the South, the Taliban is well respected and remains in control of resources and people while the Afghan government has struggled to secure the country.

We saw a partial answer for the Question of Power on election day.

Last week’s election matters because it showed the Afghan people that their fellow people citizens in their government and it demonstrated to the world that, because the elections took place with a relative amount of success, that the government operates with significant power.  Had the Taliban had controlled the majority of polls and impeded election efforts, the world would have seen their strength of controlling the country.  Even the small voter turn out to polls that had seen heavy violence gives evidence of the importance for Afghani citizens.

To further spread the power and effectiveness of the government and diminish the reach of the Taliban, the goal of the new Afghan Government, as well as U.S. and NATO Security Forces should be to prioritize what the Afghani people want and need.  Focus should also be to market and provide these services in a better capacity than the Taliban.

The Afghani people first and foremost want security; no one wants to live in a constant state of fear.  Second, Afghanis want economic opportunities in terms of trade and commerce.  With continued violence there has been an unstable economy in Afghanistan.  Third, Afghanis want more of a focus on education.  Afghanis believe that education is the proper method of building strong and economically sound communities for the welfare and benefit of their entire country.

In many cases, the Taliban has been able to provide security and commerce better than the Afghan government, especially in rural areas where the Taliban’s reach is greater.  If the government, with the help of security forces, can begin to provide security, legitimate commerce opportunities, and better funding for education, then the tide of civilian support will shift toward the government away from the Taliban.

The Taliban’s message to the Afghans is that they will remain long after any foreign forces are there, an attempt to remove hope of a different future for the country.  To get their message across, they will continue to use violence and aggressive conservative tactics.

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Get to know the Barakat staff! Colin Rink

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Name: Colin Rink

Hometown: Ossining, NY 

School: Northeastern University 

What do you do at Barakat: Corporate Sponsorship  

Fun fact about yourself: I have webbed toes.

What have you learned working at Barakat: Calling business and asking for sponsorship is not that bad. Business don’t hate me and some are very helpful. 

Favorite quote: “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow.” – Mark Twain  

Heroes: Bruce Springsteen, Barack, Spiderman  

You’re suddenly stranded on a desert island but naturally you got to bring your five favorite things. They are:
iPod, a good book, my girlfriend, George Foreman grill (solar-powered), radio to listen to Yankees games

Most desired superpower:
flight

Pakistani Women Role Models

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Who are our role models? 

Sometimes our role models are the people we see and spend time with everyday and sometimes they are just figures on TV or the Web.  Whoever they may be, we all have respect for them, they have influenced our lives in some manner, and they are an image that we look to.

Who do you look to when your world is compromised by violence and poverty?  Often in difficult situations, people who are successful through illegitimate means frequently become role models.   Women in Pakistan fortunately have many role models to look to even in difficult settings.

Since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in late 2007, one might think that the number of women in high political positions have decreased due to extremism, fear, and conservatism, but there are still many women in high position that give hope to many and provide a positive influence on the young population of Pakistan.

In the Pakistani Senate, there are currently 18 women seated and the constitution requires that at least 17 women sit in the 100 seat Senate.  In the lower “house” of the Pakistani Congress, the National Assembly, there is a minimum of 60 seats reserved for women, and women currently fill 72 seats (out of 342, or 21 %).  To compare to the US, there are currently 17 women (out of 100) serving in the US Senate and 75 women (out of 435, 17%) in the US House of Representatives.

These congresswomen provide an image of women in power in the public sector.  Their mere presence in positions of power can have a positive effect, instilling an optimistic drive for young Pakistani women.

There are also women in power outside the public sector in high positions that provide a positive model for community building.  There are several women directors of NGOs working to help improve their country.  Women such as Jehan Ara (President Of Pakistan Software House Association), Sabeen Mahmud ( Director Peace Niche NGO), Rabia Gharib ( CEO of CIO magazine), Asma Jehnagir (Human Right Activist) and many more. These women not only represent the independent, enlightened and modern woman of Pakistan, despite the hurdles, but also act as role models to many young women looking to make a better Pakistan.

      

Jehan Ara             Sabeen Mahmud          Rabia Gharib              Asma Jehnagir

Get to know the Barakat staff: Eric Prileson

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Name: Eric Prileson 

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Hometown: Tucson, AZ 

School: Northeastern University 

What do you do at Barakat: communications, writing, editing and updating online resources.

Fun fact about yourself:
played 4  sports in high school 

What have you learned working at Barakat: I have learned that the breadth of nonprofits is so extensive that it has interlaced with mainstream America in both the business and non-business world.

Working towards a common goal requires the skills and input of everyone. 

Favorite quote: “If you feel like you are witnessing a movement, then get up girl and let them know you’re  free.” Chad Urmston 

Heroes: My Grandfather, Michael Jordan, Normar Garciaparra  

You’re suddenly stranded on a desert island but naturally you got to bring your five favorite things. They are:
my baseball glove, my guitar, my favorite snacks (Nutella), favorite book “October Sky,” favorite sandwich 

Most desired superpower: ability to learn and execute everything perfectly

The Faces I Didn’t See

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Today was my last day in Bhadohi. A car came to pick me up from where I was staying at 10:30. I tossed my bags into the car and said goodbye to the people who had been hosting me. I told them each how much I had enjoyed staying at their home and finally getting to meet them. (These are the men who started and have been running Barakat’s Qazipur School over the past several years.) In their parting words, each of them said to me in almost exactly the same language something like this: “If I have used any unkind words, I am sorry. Forgive anything I might have said to upset you. I hope we are able to have a good relationship in the future and you are always welcome here.”

The similarity of their words made me think that it must be something everyone says when they say goodbye here if there have been disagreements. So of course, I said the same thing back to them, in somewhat different words. We had been discussing some matters over the past two weeks of how to run the schools, and we have not always seen eye to eye. Yet every night we ate together and joked together and learned more about each other–I found it quite refreshing to be able to be expressing our different views relating to one matter without feeling like anyone was holding it against anyone else.

Then before the car took off, one of them said, “Have you said goodbye to the children and teachers at the school?” I hadn’t. I hadn’t even thought of it. How rude.

“No. I should do that,” I said. So Amzad, who speaks quite good English and has been running the school for the past three years hopped in the car and told the driver to go to the school, and step on it! (It was in Hindi, so I’m just guessing at exactly what he said.)

When we arrived at the school, classes were in session. I had hoped to catch everyone at their recess/lunch break so that I could address all the teachers and students at the same time. Instead I went into each of the seven classrooms and told them today was my last day in Bhadohi, I was heading back to the U.S., I had enjoyed meeting everyone and seeing how the school was being run. Finally I wished them all well for the year ahead and that I hoped I could come back at some point in the future.

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For the younger children, Amzad translated. For the older kids, who have been studying English for a couple years, he thought it would be fun to see if any of them could understand what I was saying and explain it to the rest of the class. So for grades 3-5 I spoke more slowly and tried to use more simple words. One girl in 5th grade was actually able to get most of my meaning, which surprised and delighted me. Sometimes, it’s easy to lose track of the purpose of learning or to see the signs that it’s happening. And here was a student just 11 years old who had probably never heard any native English speaker talk before, and she could pick up what I was saying because she had studied English in school. Cool!

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Another thing happened while I was in those classes saying goodbye. Speaking through a translator is a very different experience from speaking without one. You have to take breaks every few sentences for the person to translate. And that gives you time to reflect on what you want to say next, or to just space out if you already know what you’re going to say next. What I was saying was pretty simple, and I repeated it seven times, so I had plenty of time to look around the room at the children’s faces. As I was looking at them – some of their eyes fixed on Amzad as he was translating, some of them apparently captivated by me – I had a really weird feeling.

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I felt like I was seeing the kids for the first time. Really seeing them. I had spent several hours in our two schools over the course of the past three weeks interviewing teachers, interviewing parents, interviewing students, talking to administrators, surveying the facilities, taking pictures, videotaping, asking all the questions I could think of. But somehow in all that time I hadn’t really taken time to just look at the kids and think about them. Who are they? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Who are their friends?

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It’s hard to explain how I was seeing them differently. All the rest of the time I had been so concerned with getting good pictures, or capturing the right moment on video, or trying to figure out the right question to get them to expose their true thoughts about going to school. I had been so focused on my objectives – my checklist of things I wanted to accomplish – that my mind was always there and not ever really processing what was in front of me.

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It was only when I was ready to leave and had completed the checklist that my brain was free to see what was in front of me. At that moment, I felt a sense of awe. A sense that this is an incredibly important thing we are doing – helping to expand what is possible for these little people in the future. And it made me want to do whatever I could to make sure they have everything they need to make good lives for themselves.

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The Upcoming Afghan Election

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With the second presidential Afghan election about to take place on August 20, the Barakat community in Afghanistan is approaching a threshold: Will our students, the future of Afghanistan,  see democracy in action with a fair and undisputed election and a smooth transition?

The success of democracy in Afghanistan is a promise to Barakat’s students of what will be.  With an election in which polls are open to everyone and all votes are counted, the youth of Afghanistan will see the progress of their country through democracy.

There are dark clouds that have formed around the perception of Afghanistan, but this election is about hope and the future, a ray of light through the negative aura surrounding a magnificent people.

Barakat is following this election closely to see what kind of conditions the election of a new administration creates for its schools and education programs.  Will a second term for Karzai mean a change in education policy that improves current school systems?  Or will a new president bring a completely new education policy?   For our schools in Pakistan for Afghan refugees, stability from a successful election could mean a stem in the flow of refugees.

Also important to follow will be voting participation by women.  Will they be intimidated into staying away from the polls?  Will their voting cards be accepted?  Hopefully the rights of women that were stagnated by the Taliban until 2001 will be flexed to the fullest extent on 20 August.  We will learn what the state of democracy has become in Afghanistan in this election.  We will also learn how much power the Taliban maintains there.

Read the New York Times article profiling the setting of the election:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/04/world/asia/04election.html?_r=1&ref=asia

and a Huffington Post Article:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/olivia-sterns/green-shoots-of-democracy_b_251983.html

Talking to Parents

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Mother of student

Yesterday I interviewed several parents at the Qazipur School. The purpose of these interviews is to find out what they think about the quality of education at the school, how we can make it better for their children, and their beliefs about education. I’m not sure what they think I want to talk to them about, but most of them have that look when someone asks to speak to them for a completely unknown reason. Their faces are completely slack. They look at me without smiling. It’s impossible to know, but I imagine they’re thinking, “What the heck could this guy possibly want to talk to me about?” If they are anything like me (which they may or may not be) they may start jumping to conclusions. My child’s done something wrong. I’ve said something offensive.

It’s hard for me to say what they’re really thinking. I’ve discovered that they have very little incentive to be completely honest with me and tell me too much. Look at it from their perspective: they are too poor to send their children to a school that charges admission and education is free at this school. They have no other option and they don’t want to say anything to screw it up. They may think there are some problems with the school – some things they wish worked better; they may even have some insightful suggestions for how we could make improvements.

                                                            

            School bus in Bhadohi

School bus in Bhadohi

But they have a lot to lose by being honest. I tell them that I’m not going to share what they say with anyone, that what they tell me won’t affect their child’s place in this school, and that I genuinely want to know how to make the school better for their kids. But what if that’s not true? And what if they tell me something and someone else finds out? Their child could be kicked out. It happens at free schools all the time. They’re reluctant to look a gift horse in the mouth and that’s exactly what I’m asking them to do.

The questions that they are open in answering are the ones relating to their beliefs about education. One question in particular has been interesting to hear people answer because everyone gives exactly the same response.

“Do you think education is equally important for girls and boys?”

Every single parent – both fathers and mothers – have said emphatically, “Yes.”

“Why?” I ask.

Their response usually sounds something like this. “In the past things were different, but now it is very important for girls to be educated as well. It is very important for them so that they can be married.”

I probe more. “Why does being educated help them get married?”

“It is the first thing a husband and his family will ask when they are looking for brides.” According to one of my translators two out of three marriages in India are arranged by the families of the spouses. “Without a high level of education, no one will marry a girl.”

This makes me wonder. At the beginning, they say that things have changed. It didn’t used to be this way, but now it is. It doesn’t seem like the right reason to educate a girl to me, but I guess it’s not as important why girls are being educated, as long as they are being educated. “What has changed?” I ask. “Why do people think it’s important to have an  educated wife when they didn’t before?”

Visiting parent's house

Visiting parent's house

“The husband’s family knows that if the wife has a good education, then she will make sure that all their children are well educated as well. She can teach them at home and check on their homework.” One man used himself as an example. “I am uneducated. This is because my parents were also uneducated. They didn’t understand the importance in sending me to school, so I never had a chance to learn. Now I am just a weaver, and there’s nothing else I can do. I don’t want to repeat the mistake my parents made. I want to send my children to school so that they can have a different life.”

It doesn’t completely answer my question of what has changed…but it alludes to it. It is definitely true that women who are educated tend to make sure their families are educated. Research shows this tendency isn’t nearly as strong with men. Even if they are educated, they may not make sure their children are educated. So I suppose that in the past generation, this idea has taken hold – even with uneducated people.

You can see it all around you. In Bhadohi, there are huge signs for schools all over. In Varanasi, the nearest big city, you can’t look in any direction without seeing a billboard for a school. Of course, those billboards are for people who can pay–with so much interest in education, schools have become a business.

    

Billboard for school in Bhadohi

Billboard for school in Bhadohi

While that’s great, it also worries me. There are no billboards for free schools. No one makes money on them. And the government-run schools are the bottom of the barrel. So the poor – who can’t afford to send their children to any of these schools on these thousands of billboards – are falling behind.

Sign for girls college

Sign for girls college