Barakat recently welcomed a visit from Chris Walter and Habibullah Karimi, co-founders of Barakat, into the office for a Question-and-Answer session with the staff and interns. It was a great opportunity and we were excited to talk about new developments and Barakat’s direction in the future! The visit began with a discussion of the beginning of Barakat as an organization and concluded with questions from our staff members about various topics of importance to our cause.
Barakat began as a carpet making venture to generate income during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. As the Russians took over the region, Afghans had two choices: fight alongside the Soviets or fight alongside the mujahideen. In response, millions of Afghans fled –women and children by road, and men through the trails at night. Many fled to Pakistan, where the government was struggling to provide public schools for its own citizens, never mind the refugee community. This is where Barakat’s work began.
Barakat began in 1987 as the Ersari Turkmen Weaving Project in the refugee camps of Pakistan. The purpose of the project was to teach weavers techniques in carpet production. Cultural Survival provided a grant and the project became very successful and generated a great deal of profits. Profits were received by Yayla Tribal Rugs, Chris Walter’s Cambridge based company and were then used towards funding Barakat’s projects.
Barakat built its first school in 1994 in Attock, Pakistan to provide the refugee community with the chance to better their own lives. At the time teachers faced a great deal of difficulty convincing parents to send their daughters to school because they did not see a valid purpose for educating girls. Many parents felt that the carpet weaving industry that was generating income at the time was sufficient; education, they said, was a waste of time.
Chris and Habibullah were not deterred, and they called a meeting of some of the most influential people in the community, including the tribal elders. They emphasized the need for progress in the community and the value of education. To reach out to parents who remained uninterested in the newly established school, schoolteachers traveled to families’ homes to share their own stories of how education had given them new opportunities in life. These teachers, primarily Pakistani women along with some Afghan women understood the culture and community concerns and were successful in convincing parents of the invaluable opportunities that education provides. As time went on, Chris and Habibullah opened three more schools to meet the increased demand for education. Girls that had graduated from the schools were instrumental in bringing more girls from the communities to enroll.
Despite various successes, there are still a number of challenges. In 2001, when the Taliban was kicked out, there was a much greater sense of positivity and this resulted in a higher rate of female enrollment. The recent resurgence of Taliban control has generated hesitation and fear about the safety of girls and the safety of their families. Thus far, Barakat has been successful because the name itself, being of Muslim origin, has a positive and powerful resonance for South Asia.
Another key to the safety and security of the organization is the fact that Barakat is able to sustain a sense of legitimacy among members of the community. Barakat Afghanistan works with community leaders to help maintain this legitimacy in the villages in which it works. At the same time, although there has been success in enrolling children in school, Chris noted that in Afghanistan “there is still a whole generation coming along in parts of the country that don’t have an education.” Barakat hopes to expand its literacy programs and build more schools. In the future, one of our greatest goals is to be able to fund students who pursue higher education after completing Barakat’s literacy courses.
Opportunity is the key to building peace in war torn countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chris highlighted the fact that “most [militants] are not ideologically strongly committed to the Taliban. It’s just that they have no education, no jobs–the Taliban gives them money, pays them well–it’s a job.” Barakat seeks to provide opportunity in South Asia where options are limited because, as Chris and Habibullah emphasized, “education sheds light and dispels the darkness of war.”