Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Roots of Change: Lyla Speaks with Barakat Alumni about Problems and Solutions for Afghanistan

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Check out this great post from the field – Lyla sat with former Barakat students and got their points of view on issues in Afghanistan, and what change in the future will look like:

How many of us can say we stay in touch with our elementary schools? One of my tasks in Pakistan is to meet with some of Barakat’s former students.  In my first blog I wrote about the way many of these students use Facebook to stay in touch with their alma mater.  On Sunday I got to meet a few of them.

 

Education will give this generation of Afghan children in Pakistan the chance to strengthen their communities and solve social problems.

 

Naveed is a well-spoken young man of 18.  He is in high school and wants to become a pediatrician.  Next to him sat Abdul Mujid, recently married and with hopes of becoming an engineer.  Finally there was Saeed Ullah, who is also finishing high school and wants to become a wrestler.  He names Arnold Schwarzenagger as his biggest role model.

In introducing themselves to me, each of them talked about their hopes for the future of their country.  Naveed and Abdul Mujid both hope to promote education.  Saeed Ullah hopes to follow in Arnold’s footsteps and enter politics after a successful career as a pro wrestler.

When I asked them about their country’s past, they listed illiteracy and poverty as some of its greatest challenges.  The Taliban used to scare people away from school, they told me, especially girls.  “Our parents’ generation tells us many stories about what Afghanistan was like in the past, but all the stories are sad.”

“And what about the future?” I asked. “What stories do you and your friends share about Afghanistan’s future?”  I was met with three blank stares.

Naveed looked at his friends and smiled, realizing I didn’t understand.  We don’t talk about the future of Afghanistan together, he said.  “I’ve only been there once.  How can I say what should or shouldn’t happen?”  Abdul Mujid and Saeed Ullah nodded in agreement.  “We’ve hardly seen Afghanistan.  When we bring it up in conversation, people tell us to stop talking because we don’t know [the situation].”

If I got that response every time I talked about the future of my country, I’d probably stop talking, too.

Later on I posed the same question to another former Barakat student.  He tried patiently to paint the picture for me.

“Let’s say you are an American but lived your whole life in Pakistan.  You were born and raised here.  Should you be the one planning America’s future?” he asked.

While I see his point, I believe the situation for Afghanistan is different. 3.6 million Afghans currently live outside of Afghanistan –  many fled as a result of the Soviet Invasion in the  of Afghans have fled their country over the last four decades, and many more have been born on foreign soil.  But just as this does not make them less Afghan – it does not rob them of the right, no, the responsibility, of dreaming about their homeland’s future.  Together.

Back to the three young men who sat in front of me: all of them have individual hopes for their future.  They see what kind of opportunities education has afforded them, and they want this for all Afghans.  But they’re not yet dreaming together.

“If you aren’t dreaming about Afghanistan’s future with each other, who is?”  Again I was met with silence.

“If you aren’t, you can be sure that someone else is,” I went on.  “And you may not like what they plan.”

“That’s true,” said Naveed eventually.  “It’s just not something we talk about together.”

Each of these young men has a dream about what their future will look like.  All of them want to return home eventually, to a country they’ve barely seen but which is still theirs.  Their dreams are individual, as are all of ours to some extent.  We start dreaming about what we know, what we can control.  Most eighteen-year-olds don’t feel like they can control a country ravaged by generations of war and “help” from its neighbors far and wide, these three included. But eventually, I suspect their desire to provide the next generation with a better life than they have–which is how each of them ended up in a Barakat school, incidentally–will draw them from their individual dreams to a communal dream.

I’m looking forward to what a doctor, an engineer and a pro-wrestler cum politician can do together.

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On the Love of Learning: Lyla Sees Dedication of Students in Pakistan Firsthand

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Here’s the next installment in blog posts from Barakat’s interim executive director, Lyla Hardesty, in her three week journey to Pakistan:

“What’s your name?”
“My name is Zalifa,” came the confident but reserved reply.
“Zalifa, why are you in school today?” I asked.
Zalifa shot a quick glance at her teacher, her eyes asking if this was a trick question
“Because I want to learn to read,” she said.

 

Lyla with male students at Barakat Evening Elementary School

 

Duh, she must have been thinking.

Ok fine, maybe it was a dumb question.  But I wanted to hear it for myself, hear from Zalifa and Shukriya and Zara and all the rest that they were in school to learn.  I talked with many girls like Zalifa this evening, girls who come scurrying into Barakat Elementary in their brightly colored clothing (and sometimes a little after the bell has rung) with books in hand, ready to learn.  And I mean ready.  Most of these girls have worked all day long weaving  carpets with their families.  Their fingers and eyes are tired, but their minds are sharp, and they love being in school.  They love learning Dari, math and English.  In fact, I’ve found more female math enthusiasts among the Afghan refugee community here than I’ve met in the last 10 years in the US.  Not bad.

In the first class I introduced myself, telling students my name, where I’m from and why I’m in their class.  Then I said:

“Miss Sumera [Barakat Pakistan’s Country Director] told me about you girls coming to school, and I was so excited to meet you, and now here I am.”

 

Students at Barakat Evening Elemenatry School, ready to learn despite a long day

 

After this sentence left my mouth, I paused, overcome with emotion.  Yep, I thought, that’s exactly why I’m here.  Looking around the room I was moved by the dedication of these young women, some of them as old as 19 and married, all of them standing firm in the face of significant cultural opposition to sit in this classroom and learn to read.

No matter who I talk to here–Pakistanis, Afghans, teachers at other schools–the story is always the same.  “Afghans here don’t usually send their children to school, especially their daughters, and especially Turkmen.”  I have about 400 girls who would tell you differently.

Check out our website for more info on our programs! Check back for more updates from Lyla, as well as for updates on education and women’s issues in South and Central Asia!

Suicide in Afghan Women: Where’s the ‘It Gets Better’?

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Very unfortunately, suicide exists in every society. In individualized cases, it can be written off as stemming from individual problems, but what of the suicide of entire demographics?  Mounting suicides in any community prompt the question of whether some trends in social forces are at work. A recent New York Times exposé by Alissa Rubin describes widespread suicide amongst women in Herat Province, in Western Afghanistan.  The article reports that more and more women are trying to commit suicide with cooking oil and matches, widely available resources for even very poor women. The article, difficult to read at times, shows that social problems in Afghanistan have shaken some women to their core and made them feel like there is no way out.

 

Herat Province, in the West of Afghanistan lies close to the borders with Iran and Turkmenistan

 

One featured woman, Farzana, a bright woman who endured years of abuse by her husband, turned to burning herself. Farzana survived and Rubin had this to say about her experience: “After 57 days in the hospital and multiple skin grafts, she is home with her mother and torn between family traditions and an inchoate sense that a new way of thinking is needed.”

What is the new thinking? Where does it lie? How is it brought about? This article, while informing readers of a very grave issue, doesn’t explicitly imply a light at the end of the tunnel. Where can we look to help these women? Change, of course, is not easy to come by, but it is always possible. Increased access to education for these women will not only help them alleviate themselves from poverty, but it will also help them to get married at later ages and also to understand that there are easier ways out than dousing yourself in cooking oil. It is impossible to understand how difficult many of these women’s lives are, but it is possible to inform ourselves about the problem and support the resources that will help these women to rise above these abject conditions.

What do you think? Comment below and get the discussion going about how best to make women’s lives around the world better. Don’t forget our Facebook and Twitter!

-Elizabeth Peyton

Education for All: Personal Success Stories from Lyla’s Visit to Pakistan

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Below is the next post in a series devoted to Barakat Interim Executive Director, Lyla Hardesty’s trip to Pakistan. In this post, Lyla hears personal success stories about education for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, as well as the debate revolving on whether parents should send their children to school instead of keeping them home to weave carpets and generate more income:

We were sitting on a beautifully handcrafted carpet in a room that boasted little else save a shelf with a few blankets.  This carpet would easily go for $1,000 if sold in the United States, but it was serving its purpose well here in the home of these Afghan refugees affected by the recent Pakistani floods.

“Of course we send our children to school,” declared one woman proudly.  “We want them to learn other languages and lead a better life than the one we live.”

“No,” said another on the other side of the room.  “I don’t send my children to school.  I need them at home to weave carpets.  We’re Turkmen, that’s what we do.”

The girls on the far left and right attend Barakat Elementary School. Their friend in the middle says that she does not want to go to school and would rather stay home and weave carpets, the main source of income for these families.

“But she is also a Turkmen,” piped in Basmina, one of my translators, motioning to another young woman in the room.  “And she is now in high school.  And her sister…”  Basmina paused dramatically, knowing that her next statement would take this mother by surprise.  “Her sister is in medical school in Rawalpindi.”

“Really?” said the mother, obviously surprised.

“Yes,” replied Haleema, now aware that all eyes were on her.  “Our family thinks education is very important, especially for girls.  My mother and father made it a priority for my family growing up, and now we’re waiting to get married until we’re done with school.  Weaving is still very important to my family, but my father knows that education will have a long-term impact on our lives.  And this is what I want, too.”

The women in the room sat back, pondering what Haleema had just said.  For these Afghan refugees, income generation requires all available resources, with boys and girls weaving carpets or selling vegetables from a young age.  The long-term benefit of education is not as important for many families, especially for girls.  A woman’s role is in the home, they believe, and there’s no reason for her to read or write.

This little boy proudly demonstrated his ability to write aleph, the first letter in the Urdu alphabet to his cousin, whose parents have not yet allowed her to start school.

The staff at Barakat has seen this change in the last 15 years.  Many children are now eager to slip on their smart blue and white checkered uniforms and carry backpacks with pencil and paper.  But fifteen years ago, the 22 students in Barakat Pakistan’s first class represented 22 hard-won steps towards education as a community value.  As more students like Haleema demonstrate the long-term benefits gained by education, more girls are declaring their own career aspirations–doctor and teacher being the two most popular–and asking their parents to send them to school with increasing success.  Our former students are some of our strongest advocates, too, visiting the schools and community to talk to parents about the value of education.

All of the students pictured here attend Barakat Elementary School.  Their mothers said they want their own children to have a better life than the one they themselves lead.

If you have thoughts about debates revolving around education, or have questions for Lyla about her trip, feel free to leave them below! You can also see Barakat’s website for more information or check us out on Facebook and Twitter!

Lyla in Pakistan: Barakat Alumni use Facebook to Keep in Touch with Schools!

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Below is the first installment in a series of posts by Barakat’s Interim Executive Director, Lyla Hardesty. During the next two weeks, Lyla will be doing program assessment at Barakat’s schools in Attock, Pakistan, and giving us a glimpse into her experience. In this first post, Lyla hears about how Barakat alumni use social media sites like Facebook to keep in touch with their schools and encourage other girls to continue studying by showing them how many opportunities education offers:

These photos of Barakat alumni remind current students of how their futures will be enhanced by education

“It’s load-shedding time,” Abdul Rehman explained.  “Everything is slower now.” That may have been true, but I was still crowded around a tiny computer screen with six people looking at pictures on Facebook in Attock, Pakistan, a remote town two hours from Islamabad.  Sometimes slow is relative.

“There are many former Barakat students on Facebook,” explained Ghulam Rasul, a Barakat alum himself.  “They really like staying connected with their school.”

Abdul Rehman, Barakat’s Deputy Director, pointed to a photograph.  “This girl,” he said with a smile, “was a Barakat student in the early 90s.  She got married and is sending her children to Barakat schools.  This boy too,” he said.  We were on a roll now.  “He went back to Afghanistan, and now he is sending his children to the Barakat school in Faryab province.”

“And look at him,” said Abdul Rehman.  He pointed to a young boy in a yellowed photograph that had been scanned onto Facebook.  “He graduated from Ersari Elementary and went on to high school.  Now he’s in Kabul making $600 a month.  But him,” he pointed to another boy in the same picture, “he didn’t complete school.”  Abdul Rehman paused.  “he sells sabzi (vegetables) on a pushcart now.

“Barakat has many students like this boy in Kabul,” Abdul Rehman continued.  “Those who complete 8th grade and have the support of their parents often continue and end up making much more money than their classmates, with good jobs literally all over the world.”  In addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Barakat alumni have found jobs in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Russia and Iran.  This is an admirable feat for Afghans whose families and communities, in the past, have long opposed education.  The results are a great source of pride for these families.

This is one of the reasons that I’m here–to put numbers to the impact our staff and students know we’re making and to track the lives that have been changed because of our schools.  I’m looking forward to hearing more stories like these in the next two weeks.

Like what you see? Interested in hearing more? Check back often to see more posts from Lyla. You can also check out Barakat’s website for more information about Barakat’s schools and literacy programs in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. You can also donate to Barakat to give more women and children the chance for an education. Don’t forget our twitter @Barakatinc!

Lyla Goes to Pakistan!

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Interim Executive Director, Lyla Hardesty is in Pakistan this month!

Barakat’s Interim Executive Director, Lyla Hardesty, left for Pakistan on Wednesday to do program assessment on Barakat’s 4 schools in Attock. Punjab province.   These schools, the earliest of which dates back to 1994 and altogether educate 800 students and include an evening school especially for girls. Additionally, these schools sport such facilities as a lending library, computer lab and qualified teachers educated at either the University of Punjab or Allama Iqbal Open University. All of these programs are administered through the local subsidiary organization, Barakat Pakistan.

Lyla’s visit will allow her to see the progress of these programs firsthand, as well as to understand what needs still need to be met. Barakat’s programs in Pakistan began to educate Turkmen refugees from Afghanistan who had significant trouble getting educated because of linguistic barriers. Throughout her three-week long journey, Lyla will be sending us descriptions of her adventures and we’ll be posting them right here! Stay tuned for stories and photos straight from Pakistan!

Soap Operas in Afghanistan: New Ground for Social Change?

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Photo Source: Life Magazine, November 2009

According to a recent article by the New York Times, all the world’s a stage in Kabul, Afghanistan. Or at least it’s becoming more so as a new entertainment industry is crafted to broadcast alongside the widely viewed sector of Indian soap operas.  The profiles of female characters featured in Afghan soap operas are some of the most telling descriptions of life for women in Afghanistan today. While Afghan soap operas attempt to hold a mirror to the difficulties of life in Afghanistan, especially for women and children,  the dangers that female actors face stall the progress that could result. Female actors face death threats from people that they don’t know, but the more immediate concern is disapproval and violence from their husbands or male relatives. Elizabeth Rubin, the article’s writer claims that many women who dare to act on tv shows face disowning from their own families or claims that they have tarnished their own or their families’ honor. The persevere however, often acting in secret or in spite of their families’ wishes.

We might think of an extensive entertainment industry as extravagant, especially in a country where people whose houses don’t have windows or running water have televisions and avid soap opera viewers.  This, however, is just not true. We have learned from the explosive Bollywood film industry that movies and tv shows  provide great perspective into the cultural values of other countries and command audiences of hundreds of thousands daily. In a country like Afghanistan where women’s rights  are notoriously disrespected and abuses to these rights go under-reported, exposure to social issues through a nationally broadcasted lens might be one of the healthiest antidotes to the problem.  Like women who decide to run for office, female television stars lead their generation in voicing these issues, though often posing a danger to themselves. The women featured in Rubin’s article use their stardom and the income from their acting to advance other careers. Afghan soap stars by day are also teachers, police officers and mothers.

At first it might be strange to think that social change is being headed by the Afghan entertainment industry, but Rubin’s article shows that this could be a platform for social change unexplored by progressives in Afghanistan.  We can’t underestimate the power that entertainment channels have over our social climate — hopefully intense social conservatism won’t stifle this platform before it has a chance to blossom.

Have a thought to add? Feel free to comment below! Don’t forget to tweet us your thoughts @barakatinc!