QUETTA: A 22-year-old Afghan refugee girl in Pakistan, Mahbooba has regularly struggled to continue her schooling while helping to provide for her family.
In Afghanistan, ongoing violence and insecurity have driven millions of Afghans to leave their homes in search of safety for over 40 years. Today, some 4.6 million Afghans still live outside their country, including 2.7 million registered refugees, mainly in Pakistan and Iran.
About 1.4m Afghan refugees are hosted by Pakistan. Mahbooba Afghan and her relatives, who reside in Quetta, are among them. While Afghan refugees in Pakistan have access to education, financial constraints and prevailing cultural norms may discourage school attendance by refugee children.
“Mahbooba says, narrating the ordeal of her family: “It has been 30 years, but my parents still share the stories of the most risky experience of their lives. They had chosen to leave their home in Baghlan in the north-west of Afghanistan because of incessant military violence and bombings. Under immense terror, they marched for days to take shelter in Balochistan, Pakistan. It was freezing, and to stay warm, they did not have proper clothing. The leftover food given to them by the mosques they passed on their journey allowed them to survive. They were still hungry.
Despite odds, Mahbooba has obtained an education and set up a school in her home
Mahbooba continues: “Here in Pakistan, our family has found safety, but we have faced many challenges.” When my father was paralysed in a crash, I was 12 years old and in Grade 4. He was the only breadwinner for our household. I starting doing everything and everything I could to help support our families, along with my mother and siblings. We were able to make it together to get by, never crying for support.
“I began tutoring younger students when I was in Grade 7. Until about noon every day, I will mentor them and then get my school bag to run to school. I hardly even had a chance to wash my face most of the time. In order to conserve time, I have missed meals. I was normally late for school and with these efforts. To be disciplined and reprimanded for my lateness was always disheartening, but I couldn’t give up. I helped my mother do tailoring and embroidery work at night.
It was worth it in spite of these difficulties. Training is one of the fundamental and basic needs of life. Training helps one to sense life’s purpose. It is the sole cause of illumination and self-development. I’m proud that the informal school that I set up in my family home is now a place for about 50 Afghan kids to study. In my school, there are 32 girls and 12 boys currently enrolled. I was so pleased when the Afghan Consulate approved the programme, as it means that the academic credentials of my students are not only acknowledged but issued by the Afghan government.
Education is a gift, as I tell my young students, and every human being has the duty of discovering this treasure. It is education that made it possible for me to support my family and friends. Individually and together, without schooling, we will not succeed.
Mahbooba says she is now admitted to the University of Balochistan, where she will obtain a Bachelor of Public Administration degree. Based on the situation with Covid-19, her classes will resume this month. She predicts that more young Afghans will be able to pursue their studies in the future.
Where I live, because of poverty, many children are deprived of education,” she says. I saw for myself that some families were hesitant to encourage their sons to attend my school because, by working peculiar jobs, these little boys pulled in a bit of money each day. Considering the social stereotypes associated with women and children, it was much harder to persuade certain parents to enrol their daughters in college. There has been some progress since, but the reform process is still long.
She says of the chances of her moving to Afghanistan: “Since I was a child, I have been listening to news of the ongoing war in Afghanistan.” Yet, my mouth tastes tasty with the word ‘Kabul’. Like any other Afghan living outside the region, I am desperate to visit my homeland. The fact that law and order have never been restored there is disappointing. This discourages us from returning. Young Afghans around the world are talented and have a lot of promise, but once there is stability and stability, they will not return to Afghanistan and benefit from it.
My family and I are lucky that here in Pakistan we have sought shelter, but as refugees, we have more than just basic needs. We also have other wishes. In terms of work opportunities, music and the arts, we long to share in the communal life of the communities in which we live. Without fear, we want to fly. We have our gifts, but insecurity doesn’t encourage society to profit from us.
I want to say to the world: we have been compelled to leave our homes and have trusted you to help ensure our protection and freedom, love and care for refugees.
In Quetta, Mahbooba is a UNHCR outreach volunteer. Volunteers from Outreach support the UNHCR and its agencies to connect and exchange information with refugees. They also aid refugees in accessing the resources provided in their areas and play an important role in finding especially needy refugees in need of additional assistance. Today, the UNHCR operates in Pakistan with an estimated 1,400 outreach volunteers. Their figures keep on rising slowly.