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A teacher and her students at a JRS English class in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. (Fr Orville Desilva SJ/Jesuit Refugee Service)

Kabul, 27 November 2017 – As I held a discussion in the class of around 20 English students, their teacher suddenly hurried out of the room, overcome with emotion. I felt that I must have said something wrong, so I sought her out after the session had ended. Tears continued to roll down her cheeks as she explained to me that these were tears, not of shame or sadness, but of joy.  

Fatima* told me she had never thought life could provide the kind of happiness that she was now experiencing and she was just thankful to God and to JRS for giving her the opportunities she now had.  

Fatima is a “returnee,” one of almost 400,000 former refugees who returned to Afghanistan in 2016 alone, while almost 2 million people remained displaced within the country. Her story, and those of other returnees, are seldom told in the midst of European and other countries’ preoccupation with people seeking to enter their territories in order to find some kind of safety and normality.

JRS currently provides English tuition to close to 2,000 students in four provinces in Afghanistan. It also provides classes that prepare secondary school students – those who have missed significant years of schooling through displacement – with extra classes to help them prepare for their university entrance exam or KONKUR. There are short courses in IT and supplementary classes for teachers being trained in the government system, as well as opportunities for some students to further their tertiary studies by taking up scholarships to study in India, offered in conjunction with the Indian government. It lastly supports Jesuit Worldwide Learning (JWL) to enable some of these students to study towards a Diploma of Liberal Arts, with concentrations in social science, teaching, and business management/ entrepreneurship.

The project sites are carefully chosen and must have the full and practical support of local communities and, particularly, parents. Students are questioned and assessed for motivation. The English and Diploma students agree to teach English courses before and after the school day in selected secondary and primary schools, thus building a “multiplier effect” within the community, English being a commercial language in Afghanistan and the chief linguistic link with the outside world.  

In some camps for the Internally Displaced (IDPs) there are also literacy courses offered in Dari, the lingua franca of the country, to girls who cannot go to regular schools for fear for their safety. A few metres away, a well has been sunk and a tank and protective housing for the pump built to ensure potable water and lessen reliance on water purchases from tankers that currently form the main water supply.

The courses are run with the support of the government of Afghanistan who, with the help of other countries, and in the face of ongoing security issues, is putting significant effort into rebuilding the country and its society, officially comprising at least 14 recognized ethnic groups. Projects such as the JRS education project enable some returnees to develop a future orientation that both increases opportunities for their employment and allows the possibility of their making a positive contribution to the post conflict society that is emerging. In doing this it also serves to rebuild communities from the ground up and importantly ensures there is a strengthened educational infrastructure in place long after the withdrawal of JRS, and other NGOs.

This all combines to represent a significant source of hope for many families, most of whose recent history has entailed years spent in exile, either in Iran, Pakistan or within Afghanistan itself.  

Two students spoke to me of their desire to begin a business exporting almonds and other nuts for which Afghanistan is famous. Many spoke to me of the isolation they felt in the conflict-ridden country and their desire to connect and work alongside people of other nations and cultures, a necessity in the land -locked country. They spoke of their desire to demonstrate a more positive, less fearful image of their religion, Islam, to “the west”.  

Within all these aspirations lies the overwhelming desire for peace. JRS and JWL courses help equip their participants with some of the tools and skills needed both to live within the constraints of their current situation and to continue to navigate the peace required to nurture hope and usher a better tomorrow.

 – Fr David Holdcroft SJ, JRS International Higher Education Specialist  

*All names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals

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