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How Afghan students in Delhi forge a path to education

January 17, 2024
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Afghanistan, #India, #refugees, #education, #child rights
located:India, Afghanistan
by:Shoaib Mir, Parthu Venkatesh P
"This basement is their only hope."

After Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, thousands of people fled the war-torn country. Like many others, Rehmatullah,13, a young Afghan boy, and his family landed in India's capital, New Delhi, seeking refuge and hoping to start a new life. 

The initial months in Delhi were challenging for Rehmatullah and his two siblings. Adapting to a different culture and coping with the harsh weather, which can reach up to 50°C in peak summer, required some effort.

Soon, however, Rehmatullah's father learned about Anjam Knowledge House through an acquaintance, a community school run by and for Afghan refugees in the heart of a bustling street in New Delhi.  

"I did not sleep that night out of excitement when my father told me that I will be enrolled in a school with kids from Afghanistan," said Rehmatullah, who wishes to become a Police officer, with a bright smile on his face.

"Most kids my age don't like school, but in my case, it's the opposite," he added. "Every day, I look forward to attending the school as it is the only happy place I know since I came to this country."

Beacon of Hope for a Better Future

The school is situated within a two-room basement in New Delhi's Bhogal district with no windows for fresh ventilation and natural light. Before the Covid pandemic, the school had over 600 students and 16 teachers, but enrollment rapidly declined afterward.

Currently, the school has around 350 students, with the majority being female.

With limited space to accommodate all students, the school runs from 6:00am to 11:00pm, with students attending in shifts. 

During FairPlanet's visit, a group of students were chit-chatting on the stairs leading to the basement, while Anjum Khan, 29, the school's founder, organised chairs for an upcoming class. Before coming to India, Khan worked as a tutor in Afghanistan. 

"I came to India from Afghanistan in 2017, and noticed Afghan children struggling with the language and financial problems to continue their education in India," Khan told FairPlanet.

"That was when I thought it was high time to serve my community. I decided to open a community school dedicated to my people, where all subjects are taught in our native language, Pashto."

He added, "As it was impossible for us to understand and communicate in Hindi and English, teaching children in their mother tongue really helped. Since then, this place has catered to hundreds of young and old students, and with each passing student out of this school my heart finds contentment."  

KEEPing THE SCHOOL open: an ONGOING battle

According to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report, more than 15,000 Afghan refugees are settled in India. 

After the fall of Kabul in 2021, India received more than 1,000 Afghan nationals seeking shelter. As the number kept growing, the country issued a distinct class of emergency visas for Afghan citizens.

But the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act by the Indian government in 2019 has made conditions difficult for Muslim Afghan refugees living in India. 

According to this law, Muslim asylum seekers cannot apply for citizenship in India; only non-Muslim refugees are eligible.

Back at Anjam Knowledge House, soon after class, Anjum Khan quickly makes a cup of tea before the next batch of students arrives.

Sipping tea with freshly made local bread, Khan said, "I want my students to focus mainly on learning computer, science and English, which are in demand and will help them to fetch a decent job in future. 

"But teaching hundreds of students on a single computer is very difficult and ineffective. I sometimes feel heartbroken about how students here have to wait in queues to do their tasks on a single computer. Still, I ensure everyone gets a chance."

Afghan refugees and nationals have been relocating and settling in India since the onset of the Soviet war. Most of them are based in the nation's capital and run small establishments, primarily food joints, to make a living. Facing insufficient earnings, many find it challenging to cover their children's education expenses.

But Aghans are not the only ones struggling; all refugees in India  are denied basic rights granted by the United Nations, as India has not endorsed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. 

For Khan, managing and running this school without funding or assistance remains a significant challenge. In order to support the school, he took a job at a local restaurant in addition to teaching. 

"I don't work for my income, but for these children," he said. "Soon after the classes, I wash dishes at a restaurant to earn a few bucks to support the school. Most students here have free education, and only those who can afford pay. All that money is used for the rent of this basement, paying teachers and other bills."

He added, "I also tried contacting the local government to support the school, but got no response. Despite all the struggle, I can't let this place shut, as hundreds of young buds enrolled here have their dreams attached to this place. This basement is their only hope." 

Last year, the Taliban circulated a letter to all private and government universities in Afghanistan issued by the minister for higher education, ordering an unspecified ban on university education for women. The decision was condemned worldwide and caused distress among women in the country. 

According to a study conducted in 2022 by UNICEF and Save the Children, most secondary school-aged girls, about 850,000 of 1.1 million in Afghanistan, have not been attending school since the ban by the Taliban. 

Determination in the face of struggles

The blanket ban on girls' education in Afghanistan has left Adiba Azizi, a 25-year-old student and teacher at the Anjam Knowledge House, anxious and heartbroken. In the small alley outside the classroom, she spoke to a group of girls about the importance of education to attain their goals. 

"In 2020, when I came to India, there seemed no hope for my future, but when I came to this school and saw these students studying, especially females, with such dedication despite challenging conditions, it brought my morale back," said Azizi, who wants to become an independent businesswoman in the near future. 

"I teach Islamic studies here and join other students during the English class to learn the language."

"I sometimes feel stressed for my friends left behind in Afghanistan," she went on, "but the only thing I can do for them is to pray for their bright future. After every class, I take a brief informal class where I remind students to hold onto their dreams and remind them how long we have come in search of a brighter and better future."

Anjam Khan and the teachers ensure the students at the school are taught subjects that would help them land a job. He also encourages them not to concentrate on education exclusively, and incorporates sports and other activities into the curriculum as well. 

For 13-year-old Sahil, Sunday is nothing short of a festival: it is when Anjam Knowledge House students attend a local playground to play various sports. 

"I wait all week for Saturday. It is when I play my favourite sport, football, along with my friends," said Sahil while scribbling his sister's name on paper. 

"Though we don't have enough playing equipment, we still make full use of the one we have, and somehow it has made us thankful for all the little blessings I have in life."

He added, "Constantly, I have been working hard for my two dreams. One is to play professional football and represent my country Afghanistan on an international platform when I grow up. The second is to become a lawyer."

Image by Shoaib Mir.

Article written by:
Shoaib Mir
Parthu-Venkatesh-P (1)
Parthu Venkatesh P
India Afghanistan
Students attend class at Anjam Knowledge House in New Delhi, India.
© Shoaib Mir/FairPlanet
Students attend class at Anjam Knowledge House in New Delhi, India.
Embed from Getty Images
The school is situated within a two-room basement in New Delhi's Bhogal district with no windows for fresh ventilation and natural light.