Hope & Education by Aaron Beswick, Truro Bureau, The Chronicle Herald October 20, 2012


Maliha Hussaini is one of four Afghan teachers who talked about the future of her country while doing workshops at St. Francis Xavier University’s Coady Institute in Antigonish. The teachers were in Nova Scotia this week for the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan symposium held in Pictou. (AARON BESWICK / Truro Bureau)MALIHA HUSSAINI smiled as if consoling a despondent child.

“Of course, there’s hope. If there is no hope, there is no life”.

Hope is a word thrown around casually in this country, where there’s plenty of it.

But on Wednesday, as undergrads with the easy smiles of those bearing great expectations moved through the golden leaves falling on St. Francis Xavier University’s Coady Institute, inside a classroom, four veteran Afghan teachers shared their experiences of hope and education.

In Nova Scotia with organizer Soriya Basir of the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan for the organization’s annual symposium at Pictou Lodge, they will spend 18 days here doing workshops before returning to continue training the next generation of Afghan teachers.

Speaking through an interpreter, they told of how hope and education are inseparable for the new generation of Afghans with three decades of war’s terrors at their backs and an uncertain road before them.

“That was when Kabul was Kabul,” remembered Hussaini.

Born in 1965, Hussaini remembers a prewar Afghanistan where the smells of tea and roasting lamb mixed with the sounds of open political debate and music in the streets of her country’s capital.

Each morning, she would rise, point a mat toward Mecca and pray with her bureaucrat father, drink the sweet tea made by her mother and soak in the sights and sounds of old Kabul as her grandfather walked her to school.

But as she grew from child to woman, the long reign of king Mohammed Zahir Shah, who had amended the constitution to allow competing political parties and supported women’s education, was coming to an end.

The jagged peaks of the mountains that had long been Afghanistan’s teeth against foreign invaders could no longer protect the old trading capital of Kabul from the swirl of political and conservative religious ideologies unleashed by the Cold War.

“When I was young, I wanted a calm life,” said Hussaini. “I wanted to spend my energy helping people so they could have an easy life.”

But coup followed coup as first an attempt to turn Afghanistan into a modern republic failed, then a communist party took power and invited in the troops of the former Soviet Union.

“In these times, hope is rare. You cannot plan, you do not know what will happen the next day, so you work and you go home and if there’s electricity you may watch some television before going to bed,” said Hussaini.

Studying international relations at university in Kabul, Hussaini was kicked out of a course during an oral exam for not knowing enough about the communist ideology of Vladimir Lenin, who had died decades before she was born and thousands of kilometres away.

As she remembered the story, she smiled and shook her head.

“Life didn’t change much in Kabul at first. But in the countryside, everything was changing.”

First came the tribal mujahedeen fighters who chased the Soviet Union from the country, then the Taliban and their version of conservative Islamic ideology emanating from countries like Saudi Arabia took power.

With a blanket wrapped over her shoulders and a chill Nova Scotia fall outside, Salima Sikandari said, through it all, the desire to learn has survived.

“My house was hit by rockets and yet girls came from all over the community for English-language courses,” said Sikandari.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, their reign of terror could not stem the desire to teach or learn.

Sikandari told of how women would gather in homes pretending to sew but actually learning to read. Teachers, she said, were whipped in the streets or killed.

“Seventy-five per cent of the families that escaped to Pakistan and Iran went so their children could get educations,” said Sikandari.

“When the Taliban left, even in provinces without government support, teachers returned to burned-out schools to teach again.”

Hussaini’s family escaped to Peshawar, Pakistan, where she taught refugee children for a decade.

“I missed Kabul every minute,” said Hussaini. “Like for you with Canada. It was my place — where I belonged.”

With the Allied invasion in 2001 and the displacement of the Taliban, teachers like the four in Antigonish began rebuilding the education infrastructure of their country.

With tribal, government and Taliban forces still competing, Abdul Satta Bahadori said education and the hopes of youth for opportunity are the strongest bet in a time of uncertainty.

“The government began negotiating with the Taliban about a role for them in the government and the youth protested in the streets just recently because they don’t want any role for the Taliban; they don’t want to go back,” said Bahadori.

“Here, such a protest is not such a big deal. But in Afghanistan, it takes a lot of courage.”

While the desire to learn and earn jobs rebuilding their country are powerful forces, what remains to be seen is whether the central government can control the extensive country or whether tribal fighting will reign.

“If I could ask one thing, if it were not too much,” said Bahadori, “it would be that your troops stay until after the 2014 elections so that the government can consolidate power.”

In the meantime, Bahadori, Hussaini, Sikandari and Nasreen Tokhi will return to train teachers to go to schools filled with children but short on books.

“Can you live without hope?” Hussaini said when asked about the future of her country.