Meet Our Newest Staff Member

‘Helping communities shape their own future,’ Barakat’s slogan is core to our mission, with this we believe in respecting social norms. All of our schools and literacy courses in Afghanistan and Pakistan are run by local staff. Understanding the culture in the areas we work in is an important part of our mission.

Recently, Barakat decided to add a new position to our staff, an Overseas Program Director, in an effort to further improve our programs. Please join us in welcoming our newest staff member, Zuhra Abhar. Zuhra, a dual citizen of Afghanistan and US, joined us this month and will be based in our Afghanistan office.

Zuhra, who is fluent in both Dari and Pashto, was born in Afghanistan where she attended school until the sixth grade. At this point the Taliban took over the country and banned girls from receiving and education. As a result, Zuhra was forced to continue her education at home under the guidance of her father. When she and her family moved to the United States in 2001, Zuhra had not been enrolled in a formal school for four years. Still, she made the jump, joining the tenth grade at a high school in Boston.

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More recently, Zuhra graduated from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University with a Dual Master of Arts in Sustainable International Development and Coexistence and Conflict Resolution. Zuhra previously obtained her undergraduate degree in International Relations and Sociology from Regis College in 2008.

In addition to her education, Zuhra has extensive field experience regarding education issues and women’s rights in both Afghanistan and Boston. Last year, as a member of the Mercy Corps, Zuhra worked as a research assistant in Afghanistan, designing and implementing capacity-building programs for women in Kabul.

“An estimated 90% of women and 63% of men in rural areas of Afghanistan, where the majority of the population lives, are illiterate. Having higher literacy rates in Afghanistan will contribute to the eradication of poverty, improvement of the health system—particularly in terms of reproductive health and child mortality—and the ability of Afghans to enjoy a peaceful and democratic society,” stated Zuhra.

We look forward to this new phase at Barakat. We are certain that Zuhra will bring many positive changes to our programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “ I believe that Zuhra is the perfect candidate for the position of Overseas Program Director for Barakat Inc. She has the educational training and experience to enhance our existing capacity building measures for Barakat’s local staff in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and she also possesses a natural, ingrown cultural sense of ease for working in these countries, where she herself has deep roots and a sense of belonging,” stated Dr. Arti Pandey, Barakat’s Director of Programs.

Again, a warm welcome to Zuhra, our newest staff member!


An Afghan Refugee Family in Pakistan

Monday, June 20th marked the eleventh annual World Refugee Day, which was created in December of 2000 by the United Nations General Assembly as a means to raise global awareness about issues such as forced displacement and statelessness.

Barakat’s schools and programs in Pakistan have worked with thousands of Afghan refugees over the years. Many of our beneficiaries have been refugees for over three decades, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Others were driven from their homes after the Taliban came to power in 1996, or in the last decade when the security condition in Afghanistan began to deteriorate once again.

An elderly man with a long, flowing, white beard, Eid Mohammad, along his wife Oghlaqa, speaks poignantly about fleeing Afghanistan two decades ago. They migrated to Pakistan in 1990 after Eid Mohammad had to spend five months in an Afghan prison for resisting the draft into the Afghan army to fight the mujahidin. Previously, a farmer in a small village of Jowzjan province in Northern Afghanistan, Eid Mohammad did not want to join the army. The couple, along with their six children, reached a refugee camp in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. “I did not know any one there. I did not do anything in the beginning. I looked after my goats and sheep,” says Eid Mohammad. Oghlaqa adds that she “started weaving carpets to earn (money).”

Eid Mohammad and Oghlaqa arrived in Pakistan with six children; now they have nine. Both illiterate themselves, Eid Mohammad and Oghlaqa recognize the important role education can play in their children’s lives. “They can support their family and understand the world easily if they are educated. My eldest son is supporting his family and us just because he got an education in one of the Barakat schools, and is respected by his peers and relatives,” says Eid Mohammad. Looking back on their own childhood in their village, both parents concur. “In Afghanistan, getting an education was not very common, and our parents did not allow us to study.”

altOf their two sons, the elder one was able to graduate from Barakat’s Ersari Elementary School, and as a result has a well-paying job as a storekeeper in Afghanistan. The younger one had to be pulled out of school when the family was struggling financially. He was put to work as a manual laborer and continues to be employed as such to-date.

While their five elder daughters were married off, the youngest two avail of Barakat’s Evening School for Girls, while also contributing to the family income by weaving carpets along with their mother in the daytime. As much as Eid Mohammad and Oghlaqa would like to be able to send all of their children to school, they are constrained by their economic situation – in the case of both their boys and girls. When asked about their perception of the importance of education for girls, they agreed, “Yes, it’s very important, but it depends on the financial condition of the family. We are refugees and we have to face a lot of hardships to spend our lives and to fulfill our needs, we have no other option (but) to engage our daughters in weaving carpets, but it is our wish that girls should complete their studies at least to the 10th grade.”

Indeed, for many refugees around the world, education is a right that goes unfulfilled, as they spend much of their time and energy seeking out more basic necessities such as food and shelter. International organizations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) seek to provide assistance to refugees in these areas. However, there are many thousands who fall through the cracks and would not have any assistance if it were not for smaller NGOs like Barakat. Mohammad bemoaned the lack of support from both the Afghan and Pakistani governments, “Both governments play no role in giving benefits to refugees. They can do it if they are serious about but it doesn’t happen. There are no international organizations in Attock. Only Barakat is providing quality education here.”

 

 


Harnessing Local Community Support for Education

Over the last three years Barakat has been navigating a course that takes us away from a single donor model towards a multi-faceted donor base composed of individuals and organizations committed to our cause and to our grassroots approach. Making this transition during economically troubled times has been challenging for us; but it has also given us an opportunity to welcome the support of old friends, who have stood by Barakat’s endeavours to promote female education in their own community.

One such person is Mohammad Abdullah, a young Afghan refugee in Pakistan, who has seen Barakat’s work grow from one school in 1994 to its current outreach of over 3000 beneficiaries. Mohammad is now established in his own right as a carpet businessman – he is both well to-do and committed to Barakat’s mission, with the understanding that it plays a crucial role in the welfare of his people:“My personal view is that the education of children, male and female, is important and imperative for the future of our country and its welfare. In the rural areas (of Afghanistan) cultural tradition is a nearly unbreakable barrier that prevents ideas and change from developing and evolving with

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the momentum that would be hoped for. However inroads are being made, and given a chance, when uneducated people who have wisdom in their hearts and beings realise that the future of their families,communities and nation will grow stronger when all children have a chance for education. The proud Afghan Turkmen traditions can still be kept, but with the light of education to shine throughout them.”

With this motivation guiding his hand, Mohammad Abdullah met with Barakat Pakistan staff and offered his help, which was welcomed and accepted in the form of a new electrical generator for Ersari Elementary School. Barakat Pakistan Evening Schools for Girls run year-round, even through the hot summer months when temperatures go up to more than 100 F habitually, and power cuts become routine.

In the developed world, there is an emphasis on students coming to school ‘ready to learn’ and on the school being able to provide the inputs necessary to create the best possible learning environment. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Barakat works, we also strive to meet both aspects of this equation. Students, especially girls, often struggle to make school a part of their ‘daily routine’ – what with the many other requirements on their time and person at home. At the other end, Barakat schools also aim to create a healthy learning environment where students feel comfortable and well equipped to concentrate in school. A generator goes a long way in ensuring just that!

Realizing this fact, Mohammad Abdullah said of his donation, “Every penny counts. I am aware and have been aware, that there are some families who are unable to afford even one dollar for school, as well as there being inadequate supplies available. Whatever I have given hopefully has furthered the aims of helping our children.”

Barakat’s work among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan is now well accepted among our beneficiary community and demand for our services continues to grow. From being a community of first-generation learners, the Afghan refugees are now passing on this ‘culture of learning’ to their children. Mohammad Abdullah’s sons and daughters go to school and he re-iterates that, “Education is both important and necessary for the advancement of our society, which is made up of individuals. As a parent I would only want the very best for my children and their future lives. Is this not the desire of parents everywhere And for them, inshallah, I can give them the gift of education.”

This commitment towards education for all is what we aim to achieve through our programs; our community of beneficiaries is becoming active in demanding the best possible education for its boys and girls, while also taking ownership of Barakat’s programs and sharing our concerns and costs.


The Challenges of Educating Afghan Women

Barakat’s mission of reaching out to girls and women in some of the most conservative communities in the world, and the most hard-to-reach places, challenges us daily. Even as we tailor our educational programs to invite the highest level of female participation possible, we struggle with setbacks like the ones typified by two students at our higher level literacy courses (Sewad Hayati courses) in Faryab province of Afghanistan.

Both girls, Fareeda, 24 and Mozain, 18, dropped out after the 4th grade because their marriages had been arranged. You, as the reader, are probably wondering why these 4th grade students are so much older than is the norm in this country. What Barakat finds in Afghanistan is that students, especially girls, are often much older than the typical age for their grade level. Not only did the Taliban years cast a long shadow over the education of girls, but the customs and culture of the communities in which we work have also always been at odds with education for girls.

To date, parents are often reluctant to send their girls to school; only when parents feel confident that the educational setting is one that is being accepted by the community as a whole, and doesn’t make them stand out as belonging to the one, singular house where girls are getting an education, will they be willing to allow their daughters to attend school. Therefore, any educational program that succeeds in enlisting girls as students, and in getting their parents’ consent, must make special provisions for female students.

altBarakat’s higher level literacy courses have only female teachers and students, and are conducted in safe and accessible neighborhood locations. These courses provide an education from 4th to 9th grade, following up on the intensive lower level literacy courses which provide basic literacy and numeracy skills equivalent to a 3rd grade education. Barakat also gathers community support by approaching community leaders as well as the local mullah, or religious leader, prior to opening the program.

However, despite these attempts on our part, many girls are forced to end their education abruptly when they get married. Continued education for these married women is a moot point – it is no longer a possibility when the girl has entered into her in-laws’/husband’s household. The duties incumbent upon a young married girl are time-consuming and furthermore, she is expected to remain modestly within the women’s quarters of the house – not venturing out to get an education.

 

A young married girl in a new house – meeting her husband for the first time – is looked upon as a welcome addition to the women’s quarters and indeed to the household. Her time is occupied with household chores, taking care of the extended family, and adding to it by having children over the course of her fertile years. Marriage is an extremely important milestone for women; unmarried, single women are pitied, for the large part. Marriage is considered the most desired and socially acceptable course of action that a family can take for their daughter’s well-being.

So, what Barakat faces then, is a perfect storm of societal conditions that work to actively prohibit women’s education. Compounding these is the fact that the entire concept of ‘education for females’ is a relatively new idea to the communities we work with. This is because Barakat works primarily with first-generation learners who have yet to cultivate a ‘culture of learning’ within their families and generate a tradition of passing on this culture from parent to child.

In the face of these challenges, Barakat strives to provide an education for females which will allow for greater space and latitude in defining the role of women in Afghan society – where families can see neither shame nor a contradiction in allowing both married and unmarried girls to continue their education.

Consequently, Barakat’s programs are designed to cater to the needs of a society coming to terms with the proposition of female education and the change that it would engender. Our programs for girls and women’s education form a ladder for them to scale – from lower to higher level literacy courses, to separate classes for girls in our formal schools, and scholarships for female Barakat school graduates to continue studying.

Even as Barakat continues its struggle for female education, we find partners in some of the men in the communities that we work with. Mohammad Naim, who encourages his wife Hajera, 20, to continue her education, says, “All the problems that we had were due to illiteracy. Other countries are developed because they have literate people and have great lives. Therefore I support my wife to continue her education to have a great and prosperous future and to help her people and community.” Hajera is now in the 8th grade at Barakat’s higher level literacy courses.

Support exists for the younger generations as well. Sayed Mohammad strongly approves of his daughter Mahr-u-Nisa’s education. Mahr is also in the same grade as Hajera. “I will support my daughter’s education until the end of my life,” declared Sayed.

Both Naim and Sayed stand strong in their beliefs, often against the opposing force of public opinion. “If she wants to get married I will tell her in-laws to let her continue her education,” says Sayed.

For his part, Naim has already weathered the storm of criticism. “People tried to make me not let my wife continue her education. But I stood against them and told them about the importance of literacy.”

Barakat programs provide a platform and a way forward for men such as Naim and Sayed as well as for their female counterparts, Hajera and Mehr-u-Nisa, who together form the face of a changing Afghanistan.