Barakat’s Newest Team Member Tours Schools

For years, Zuhra Abar was schooled by her father in her home in Afghanistan. Because of the Taliban’s strict rules regarding women, Zuhra was not allowed to go to school. In 2001, her family came to the United States, and Zuhra jumped right into a Boston high school, continuing on to get her bachelor’s and then master’s degrees.

This month, Zuhra went back to Afghanistan in a new capacity—as Barakat’s newest team member. Years after she left as a young girl who was denied the right to education in her native country, she returns to help women and children gain access to that same fundamental right.

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As Barakat’s new Overseas Program Director, Zhura is responsible for managing programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Zuhra visited our Women’s Literacy Programs in Afghanistan and spoke with students. The literacy programs provide access to education for women who are unable to attend school for cultural or religious reasons. Sometimes the conversations that Zuhra had with our students reminded her of her own history. “I was so connected to students. When they shared their problems—that their families do not allow them to continue their education—I remembered when… I wanted to go to school and the Taliban would not allow me. I felt their concern and pain.” She spoke of a conversation she had with one young girl in particular.

“I asked her why she wasn’t going to regular school – she said, ‘My family doesn’t allow me to go to school. That is why I decided to study in the literacy course located at one of our neighboring houses.’”

This girl, and girls like her, is a big part of the reason that Zuhra went back to Afghanistan in the first place. “Returning back to Afghanistan made me really happy,” she says. “One of my aims was to return to my home country and help women and girls.”

Zuhra had a different—but equally touching—experience at our schools in the Faryab province of Afghanistan. “The children looked so happy, so smart, and they try their best to learn.” She took a tour of the buildings and was impressed by the environment, calling it “great”. She also spent time with the kids. “At first they were shy, but after a few minutes I couldn’t stop them [from talking].”

Zhura will be stationed out of our Kabul office. She is happy there, although she is not used to how slow life moves there. “Even the internet is slow,” she says. She is, however, happy in her new job and in her new home. “Barakat does so much with so little money—I am proud to be part of such an organization.”


A New School Bus for Schools in Pakistan

The yellow school bus is an essential symbol of heading back to school. For students studying in Barakat’s schools in the Attock region of Pakistan, the school bus is more than a symbol– it’s their access to the programs that can change their lives. 

On September 15th, Landry & Acari Oriental Rugs and Carpeting, along with New England Home magazine, auctioned off five beautiful rugs designed by the winners of New England Home‘s “5 under 40” competition. All the proceeds from the auction went to support Barakat’s efforts to buy a new school bus for its schools in the Attock region of Pakistan.

Read more…


Flood Refugees: Back to Normal….Almost

“There remained nothing for us in the (refugee) camp; we came to Attock with empty hands. That was really a terrible moment,” said Elio Haji and his wife as they recalled last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan. Displaced from their home of 19 years in Azakhel Refugee Camp of the Nowshera district (NWFP), this 60 year old father of two teenage sons and one daughter fled to the nearest place they knew they could find shelter: Attock district in Punjab province.? Despite being only one and half hours away by road Attock was far removed from the reality they were escaping.? Their goal was simply to reach a dry area protected from floods that was, above all, home to other Afghan refugees like themselves.

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After surviving on the charity ofstrangers and other Afghan refugees initially, the family quickly set themselves up as carpet weavers “because,” Beg Sultan (Elio Haji’s wife) said, “it is our family occupation and we don’t know other skills to earn.” The one aspect that added to the difficulty of re-starting their family occupation was that their primary income-generating asset – the family loom, which is passed down from one generation to the next – had been rendered unusable and immovable by the floods.?

Among the Afghan refugees that Barakat serves, the dominant ethnicities are Turkmen and Uzbek. Of these, the Turkmen in particular have had a culture of carpet weaving for centuries now. Even as the Turkmen have moved from one place to another and borders have been drawn and re-drawn among the different nation-states, they have carried the tradition of carpet weaving, not only for income-generation, but also for creating the primary pieces of furniture that they own. Their carpets hang on walls and lie on floors; they serve as a dining table, sleeping mats and formal sitting areas for guests. It is a tradition that is inextricably woven into their nomadic past and is continued to the present day, which remains uncertain and insecure.

Elio Haji and his family sought shelter in Attock with the intention of starting afresh in a new place, knowing full well that the Government of Pakistan was not encouraging returning refugees to Azakhel Camp since the flooding may deluge the area again in the years to come. However, having lost their loom, the family had to rent a loom from a small businessperson who was also providing them with the designs and raw materials for making the carpets. This situation limited Elio’s creativity and also caused quite a bit financial strain on the family.?

Then, early this year they heard from neighbors – flood-affectees like themselves – about Barakat’s Sustainable Livelihoods Program. This program was implemented to provide displaced families like Elio’s an opportunity to approach with a request for livelihood support in the form that would best serve them. Not surprisingly, Elio Haji and his family, like 32 other flood- displaced households in Attock, approached Barakat with a request for looms. He requested a 10-meter loom on which 3 people can weave at a time. With this commodity, their income increased and they were earning Rs. 10, 000 per month without worrying about the Rs. 500 to 800 that they used to pay for the rent of a loom.

Having received a grant from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee for implementation of the Sustainable Livelihoods Program, Barakat distributed looms to the flood-affectees in July 2011 – within a year of their move to Attock, Pakistan. Now, Elio Haji and his wife speak together about how this has made a difference to their lives:

“We had to spend money for the rent of the loom before, but now that money will be saved by us. It has helped us in starting earning for our daily expenses. Before this we were doing work on looms on payment; now we have our own loom, thanks to Allah and Barakat for helping us.”


Questioning the Status Quo

Do you still remember being in class and listening to a lecture for an hour at a time? Wasn’t it a little difficult to maintain focus? Surely you found it easier to stay engaged when a teacher incorporated games, music and other participatory techniques into the daily agenda.

Traditionally, lecturing is the style of teaching in Pakistan, even for teachers, like ours, who are trained as educators in formal Teacher Training Institutes. Students repeatedly memorize what they are taught, and fail to retain knowledge once the examination is over. At Barakat, we want to move our teachers away from this simple but ultimately counter-effective teaching/learning strategy, which focuses rigorously on memory-based examinations.

While in Afghanistan, Barakat incorporates interactive teaching methodologies as part and parcel of the annual Teacher Training for Human Rights; in Pakistan, this is the first in a series of planned teacher trainings that will lead our schools in this direction over the coming years. Furthermore, it will be supplemented by more comprehensive grading systems that include exams but are also cognizant of class participation and attendance.

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With this long-term goal in mind, Barakat ran a four-day workshop on interactive teaching/learning techniques for all teaching staff at schools in Pakistan during the month of July. Schools are closed in July for the long summer vacation, so teachers were able to congregate at Barakat Elementary School for intensive day-long sessions run by an experienced, local, female teacher trainer, Gulfam Naqvi, who has led teacher training workshops in government and private schools across Pakistan.

Trained by the Intel Teach Program and having won the award for Best Teacher in Attock District of Punjab several times, Gulfam began the process by first conducting a needs assessment with the teachers and principals who were to be her participants in order to better understand their needs, interests and area of maximum learning potential. She then tailored training agenda to meet her participants’ requirements.

“Students can learn more in a student-friendly environment, through group work and interaction – where they feel confident,” Gulfam spoke passionately about the importance of integrating question-answer based methodologies, among others, that bring teachers and students into a closer relationship.

In response, Humera Sharif, 8th grade teacher at one of our schools in Pakistan, said, “When we apply these activities like (class opening) warm-ups and action songs, it will make a huge difference and students will enjoy learning.” “It was an amazing experience which we should continue regularly to keep us updated,” added 4th grade teacher Anila Tabassum who took part in the workshop as well. The consensus among participating teachers was that these workshops will enhance their efficiency in the classroom and will “improve the classroom environment.”