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Look At This

A Girl
Can Dream

But in Afghanistan, can dreams become reality?

By Rebecca Hersher
Photos by David Gilkey

put on your headphones

Will Afghanistan
Have Them?

A closer look at the lives of kids inside Tanweer School

Tanweer School is a private K-12 school in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Kabul. Photographer David Gilkey and I spent two days there — after a three-week embedment with Afghan special forces.

The education system in Afghanistan is as large and diverse as the country itself. Rural schools have little in common with urban ones, and reliable data about teachers, students and money spent are hard to come by.

So I can’t tell you what being a student in Afghanistan is like, but I can introduce you to some kids at this school.

The first thing I noticed during our two days there was a picture you never would have seen under the Taliban: girls walking to school. Most of them walk to school in groups.

(Note the Hannah Montana backpack.)

Hadia Durani (center), 15, tells me what that commute is like. “Boys and men call us names,” she says. “They tell us to go back home, that we shouldn’t be going to school.”

“I feel safer in a group.”

Her friend, Layli, isn’t so sure group protection is enough. “I just want to punch them in the face,” she says.

Each morning, all 600 students at Tanweer School line up in the courtyard. The high school students lead everyone in a morning meeting. They pray together for peace and sing the Afghan national anthem.

The younger kids study in coed classes.

And eat together.

By middle school, boys and girls are separated by gender.

Once they reach that age, some parents don’t want their daughters around boys at all. The school’s founder, Haji Naseer Ahmad, says many parents withdraw their teenage girls from Tanweer and enroll them in all-girl schools.

Ahmad founded Tanweer because this neighborhood, like many, didn’t have a public school. He built it with the money he made as a used car salesman. About 85 students are on full scholarships — like this little boy.

The girls here have already gone further in their education than most of their mothers ever did. They all say they feel a duty to use their knowledge to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Somaya Rachmanzai (center), 15, says her mother has told stories about life back during the Russian invasion and then under the Taliban, when even learning to read was far from guaranteed. Now, more than a decade after the fall of the Taliban regime, literacy is far more attainable for girls.

Somaya wants to be a brain surgeon. Yet according to UNICEF, more than half of girls in Afghanistan are married before they’re 19. Most don’t continue their schooling after marriage.

Muhammad Akmal Jalali (left) also wants to be a doctor, and he has a better chance. He and his best friend, Muhammad Mustafa Sediqi, are 17 and high school juniors. Jalali is class president.

The older boys are leaders in the school. They help the younger kids find their classrooms, and they keep the schoolyard under control during recess. Like the girls, they believe they have a duty to bring peace to Afghanistan.

This school — its classrooms and library and sunny courtyard — is a kind of oasis from a city where violence is still all too commonplace.

In here, at least, there is a feeling that maybe the peace these students have vowed to work toward might be possible.

In here, Afghanistan’s future seems if not bright, then at least within the control of a new, hopeful generation of young people. Hadia hopes to personally lead a peaceful Afghanistan in the future. “I want to become president,” she tells me.

According to recent Afghan government estimates, only one college slot exists for every five students who want to go.

It will be very difficult for Hadia to achieve her dream, or even to make it through her next immediate challenge: college. ∎