Herat province has many poor families who send their young children out to work every day instead of to school. You can find girls making carpets at age five or six and young boys working the streets washing windshields and selling socks or chewing gum. They earn fifty Afghanis per day, which is enough to buy bread.
I had been working as a journalist for five years when one day I was touring the streets interviewing these children for a story. Most were afraid to talk to me, but the few who did said they didn’t go to school because they couldn’t afford school supplies. Not long after this, I began thinking that we needed to have a school for poor children and orphans.
My heart told me we should find a way to educate the children for as many as twelve years, but I knew the cost would be very high. I calculated the necessary budget to put 100 students in school at more than U.S. $1,000 per month, but my entire salary of $820 was not going to cover that. I talked about it with my family, and my father promised to help me.
I wrote a letter to the Education Department and asked for permission to establish a free private school for poor and orphaned children. It took about one year to get the school registered with the Ministry of Education, and I had to go twice to Kabul.
But finally we were registered. We rented a house to use for $100 per month and we identified twenty children, ages five and six, who wanted to attend the school.
At first, families didn’t want to register the children because they had no money for school clothes and books, so I spent all of my salary and bought materials and uniforms for all the children. We had five plastic chairs and one desk, and we purchased a rug for the students to sit on.
We found qualified teachers. All of our applicants required a salary, so we budgeted $100 per teacher per month. Finally we put up our sign on the door saying Payam-e Danesh, which means Message of Knowledge. We opened our school in March 2010.
When the school opened, some of the students didn’t know how to behave, and for others, attendance was erratic. But after a while, the teachers did well with inspiring the students to come and learn.
Now, about a year and a half later, Payam-e Danesh has moved to a better location in a market. We have seventy students and five teachers, the headmaster, literacy and embroidery teachers, and a cleaner. We also now offer some literacy and child-raising instruction to the mothers of our students.
When I see the students’ development, it makes me very happy to have been able to help create this school and lead the children toward a better future. The students’ lives have improved. They were street children and now they are normal school students.
We still face many challenges. We have orphan students who often come to school with empty stomachs. We can provide only dry bread for them. All of the students attend for free. If we have money in our pockets we will give children twenty Afghanis because sometimes their parents complain about their children in school and not working.
I cannot afford all of this, but Afghan children need an education to help build their country and I will try to keep them in school until they graduate in twelve years.
Photos of the students in their first (orange uniforms) and second years by the author.