[This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Rug News andDesign Magazine.]
During the mid 90s, the boom years of the chobi trade (Afghan carpets made in refugee camps in Pakistan), it was realized by the international community that this ever changing industry was highly dependent on Afghan refugee children working in Pakistan in refugee camps along the Afghan Pakistan border. These kids had no opportunity to go to school or have a normal childhood. They were stuck in continuing to do what their forefathers had done earlier, i.e. weaving from dawn to dusk without any prospects to grow out of poverty to join the modern work force.
The situation was even worse for girls. While boys could find work outside the home, such as eventually joining construction or even their father’s businesses, in true Afghan tradition girls rarely went outside of the house to do anything. This meant that not only were very young children having to work, but because they were not being educated, the circle kept on going. The circle was even more vicious for little girls.
Our company, Usman Carpet House, along with several major rug exporters of the time, became founding signatories of the Care and Fair Foundation in Pakistan. This was a firm stance against child labor from the industry as a whole and backed heavily from our main clients in the US and elsewhere. Care and Fair Foundation was a dramatic shift in the way the rug industry was to work and organize, and it forever changed the way respected businesses in the country exported rugs. The rug industry, which was quickly losing its credibility, was soon rewarded with trust and continued growth, while businessmen ensured that the most deprived of the refugee population was also a part of the wealth creation that was going on.
Our company, along with its major client in the US, as well as main Afghan contractors, set up two schools. One was in the remote carpet weaving region of Afghanistan known as Sheberghan. This was mostly virgin territory, almost untouched by outsiders until roads were made to connect it to the capital recently. Even now it takes about 8-10 hours of journey to get to Sheberghan by road. It was very difficult to keep records at the school and was managed through a series of contractors who travelled to and from Sheberghan regularly to see their families.
In those days, however, the idea that children of rug weaving families could get a chance at getting decent early education was unheard of—but the school took off and remained functioning until it had to be disbanded due to the turmoil in the years following September 11th.
However, our company also had a school in Attock, Peshwar. A major stronghold of the organized Afghan trade, the city was full of families who had created relatively well organized weaving workshops outside of the slum-like refugee camps of Peshwar. Traditional family structure prevailed there, and children were heavily involved in the trade. The Attock school was far better funded and managed than the school in Sheberghan, probably due to its proximity to us as well as other big Pakistan companies. In its early years the school did very well, attracting an ever higher number of Afghan kids from families who wanted to start educating their kids for the first time but were looking for a cheaper alternative to the other private sector schools in the area.
Fatima Aziz, the only current faculty member who has been with the school since inception and is now the principal, reminisces on how difficult it used to be, especially in the beginning. “It was relatively easy to convince the families regarding the virtues of education,” she says, “it was getting the girls out of the house that was the biggest stumble block. Many family members equated an educated girl as being too ‘free’ and perhaps not as ‘pure’.”
The fact that the school was run entirely by women surely helped. I told them to look at me, Fatima says. “I was fresh out of college and wanted to make a difference. I told them I am still a traditional girl, but I could do a lot more good in society by being a teacher.” “That made them realize that one day their girls could also be teaching other children and therefore contribute to a better life. Slowly we got an increasing number until we got to a point where we had more girls than boys.”
After September 11th, and subsequent years, the Afghan community in Attock started to shrink every year as more and more Afghans went back home in search of opportunities at home. Due to this, the population of the school has declined rapidly. Apart from that, more schools have sprung up in the area catering to Afghans and non-Afghans alike. Even though more expensive, those in the Afghan community who can afford to are moving their kids to those ‘private sector’ schools. “Things have changed since then,” even Fatima agrees. “It is better as more and more girls can now get education, and we as a school have probably already played our part. Now there are numerous schools and Afghan girls are themselves wanting to get into colleges and take up careers.”
Even though our school has smaller numbers now, it is very satisfying for them how far we have come. The Attock school was an ideological success as it was one of the first ones to spark the realization among the Afghan rug families about the importance of education for girls as well as boys. The school did not change a society but definitely helped plant a seed which is still giving results.
Fatima seems unsure when asked about the future of the school. “The need is not what it used to be. Education, especially female education, is not taboo anymore and I would just like to ensure that people look at our school as a change agent rather than only an institution. As for me and the staff, we will go on trying our best to inspire children and showing them that their lives are only limited by their imagination.”
- What is taught, where do the kids come from
- Who the head principal, teachers are,
- What are their qualifications, why they teach
- What they think of the kids
- What are their aspirations for the kids, for the school
- Benchmarks in the history of the school
- How can they be helped
- Challenges the school faces and higher needs
- Future of the school, in next 10 years