KABUL, Afghanistan — As I was walking into Kabul Education University one morning, carrying a school bag and a box of books, a student stopped me to offer his help. Startled to see this particular student, I fumbled for words and tried to prevent him from taking the box. I was surprised to see this boy because the last I heard, he was in a Taliban prison outside of Jalalabad. Having a father in a high-ranking position in the military, the student was a target for anyone who wanted sensitive information or a hefty pay off. Knowing this, one Friday afternoon as the student and his friends drove east for a picnic, the Taliban kidnapped them. The boys were held for ransom; eventually the money was paid and the students were released. This was the first time I had seen him since his kidnapping.
By the looks of the boy, I was not sure he could hold my books. He was malnourished and about 20 pounds lighter than the last time I saw him. I told the student that I could carry the load. Refusing to let me do the work, he grabbed the box and said, “Teacher, don’t worry about these heavy books. I carried around ammunition and weapons for the Taliban for the last month. I know I have lost some weight during my time in prison, and my skin looks dark, but I have gotten so much stronger. Give me your books!” How could I argue with that? I relinquished the books.
Many of my young Afghan friends think just like the student who greeted me at the university. Though they face daily hardships that most people will never see once in their lives, my Afghan friends take these tough situations and make them in to positives. My student could have complained about his hunger (the Taliban basically starved him), or the harsh conditions of the prison (there was no roof on his holding cell so he had terribly burned skin from the sun beating down on him), but he chose to smile and joke that lugging around munitions made him stronger.
When I told this story to another Afghan friend, he explained the mind-set of young Afghans perfectly. He said, “The older generation tends to put out their hands and expect people to fill their palms with money, and food; they believe that they deserve charity because they have suffered so much. But the younger generation uses their hands to turn pages in books. They use their hands to type, to search the Internet, to educate themselves so that they can think of ways to fill their own hands with money and food. We have suffered too, but we know that only we can change our situation.”
The fact that young Afghans are able to turn a hard life into something more than sadness has become apparent to me over the years, and even clearer during my last few weeks here; I have realized that in order to survive, thrive, and be happy here, you have to look at life in a unique way.
My young, cheery driver does just this; he lives his life by his own rules. According to tradition, because he only finished high school and has a low-paying job, he should marry a girl of the same status. But he refused to follow this path.
He said, “…Because I am such a determined boy, I [married] the most beautiful girl in the world!” His wife graduated from university with her degree in pharmacy and now manages a store in Canada. My driver smiled shyly in the rearview mirror when he informed me that his wife drives herself to work. When I asked him if he minded that she was independent, he told me that he loves her a lot and is proud of her. “Nothing else matters.” He said.
But how does he keep in contact with her? Nonchalantly, he told me, “I chat with her on Facebook four times on Fridays. I wake up, do my ablutions and pray, then run to my computer to call her. Each time I pray, I finish quickly and call her!”
Without any higher education, without social status, access to libraries, and with a meager salary, my driver has found a way to fill his own hands with happiness.
Most of my friends in Afghanistan are just like my driver. Having been born and raised during many eras of fighting, it is no surprise that my friends have learned how to adapt and change to any circumstances. My driver fits Facebook and Skype time in between his prayers; others adjust in different ways.
Three of my students decided to work harder when they realized that access to their dreams of becoming English professors could be denied because of their race. These students are from a minority group of Mongolian descent; they are Hazara. Hazaras are believed to be descendants of soldiers in Genghis Khan’s army. In the 16th century members of Khan’s military “intermingled” with Persians in the northern and western regions of what is now Afghanistan to create this new race.
Ever since this happened, Hazaras have been discriminated against. Even after the Taliban was taken out of power, the Hazara people continued to suffer discrimination. Now, Hazaras are not plugged in to the Pashtun network that runs the country. Having few Hazaras in government to represent them, save for a handful including Second Vice President Karim Khalili, means they have no network. Having no connection to a powerful network in Afghanistan means that getting an influential job is pretty tough for any Hazara.
Instead of dwelling on their seemingly dead-end situation, my Hazara friends have dedicated themselves to working twice as hard as others to attain success. Case in point, three of my students are trying their best to educate themselves and their people by creating their own reality.
These three students, who happen to be best friends, opened a school in the Hazara neighborhood of Dashte-Barchi (in Kabul) while they were still attending university courses. The school provided tutoring and classes to the Hazaras in their neighborhood who wanted extra time after regular school hours to study English, math, science and other subjects. In addition to offering courses, the boys also wanted to get teaching and administration experience so that they could get better jobs after graduating. The students ended up operating the school for two years, provided classes for their community, and got their teaching and administration experience.
Now, my students have moved on. One teaches English to Afghan National Army generals at the Ministry of Defense and is waiting to hear about the results of the Fulbright Program interview he just went through; another is in India getting his M.A. in educational counseling, while the last of the three boys just returned from being an interpreter for the United States Army in Ghazni Province and is now back to working as an English teacher here in Kabul.
As if the boys are not inspiring enough, one student’s older brother also has worked to make his life more meaningful; he helps operate the Afghan Culture House, a Hazara-run center that serves as a restaurant, Internet cafe, art exhibit, cinema, training center, and library for all Afghans. The center frequently holds movie screenings, lectures, and discussions about controversial issues that are prevalent in society. Before I left the country last summer, I attended an art exhibit that brought a taboo subject, child abuse, to light. My student’s older brother and others at the Afghan Culture House do these things to educate people and their community because, “the more information people have access to, the better their lives will be.”
The younger generation here in Afghanistan will change this country because of the way they think. With the eventual departure of foreign troops, contractors, and aid agencies, the situation is tenuous. But I have faith that although some people may continue to complain and extend their hands for charity, the younger generation will lift each other up with their hands and make the country into that which they have dreamed it could be because they have the drive to do it for themselves.