With Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK, I have had the opportunity to practise peace education in Afghanistan for a few days. We are delivering workshops in conflict resolution and mediation with street children, and some ‘train the trainer’ sessions with Afghan Peace Volunteers. The APV have a team of nine young men and women who are coordinating work on conflict resolution.
The great thing about doing peace education with children and young people is that it comes naturally, no matter where you are. Young people get the need for fairness, the need to be heard, the need for justice.
That said, there are lots of challenges to doing this work compared with Britain. Translating not just the words but the ideas is not easy. A metaphor I often use is the “conflict escalator”, carrying you up out of control; as far as I can tell there’s only one escalator in Kabul (donated by a penitent of Bin Laden’s family), and the city’s street children are not so familiar with it. Gender norms, family, school and the balance between the individual and the group: all these are different. Moreover, violence is present in homes and the streets. Most if not all of the children we’ve spoken to have witnessed violence, making the idea that conflict and violence are not synonymous, hard to grant.
As a teacher, there are concepts and tools I want to convey, but the Afghan Peace Volunteers are teaching me about the conflict resolution they already do. Other Afghans have been surprised at how APV bring together Hazari, Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbeks under one roof. Afghanistan of course has an ancient tradition of conflict resolution, but I suspect Kabul’s young people have innovations of their own. So really, I’m the student.
Peace education is already happening here as well. Besides APV, we’ve been in contact with Sanayee Development Centre, the US Institute and Jesuit Relief Services, all of which are reaching young people with different elements of peace education.
Ultimately, I will be happy if we have fun together. Solidarity is a big motivation for being here. Whatever the intent, many of the interventions by my country and others have made Afghans less safe and less free. But I want to picture Afghanistan as more than the home of drone strikes, illicit poppy cultivation and the marginalization of women. The Afghan Peace Volunteers have taken me beyond these headlines, showing that nonviolence can flourish even when there seems to be no space for it.
Conflict is experienced by everyone everywhere, so educating everyone in peaceful conflict resolution is not a “special” intervention that Afghans need more than others; it is a universal right. The work of Afghan Peace Volunteers says to the world that they are not giving up on this or any other rights for their young people, and I hope I can stand with them in that.
We’ve just got back from seeing the street kids who came for their weekly lessons at the Borderfree Non-Violence Peace Centre.
The street kids were all on fine form today, I managed to do a head count and there’s currently 23 on the programme, part of the APV’s economic justice and education equality thrust.
I got to interview Habib (which means love), the boy I wrote about last year. Since then he’s been to Farah province after his uncle told him “lets go”. As usual 12 year old Habib wears a worried face, as if he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, probably not far from that as he’s still the main bread winner of the family, a stress for any grown man let alone a pre adolescent.
Habib has recently changed occupation, his weighing scales were not bringing in enough money so he’s moved onto shining shoes which earns him around 100 Afghanis per day, which is about £1.15
His weighing scales have been handed down to his 9 year old brother Samim who also works the streets. I asked him about his time in Farah province, one of the more volatile provinces in Afghanistan; known for it’s production of opium, prevalence of addicts and presence of Talibs. Habib shrugs and says “What’s there to like about Farah, there’s just fighting.” He expands a little and says there’s nothing much in Farah, no city, no health facilities, just countryside, and more importantly to Habib, nowhere to study. I ask him what he likes about Kabul, immediately he says
“study”, a testimony to the success of the APV’s project as his once a week lesson at the Border Free Centre is the only schooling he receives. I ask after his mother Maryam and his 5 brothers and sisters, again he shrugs and says “fine”, they still live in the same place, a piece of tarp stretched from the side of a building which creates one living space for the 8 members of the family.
Habib talks about his average day, work will normally start around 9 in the morning and end at 8pm. At the moment it’s getting dark at 5 and even teenage members of the APV tend not to be out later than 7 as the streets are so unsafe. He says his day is tiring as there aren’t many places to work so he must walk around a lot which is quite tiring. His biggest worry is security and the danger of being caught up in an attack. He describes how one day there was a bomb in Pul-e-Sulh, a shopping area not far from the peace centre, his mother was gripped with fear so walked the streets for hours, looking for him so as to take him home.
The memory of meeting his mother Maryam last year came back to me, she quietly wept under her burka as she described how her husband died in a sectarian suicide attack on a Shia mosque 4 years ago. I ask him if he still wants to become a doctor, he immediately answers “yes”.
Next I interviewed Gul Jumu’ah (meaning flower Friday), she doesn’t know her age but looks around 10. She partly caught my eye because of her already apparent stunning beauty, and then her shy smile which possesses a quiet inner joy. There are only 5 girls on the project, I’m guessing there are generally less girls working the streets as usually girls and women are expected to stay indoors and run the house. GulJumu’ah is Pashtoon and lives in Chara Kumba refugee camp. She looks timidly at me as I beam the biggest smile I can muster. Today she was dressed in a raggedy pink spangly dress which hangs off her thin frame. She sits crossed legged on the floor looking nervous, I suspect it’s the first time anyone has ever asked to speak with her, least of all a foreigner.
Gul Jumu’ah is painfully shy, she looks down and plays with her dress, her hands are weathered and filthy, she only occasionally looks up to flash a shy smile. I find out that her work involves trawling the streets for plastic to burn for fuel, this morning she collected 2 sacks of plastic. She’s been living in the refugee camp for the last 3 years, before then she lived in Sangin, Helmand province, the area of Afghanistan where British troops were based and the fighting has been most fierce. She says that her family left Helmand 3 years ago after her father was killed. She has 5 brothers but 2 of them have died in the war and 1 of her 5 sisters has also passed away. Her older brother was a cobbler but his equipment was stolen so now he can’t work. Her only memory of Sangin is war, I try to press her for more detail but again she just says “war”. The last year at the border free centre is her first experience of education, she says learning is important to her and when she’s older she’d like to become a teacher and help people. I want to know more about Gul Jamma but can sense a deep sadness which I feel is not my place to disturb. I ask her about toys, her only doll, she has black hair and wears a scarf but doesn’t help with housework.
Since being in Kabul we’ve heard whispered horror stories, one being the trafficking of young Afghans to the Middle East, mainly for slavery and even body parts, the rumours say that street children are particularly vulnerable.
This morning Obama announced that the war with Afghanistan has come to a “responsible end”.
At the end of today’s lesson we brought out a box of Quality Street chocolates which the kids excitedly gobbled down. Some of the wrappers were carelessly discarded on the floor by many of the children. I noticed Gul Jumu’ah discretely bend down and collect the wrappers, no doubt to be added to her fuel stash.
Noor Rahman, a chubby 12 year old in a filthy yellow hoddie plays with his mobile phone, he’s the kind of kid who could probably fix up anything, you name it, he can get it. He complains to Hakim that the phone company charges him 1 Afghani every time he connects to the internet, Hakim laughs and advises him to disconnect his internet service.
The teenage members of the APV then called each of the kids out of the room to collect their monthly subsidy of food, a sack of rice and a large bottle of oil. Raul, who looks around 8 drags his sack out of the centre, he expertly bumps it down the stairs and then hikes it over a shoulder while grabbing his bottle of oil and swiftly making off.
Gul Jumu’ah looks up at me from the bottom of the stairs and flashes me a smile, my heart melts, she then skips out of the centre to meet her brother who has come to help her with the rice and oil.
Although physically we’ve done very little today I feel quite tired. At the moment a “dramatic sunset” is forming outside our living room window. From where I’m sat (in the corner of the room), I can only see the razor wire on our neighbour’s wall and a few yellowing clouds. Khamed Jan has just lit a fire, the room is slightly smokey. The familiar call to prayer has just started up, the quality and emotion of the Imam’s voice is almost enough to make me want to convert, I guess that’s the idea.
The sun is forming a dramatic sunset which I’m almost tempted to photograph, Zahidi is talking about her memories from the Russian war, of waiting for hours in the freezing snow to get 2 loaves of bread to feed 6 members of her family. Her life has included many years as a refugee in Pakistan and then Iran. At 30 she is already considered too old to marry and her slight limp (maybe from Polio) also counts against her marrying chances. She says living in the community has massively changed her life, that it’s taught her how to speak with and trust people. Zarghuna says that meeting internationals and other members of the group makes her love many people like they’re family.
This is my fourth year in Kabul, without a doubt I love these people as family.