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Afghan girl who waited years for school refuses to let her enthusiasm wane

Iran. Afghan refugee sisters in Isfahan go to school for the first time

Afghan girl who waited years for school refuses to let her enthusiasm wane

She was 11 before she saw the inside of a classroom, so Parisa was not about to stop learning even under lockdown.
2 September 2020
Afghan refugee Besmellah (right) and his wife Halime pose for a photograph with their daughters Parimah (far left), 14, and Parisa, 16, at home in Isfahan, central Iran.

A few months ago, mornings at Vahdat Primary School when the children arrived were full of enthusiasm and energy.

Bags bouncing on their backs as they ran through the gates of their primary school, a group of girls skidded to a halt in front of the main building, waiting for assembly. At the back of a line of sixth-graders stood Parisa, the oldest in her class at the age of 16 – her classmates were on average only 12 years old.

But Parisa was undaunted by the age gap and determined to make the most of her time at Vahdat Primary, in the old Persian city of Isfahan in Iran.

“I love school so much,” she said, clutching her books to her chest. “My favourite subject is mathematics ... I love multiplication and division – they are really easy.”

To have her school time interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic since then is doubly cruel given what Parisa had to endure before she got her first taste of an education.

"They started planting landmines in schoolyards."

A decade ago, her family fled Afghanistan after the Taliban terrorized their neighbourhood in Herat. “If you went out to the bazaar, there was no guarantee you would return,” recalled Besmellah, 67, Parisa’s father.

The extremists also threatened to kidnap any girls who dared to go to school. “Then they started planting landmines in schoolyards,” added Besmellah. “We had no choice but to come to Iran.”

Over the course of 40 years of invasions, civil war, power struggles and religious strife, approximately three million Afghans have sought refuge in Iran. Nearly one million are registered as refugees, while up to two million are undocumented. An additional 450,000 Afghan passport holders live in Iran either to work or complete their studies.

In Iran, Parisa and her six siblings had found safety but during her first years in exile she couldn’t go to school. The family barely had enough to live on, let alone cover school costs. Parisa’s brother dropped out of school at age 15 and started working. With this extra money, Parisa was able to set foot in a classroom for the first time, at the age of 11.

At first, she found herself in an unofficial school not registered with the government, where lessons were organized in two shifts to accommodate as many children as possible. With no qualified teachers and no proper curriculum, the students only learned the basics.

"My wife and I feel disabled by our lack of education. We don’t want the same to happen to our children.”

As an undocumented refugee, at the time this was Parisa’s only option. But in 2015, Iran started allowing all Afghan children – regardless of legal status – to attend state schools. When Vahdat Primary opened with with funding from the Government of Iran, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR and the European Union, Parisa got her first taste of a formal education.

Iran. Afghan refugee sisters go to school for the first time
Students at Vahdat Primary School try to contain their giggles for a group photo before their teacher comes to class.

Today, some 480,000 Afghan children in Iran benefit from this inclusive education policy, of whom 130,000 are undocumented Afghans like Parisa. At Vahdat Primary, 140 young Afghans rub shoulders with 160 Iranian students.

But the pandemic threatens to derail Parisa’s education once more. As Iran continues to feel the health and economic effects of the virus, both refugees and host communities are finding it harder to make ends meet. Many of those who rely largely on informal work have lost their jobs.

“I haven’t been able to work for the past three months,” said Besmellah, who is a day labourer. “Parisa is supposed to start the seventh grade this year but I cannot afford it.”

In a report, titled “Coming Together for Refugee Education”, to be published on 3 September, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR warns the twin scourges of COVID-19 and attacks on schools threatens to set back refugee education for decades.

"We had to borrow my older sister’s smartphone to do our exams.”

Based on UNHCR data, the Malala Fund has estimated that as a result of the coronavirus half of all refugee girls in secondary school will not return when classrooms reopen this month - a chilling prediction that would have an impact for generations to come.

While refugees are exempt from school fees in Iran, other costs associated with education, including learning materials, are still a burden. “My landlord also raised the rent so I had to borrow money to pay the deposit for a new place.” 

Parisa has lost none of her enthusiasm for her education. “My sister and I followed our lessons on the television, but we had to borrow my older sister’s smartphone to do our exams,” she said. “Sometimes our classes would clash, so one of us would have to miss a lesson. It was difficult, but I encouraged my sister to persevere. Thankfully, we both got good grades.”

“As long as I can work, I will do everything for my daughters to be able to go to school – but it is getting harder,” said Besmellah. “My wife and I feel disabled by our lack of education. We don’t want the same to happen to our children.”