“If all you have in the world is one piece of bread; we will cut the bread in half and use one half for our stomach, and one half for our head.” – Aziz Royesh
These words of wisdom were related to me last year, when I met a truly great man by the name of Aziz Royesh. Aziz is the headmaster at an Afghan School, built entirely as an Afghan-only effort, among the poorest people of Afghanistan; an ethnic minority known as “Hazara”. What follows is a piece I wrote last year at the time I visited Marefat for the first time.
The other day I had the honor to witness an incredibly clear and convincing sign of Afghans “helping themselves” in a manner that was like a sledgehammer to the glass houses built by the folks who portray Afghans as shiftless and unwilling to be self-sufficient.
I was on my way to a meeting with someone, when my colleague suggested we stop by a place he knew, in a “new to me” neighborhood. We steered our car through newly paved streets, through a clean and vibrant bazaar, where all sorts of goods were for sale. It is orange season here in Afghanistan, so the streets were lined with carts full of the bright fruit, and the warehouses along the way were full of flour. All along the streets were jingle trucks, full of gray bags (once white) full of coal for heating houses during the cold winter. At the back of each truck were several wheelbarrows. Each wheelbarrow has a boy hanging around, waiting for someone to purchase a bag of coal, so they could deliver it to their house.
After a long drive through this neighborhood, we stopped to ask directions. The first stop, we asked a young boy how far it was to Marefat High School. He promptly responded with “2.7 kilometers!” We asked him again, and laughed, because Afghans are notoriously inexact about things like distance and time. On a lark, I decided to push in the trip meter on my odometer, and 2.7 kilometers later, we pulled over and asked someone else. They merely pointed to the high school, which was half a block off the road, right next to us. Frankly, we were both amazed that a very small boy would know that we were 2.7 km from the school.
So, we pull off the road, into a narrow set of twisting alleyways that eventually lead us to the school. To understand just how significant this school is, it’s important to understand the nature of the neighborhood. These people literally live in mud huts. Jesus or Moses could walk their streets and feel at home. These people have nothing, and work extremely hard to keep the nothing they do have. In the midst of all these mud and mud-brick homes, stands a three story brick building and a two story cement one. The two story cement building is actually rather crude. It is painted gaudy colors, muted by dust and sun. We walked through decorative iron gates into a courtyard, and realized that the building was a hollow square, with the interior filled with windows into classrooms.
The courtyard of Marefat School
Aziz Royesh, the headmaster of the school greeted us with an enthusiastic hug, and prolific thanks for coming. He took us around to several of the classes, and introduced us to the teachers and students. I am amazed to see young girls and old women in the same classes. The headmaster told us about how these women sacrifice, many of which are mothers, and still work in their home, in addition to coming to school every afternoon, 6 days a week. In fact, there was a small child peeking out over a desk next to his mother in the back row of one of the classes. These women come here not knowing their ABCs, and leave just a short time later with a 6th grade education, in a year or two. According to the headmaster, advancing past the 6th grade takes much, much more effort, and requires about the same timeframe as a normal student to complete. But still, some sacrifice and do so. The students range in age from 17 to 49 years of age.
Speaking to a class of English students
We were conducted to another set of classrooms, where math and science were being taught. In one room, boys and girls sat in the same class, separated by the aisle, learning remedial physics. Physics!!! These were boys and girls who lacked the background knowledge to be admitted to University the first time they took the exams, by and large. In the next classroom over, not only are boys and girls mixed together, but a truly ancient looking man in a turban is paying close attention to a teacher who is teaching mathematics, while surrounded by all ages of boys, girls, men and women.
Several times, when the headmaster is praising us in front of the class for our sacrifice in coming here, I am moved to tears. There is a very pale woman sitting two chairs back in one class who had just given birth. There is a girl whose face is terribly scarred by some kind of disease or accident. They are all deadly serious about this, and the headmaster publicly tells them that this is the frontline in the fight against the Taliban and the forces that want to keep Afghanistan back. I just do not see how I am worthy to stand in front of these people, who’ve put everything on the line for an education, and be praised. I realize that I have done so very little in comparison to them.
A 37 year old woman who goes to elementary school with her son
After we leave the classes, we go back to an office, and sit together, sharing cups of chai and sweet biscuits with strawberry filling. It is here, the headmaster talks about how this place started; how they had $560 for the first year of operation. How the community has funded this school completely and utterly without NGO, ISAF or Afghan government funds. This building and the school within it is funded by the local community; by people who had nothing, but gave up part of even that to contribute to the construction of the school and the education of their children. How the children would attend classes part of the time, and help build the school the other part of their school day. How the school mobilized last year when the parliament passed the law allowing husbands to rape their wives and protested at the parliament, and how the fanatical clerics raided the school when all 2500 students were in their classes destroying everything they could. And how the community quietly got together, without fanfare, and repaired the school and furniture; replaced the glass in the windows, and published more books.
Having tea and biscuits with Aziz Royesh, Headmaster of Marefat School
The cool thing about this school is that they do not deny the religious basis of Afghanistan, but also accept humanism and other critical and rational schools of thought. They design and publish their own curriculum and books, which focus on learning, not indoctrination. The study lab has portraits lining the wall that include Voltaire, Kant, Einstein and Newton, as well as Central Asian philosophers and scientists.
The headmaster also told about how their product has improved over the years. How last year, a prestigious institution offered 16 scholarships Afghanistan-wide, and 11 of those scholarships went to graduates of Marefat high school. His goal for the future is to improve even on that.
The headmaster kept going back to the utter and abject poverty of the community that built the school. He encapsulated their logic in one simple saying. “If all you have in the world is one piece of bread; we will cut the bread in half and use one half for our stomach, and one half for our head.”
Despite what either side of the political aisle or the media says, there is hope, here. More than hope, actually; there are genuine success stories which are not being told. And Marefat high school is one of them.