Girls of the «Estonian school» defying poverty and fear of explosion

Fatima Zahra school.
Fatima Zahra school. Photo: Erik Prozes

Taliban fighters came by once and asked what the school was teaching, took a brief look around and left without saying another word, Jamila Hakimi (26), head of a girls’ school in Jalalabad, said. The school has continued teaching as before.

It happened in September, soon after Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban. The group intervened in the life of the school again and in a much more abrupt way last Sunday.

The school that has been operating for a decade with support from Estonian NGO Mondo is located in a Jalalabad suburb, near an olive oil factory. The schoolhouse stands in the middle of a field lined with clay residences.

The children who go to the school live on the edge of the field, a few hundred meters from the schoolhouse. The Taliban attacked one of the houses at 3 a.m. last Sunday, claiming it was inhabited by Islamic State fighters. The Taliban claimed that ten IS fighters were killed in the offensive but did not reveal its own casualties as the organization never does.

Jamila Hakimi (26), head of a girls’ school in Jalalabad.
Jamila Hakimi (26), head of a girls’ school in Jalalabad. Photo: Erik Prozes

“Half the children did not show up at school the next day,” Jamila Hakimi said. Luckily, all the students returned the day after.

The school that was fixed up and is still funded by Estonian private sponsors and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently teaching 285 girls in grades one through six. Most of them are Pashtuns between the ages of 7 and 13. The school is named after the daughter of Prophet Muhammad Fatima Zahra.

High schools still closed

The school week runs from Sunday to Thursday as Friday is the holy day of Muslims. School starts at 7.30 in the morning and ends at 11.30 a.m. – there are five classes every day. The day always starts with religion class or studying the Quran. The girls also learn Dari, Pashto and English, mathematics, science and geography.

The Taliban has only allowed elementary schools of grades one through six to be opened for girls. Most local high schools (grades 7-12) are closed, even though the Taliban has promised girls’ high schools will be opened as the “situation stabilizes.”

Bilal Karimi, deputy for spokesman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the Taliban Zabiullah Mujahid, said in an interview to Postimees that girls’ high schools will be opened in all provinces by spring at the latest. They are currently open in around ten of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

The BBC confirmed this week that schools for older girls have indeed been opened in some western and northern provinces. It is also said that girls’ high schools are open in Jalalabad.

“The Taliban is doing nothing for the children’s education, but at least they are not bothering us, which is the most important thing right now,” English teacher at the “Estonian school” Hajeera Sadaqat (23) said.

Fatima Zahra said that even though the Taliban did not close elementary schools, 15 families pulled their girls out of school after the Taliban came to power. Specifically, they did not send their kids back to school on September 1. “They said that their daughters do not need an education,” Hakimi said.

Poverty and late dads

Poverty that has followed in the wake of the Taliban is also affecting girls’ school attendance. Most girls have lost their fathers in the conflict between the previous authority and the Taliban. Families are supported by mothers who have no work (without exception) or relatives. The teachers see extreme poverty on a daily basis.

Poverty that has followed in the wake of the Taliban is also affecting girls’ school attendance.
Poverty that has followed in the wake of the Taliban is also affecting girls’ school attendance. Photo: Erik Prozes

“Parents have come in the middle of lessons and pulled their kids out class to so they could go and collect firewood,” Hakimi said. “Some children work before the school day starts (at 7.30 a.m.!), for example, cleaning shops for which they are paid 10-15 afghanis.” That comes to 8-12 euro cents.

The young principal Hakimi told us about crushing child poverty with a passionless voice. It is merely a fact that she has become accustomed to.

“We can see that a lot of the children are undernourished. We have more than 15 children in whose case I know that they have almost nothing to eat at home. They are very hungry when they come to school,” she said.

The school does not offer meals. There is no money for it. There is no money for anything. The teachers haven’t been paid in four months or since the schoolyear began. Their salaries were paid by NGO Mondo until recently, while UN sanctions have made transfers impossible. The school could not buy new textbooks and workbooks this fall as funding for that had also come from the Estonian nonprofit.

Teachers asked families to buy text- and workbooks, while they knew the answer. We do not even have money to buy food, and you are talking about books.

“Some families are trying. A lot of students collect firewood for sale and use the money to buy textbooks,” Hakimi said.

The principal proceeded to give other examples of poverty but ended on a very important note: “We, the teachers, try our best without pay. I think that students should not hide behind poverty. It is no reason [not to learn].”

50-70 students per class

Teacher Hajeera Sadaqat said that a class has 50-70 students. Classrooms are full of children sitting packed next to one another on the floor, with textbooks and notebooks on the ground in front of them. Everyone is intently listening to the teacher.

“They are very well-behaved and always listen to me,” Sadaqat told us. “We could not teach them if they weren’t.”

All the girls are extremely shy and careful about answering questions. I was asked not to inquire about their families and home situation. I asked three girls who they wanted to be when they grow up and was told that all want to be teachers.

They behaved as children would during recess, playing and running around, while they did so with dignity – without shrieking.

The most popular schoolyard game was gati that entails throwing six little rocks or balls in the air and trying to catch them.

Allah willing

The teachers at Fatima Zahra are theoretically paid 8,000 afghanis a month (€66), up from 6,000 afghanis (€50) last year. However, the afghani has lost much of its value since the Taliban took over, with 6,000 afghanis a year ago worth as much as 8,000 today.

However, all of it is merely theoretical for the teachers who are not paid anything as things stand.

“It is alright,” Hajeera Sadaqat said when asked about missed salary. “We will make do. Inshallah!” – God willing.

A girls’ school in Jalalabad.
A girls’ school in Jalalabad. Photo: Erik Prozes

NGO Mondo that pursues humanitarian projects in Africa and Asia has spent around €150,000 on the Fatima Zahra school over the last decade.

“We have paid the salaries of the teachers and bought school aids for the children every year. A few years ago, we helped the school install solar panels and get power,” said Riina Kuusik-Rajasaar, head of Afghanistan projects at Mondo. “The school has also gotten an annex – two classrooms for science classes for older students.”

Jamila Hakim said that the school would not exist without Estonia.

“We are all immensely grateful to Estonia and the Estonian people for their help,” the principal said.