As Afghan school downs shutters, pupils left in lurch face uncertainty

Everything was going well at the school… It was a tiny school, and we had no space to play football or tennis but it was still a lot of fun. Now there’s no school and no fun,” said a morose 14-year-old Yousuf Noor.

He is one of the 180 Afghani students who went to the Sayed Jamaluddin Afghan school in Bhogal – till it shut doors over 20 days ago.

A Class 8 student, Noor came to India from Kabul with his parents and siblings in 2019 in a bid to find a safe home. In 2020, he enrolled in the school in southeast Delhi – the only one for Afghani students in the Capital

The school was set up in 1994 by an NGO, and till 2021, the rent of the school building, salaries for teachers, and even books were taken care of by the Afghan government. After the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani regime and the return of the Taliban, the embassy stopped receiving funds from the new dispensation. Months later, the Indian government stepped in to help run the school.

The school, which did not take any fee from the students, was starved of funds and had to move out of its original location in Bhogal to a cramped eight-room apartment in the same area.

The 180 students and 15 teachers faced another crisis this month — people familiar with matter said on Friday that Afghan diplomats appointed by the previous government decided to close the embassy’s operations from October 1. However, external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told a media briefing that the embassy continues to function.

Raheema Waheedi, the school principal, said, “The school was driven to closure after electricity was cut off due to non-payment of bills. The school was supported by the embassy of Afghanistan here but they stopped responding to our requests beginning of the year.”

She said that the embassy has not paid teachers’ salary for the past eight months and rent has been pending for three months.

Farid Mamundzay, the last Afghan ambassador to India appointed by the Ashraf Ghani government, said that the embassy could not sustain its support to the school in the absence of funding. “Funding from the Indian government for the Afghan school halted since the start of this year. The Afghan embassy contributed some resources to the school, but sustaining support was beyond our means,” said Mamundzay.

He added that the Indian government could extend support and ensure the school’s continuity at a time when it has no access to support from Kabul. “The Afghan school requires less than $100,000 annually to sustain its operations. This modest amount can make an immeasurable impact on the lives of hundreds of students. We looked for solutions to ensure the school’s continuity and still hope that a solution could be found by the Indian government.”

With the school suspending operations, over 180 children including Noor find themselves at home – lost and confused.

“We came here due to safety concerns as my father is a musician. He was at risk there due to the Taliban. When we got here, I first studied online due to the pandemic. I only started going to the school properly last year,” said Noor. Children were taught English, Pashto, Dari, Arabic, math, physics, and geography, among other subjects, at the school.

Since most students are not fluent in Hindi or English, their enrolment in private or government schools in Delhi is tricky. Although Delhi government schools in the Capital admit refugee students, only a few are able to meet the age requirements for admission.

Under the Right to Education (RTE), there is a provision for a special training centre (STC). Children without documents can be admitted to the STC according to their age, and for six months to two years, the Centre works towards bridging their learning gap. Once the bridge course is completed, they are brought into the mainstream. The provision, however, does not extend to children above the age of 14 years.

This is why the Afghan school was crucial to the community that dots the city.

‘What will we do?’

The abrupt closure of the school has clouded the future of Class 12 students, who are unsure if they will receive the school completion certificate that is supposed to help them with their future career prospects to some extent.

Zamzama Kohistani, 19, who completed Class 12 this year, said, “I am yet to receive a certificate of school completion. The past two years have anyway been tough for our school. Somehow, I managed to complete my education but just towards the end, the school shut down once again… The future looks bleak.”

Then there is Sohrab Khairkhawa, a Class 7 student, who has been helping his mother run her dry fruit shop in east Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar ever since the school shut down. “I miss playing chess with my classmates, I also miss my teachers,” he said. His family left Kabul for India in 2016 amid escalating conflict in the region.

Mohammad Qais Malikzada, deputy of the Afghan solidarity committee, a representative body of the community in India, said, “We want the Indian government to help in the reopening of the school and support the Afghan students and teachers as we don’t have any support from the Afghanistan government or the embassy.”

There was specific response from Indian authorities on the issue.

The closure of the school has left children such as Noor and Khairkhawa with no alternative but to pause their education.

Hassanzada, 35, who runs a grocery shop in Bhogal, has found a temporary solution to his children’s woes – private tuition. “Since July, teachers have been telling us that they haven’t received their salaries and this situation is unsustainable, so I pulled my children out of there,” said Hassanzada, whose son and daughter studied in classes 3 and 4, respectively. The tuition costs him ₹1,500 per subject per month for each child – a hefty expenditure for him.

“Tuition is expensive. I don’t know how long I can pay for it. I might have to discontinue even this soon unless the school reopens,” he said.

For Noor’s family, the problem is two-fold as the teenager’s mother Mehbooba Noor was also employed as a teacher at the school. “I have not been paid for the last six months. Since the pandemic started, my husband, who is a musician, has not been able to find any work either. It’s extremely difficult to manage the house,” she lamented.

For now, Noor stares at an uncertain future, while his mother tries to keep him busy with all that she can teach him at home. “I was a part of the choir at school. I even composed and sang those songs there… I miss that now,” he said.