Stars lighting up a dark sky - Overcoming odds
15 October 2015

Former JRS teacher in Afghanistan, now studying her master's in India (Catarina Figueiredo/Jesuit Refugee Service)

Sitting in front of my laptop, I am starting to write my story and would like  to describe how I have achieved my current goals and how the experiences in my life have shaped me and led me to be what I am today. But, what is my story?

My eyes are closed now, and my mind goes back to the graduation ceremony, a few years ago. It is 2011. I am on the stage; I am reciting a poem in front of the teachers, classmates, and their families. The poem I have chosen is ‘Ithaka’, by Constantine Cavafy. “Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean”. My voyage, my story... 

It was spring in Herat, Afghanistan, in 1998. I was an 11 year old girl, and in my eyes all that was happening around me looked like a secret war between my parents and the new Taliban regime. We had just returned from Iran, where we had been living as refugees for the last 7 years, but suddenly the Taliban took the control of the government and started ruling the country. They introduced a very oppressive system, especially for women and girls. They closed schools to girls, but my parents with some neighbours helped an educated woman to run a home school, where my sisters, the neighbours’ daughters and I could get an education. This school was later discovered and closed by the Taliban. My parents did not give up and found another home school for my sisters and me, quite far from home. Soon it became too dangerous for my parents to take us there; and they finally decided to buy school books and we started to study at home, without any teacher.

My family was not rich, so the strenuous efforts and the risks courageously taken by my parents to give my sisters and me the opportunity to learn made me feel that education was something very precious, something to fight for, something to live for. 

From that moment, learning and reading were pure joy to me, like playing the most wonderful game. I read every book I could find around. In the meanwhile I also learned how to sew clothes so I could earn some money. Books were expensive and my earnings were not enough to buy them, but my parents found a bookstore where I could rent books. I still remember the first time I went to the bookstore to rent a book: I was in heaven! And I still remember some of those books fondly – “Les Miserables”, “Great Expectations”, “Little Women”- I devoured them! Those books became a part of me, and after returning them to the bookstore, I started retelling the story to my little sisters and to other children. This is how I started teaching. 

My experience in teaching girls under the Taliban regime made me want to be a teacher. I was happy to share with them what I had learned from all my books. It was a wonderful sense of solidarity, like escaping all together out of the cage of ignorance and loneliness. I wanted to help my country to develop though education and to play my role to provide Afghan women the knowledge, skills, and resources they needed to earn an income, claim their rights, and make lasting change in their lives. To pursue this dream I knew I had to continue my studies at the university level. Even though my father didn’t approve, I decided to apply for the English Literature course at the University of Herat. 

At the university I had two friends who worked with JRS. One day, JRS was recruiting English teachers, so my friends recommended me. For 3 years I was a teacher with JRS and I loved the experience. With JRS I could improve my English language and  teaching skills, and also through JRS I received a scholarship to continue my studies in New Delhi,  India.

In August 2011, I had a fantastic opportunity. I was selected for the Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSI) Program on Women’s Leadership in Fayetteville, Arkansas. This experience was central to giving me a new and deeper perspective of myself, of my real interests and my future goals. Studying at the Spring International Language Centre and getting to know the Arkansas University from within was both illuminating and devastating, as it allowed me to compare American and Afghan education systems, and made me even more aware of the dismal quality of Afghan education. I had always seen myself as a teacher, but now realized I had to extend my goals and take them to a higher level. I was thrilled to discover a new dimension in pursuing my passion in education: to become an education professional and work to improve the education system in Afghanistan! 

Currently I am studying for a Master’s in Education Planning and Administration. My dream is to work in the Ministry of higher education, even though I know it will be very challenging to get there.

One thing I know for sure. I want to work in or for Afghanistan. It is my responsibility to help my people, starting with my family. I want to be self-reliant and assist my family. I just see my happiness in the happiness of my family and the progress of my people!

Gulsoom







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