Wednesday, July 29, 2009

News From Afghanistan

Activity Report of Sohadat Township
The primary objective of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is to accompany, serve and advocate the cause of the refugees and the displaced people. Keeping in mind this ideology, JRS Herat stepped in when other NGOs and a few of the returnees were stepping out of Sohadat. In its journey in Afghanistan, JRS Herat was called upon to take up the ‘failed project’ of the Sohadat Township to render quality humanitarian service to its inhabitants. The main focus of our involvement in this place is on education, health and livelihood programs. Prior to the arrival of the JRS, the people, who had already settled in the township and the people who had occupied the land but were yet to start staying in the township were in a dilemma about the future of their children as there was no school around the locality. The people were afraid that if they got settled in the Sohadat Township, they would have to put an end to the education of their children. Taking into consideration all these facts and the objective of the JRS, the education programme in the Sohadat Township was initiated along with the decision to provide infrastructure for the school.
On 1st of April 2009, the school was inaugurated in the presence of the Director of the Education Department of Herat and representatives of DoRR, and UNHCR, and other distinguished guests from various government departments and non-governmental organizations. Thanks in millions to Fr. Maria Joseph SJ for organizing this function.
The regular time-table and activities
The pages of knowledge started opening in each classroom, soon after the inauguration ceremony. The classes begin with the morning assembly during which the students and the teachers pray for God’s blessings on them and sing the national anthem. In addition to this the students have some exercises during their assembly. The students are made to take the initiative to conduct the assembly. There are 7 periods for them during a day and the week is completed when six working days are over.
Teachers, students and the activities in the school
In its belief that the community resources are the best resources, it was decided to employ candidates from the township itself as the teachers in the school. Accordingly we asked for applications. But while scrutinizing the applications and later at the time of the interview, it was found that not a single applicant had studied beyond class 8. Having no other alternative, announcement was made about the vacancy for teachers in the Sohadat Township. There were number of applications. We invited all the applicants for a workshop on teacher training. During this training program, besides imparting to them certain basic teaching skills, we also introduced them to the triple mission of the JRS. At the conclusion of this program, we selected sufficient number of candidates who had proper understanding of the subjects and basic teaching skills, and also showed interest in JRS’s triple mission. Only those who had finished their class 12 were considered. In addition, all the candidates had to be returnees. Fr. Jimmy got them interviewed and Fr. Maria Joseph got the teachers to undergo further training under the guidance of Ms. Zahara and Tahere. The four days of training and personal interaction helped me to locate the interest of the applicants and appoint them for this academic year, with three months of probation period. The teachers who were appointed are mainly from the city. On every working day, they are taken to the township in a vehicle hired by the JRS.
The number of the students at the beginning of the school was just 55. The academic level of the students and their learning capacity were considerably poor. Though HELP, an INGO working in the Sohadat Township, had organized some classes for the children, it lacked an academic approach.
The school started with the classes 1, 2, 4 and 5. Later we introduced class 7 also with the students mainly coming from the neighboring villages and a student from the township itself. The reason for the addition of the new class was due to the demand from the neighboring villages.
The school has some special programmes such as knitting and tailoring. The Common Programme (CP) every Wednesday provides the students with an opportunity to exhibit their talents in writing, singing, public speaking, acting etc. It is also an occasion for the teachers to give their feed back to the students about their overall performance in the areas of discipline, study and so on. The discipline in the school has improved considerably as the days have gone by. There are in all 117 students in the school and 29 in Shakiban High school.

The number of students kept on increasing for little more than a month since the families kept on migrating from the city to the township. Besides these, another 29 students (girls 16, boys 13) are studying in Shakiban high school. The vehicle hired by the JRS takes the boys to Shakiban in the morning. In the afternoon, it takes the girls to the school and brings the boys back to the township. We very much appreciate the services of HELP which sends its own vehicle to bring the high school girls back to the township in the evening.
There are in all six teachers: 2 male and 4 female. The qualification of the teachers is very low. Five of them have just completed their 12th Std. and the sixth one is a local teacher who is doing her 10th class. She is a mother of two children. In addition to the teaching staff we have a program assistant and two co-workers: a male and a female. The school is affiliated to Mansurali school, Shakiban, which is 12 kms. Away from the Sohadat township. There is regular monitoring of the school by the observation department of Shakiban. The officials of the Mansur Ali School, Shakiban too come to the township for the monitoring of the school.
Administration and functioning
Afghanistan is in the process of building up an appropriate system of education. Though Ministry of Education has outlined standard educational polices through the support of international community, the implementing local government departments are yet to reconcile with the new approaches. This is the biggest hurdle with regard to the administration in the system of education which does not allow any creative and need based education for the students belonging to different age groups. In class one of our Township school, there are students in the age group of 5 to 14. There is regular monitoring by the Shakiban School to which the township school is affiliated and they try to force many of the things upon the school under the label of education department. The education director of Zindajan district makes occasional visits to the school and makes demands which are not proper to his office. The focus of the education director does not seem to have the vision for the holistic development of the students.
Though there is a lack of employment opportunities all over the country and the government salary is very low, still we find few takers for the opportunity to be employed in Sohadat in spite of higher salary and daily transport facility. City parents feel very insecure to send their daughters to such a ‘far-away-distance’ and men like to work as part timers and demand very high salary even when they lack the required professional qualification.
The examination system in the school meets the basic requirements of the ministry of the education i.e. 2 exams in a year which is mid-term and final exam. But in addition to this the administration of the school is having additional exams for the students (internal assessments). The administration is still reviving the system for the evaluation of the student. Also, there is an open day for the school when the parents come to the school to see for themselves the progress of their children. The statement of the marks too will the part of the evaluation process.
The teachers and the students are regularly monitored. They are given feedback about their performance and these feedbacks, which pave the way for their improvement, are much appreciated by the staff
The school has constituted a school committee, which consists of the representatives of the people of the township. It discusses number of issues with regard to the school and the children. They are the link between the school and the people of the community.
The response of the parents is very positive. They are happy with the progress their children have made in various areas. There is a mixed feeling about educating the girls. There are families who have started sending their girls to the schools but some do not. Some parents are not in favour of having coeducation too.
The security is a major issue in the township, since there have been few cases of kidnapping and killing by the Taliban in the neighboring locality. IRC has wound up its activities and HELP’s activities come to a standstill when there is a security problem. JRS continues to put up its brave face and carries out its commitment in the interest of the nation and the people.
The JRS staff welcomes Fr. James Augustine S.J., the program director and Sch. Sandesh. Fr. James and Sandesh joined the team on April 23 and June 21, 2009 respectively. Though a lack of proficiency in the local language prevents them from interacting with the children and staff, their heart language has won many twinkling stars. Sandesh has started English classes for the high school students and more than 50 of them attend the classes. Girls attend the classes before they go to school and boys attend on their return from the school. Another 20 boys will be joining his classes from the neighboring villages. Leaving in HIS hands, hope this place would turn out to be a centre of learning and a bridge to build up relationship between all sects and sections of the society. Sandesh is busy in setting up the school office and keeping records up to date. We wish them all the best in their initiatives to make this school one of the learning centres and a model Jesuit School in Afghanistan.

As the number of students keep increasing, the existing facility is no longer sufficient and safe. A small corner of the corridor serves as the staff room and the store room. There is no space available to arrange any extra- curricular activities and safeguard the office documents.
The children in the neighboring villages (Old Taghi Naghi, Sanga Bast, Sharifabad, Desurkh) are also deprived of Schools. The village elders repeatedly request us to arrange transport for their children or to conduct classes in their villages as well. The lack of space prevents us from admitting children from the surrounding villages into the Sohadat School, or to organize vocational skills-training for the returnee children/community. With the support of UNHCR and BPRM, the JRS started the construction of a school building with four classroom and two extra rooms for the staff. The proposed budget is USD 40585 of which UNHCR is contributing USD 18,169 worth construction materials, and BPRM USD 20, 000. JRS will provide for the balance amount from the contribution it received from IRC. The entire building is constructed by using the skills of the community and each family takes pride in their contribution to the school.
Health center
The Health program that had started in the month of November 2008, had to be stopped until an MoU is signed between JRS and Public Health Department of Herat. In the month of May the MoU is signed but we are not able to start this program because of the lack of space. The medical Clinic requires a minimum of two rooms, one for the Doctor and the other for the Pharmacy. The construction of a two-room clinic is going on along with that of the school building, and on its completion, the health sub centre will be inaugurated.
Livelihood programme
Tapping the skills and talents of the returnees, coordinating with Government Departments like DoRR, and collaborating with other agencies (HELP, IRC, BPRM, UNHCR, WDOA), the JRS strives to rebuild community life and livelihood of the returnees through an integrated community development program. The JRS made a complete survey of all the houses, meeting all the members of the family in their own shelters to find out about the various skills they are equipped with. It was truly a very pleasant surprise for all of us involved in the survey to come to know that many of them are actually skilled in various ways. There are expert welders, tailors, masons and carpenters. There are women who are expert beauticians. But what they lack are the tools and equipments necessary to put those skills into practice and start something of their own in the township. Then there are the farmers who are interested in getting fowls, goats and sheep to start some form of income generating activity.
For creating a favourable environment for the reintegration of the returnees and strengthening of the available skills of the community JRS approached CRS for the support. On July 21, 2009, it has credited USD 6000 to carry out this program and already 6 families have benefitted from this program. Another 33 families will be getting goats or sheep this week. With our support, the township has a meat shop, welding shop, gas shop and masons with complete set of masonry tools. If the expenditure is more than the JRS support of USD 120, the receiver adds up his/her money to make this program successful. JRS team in Herat believes that this is a small step in the process leading to the creation of a sense of self reliance in the community.
The overall intervention of JRS has ignited hope in the hearts of community. The two powerful symbols, light and knowledge, through electricity support last year and now education, have established strong bond between us. The community feels the JRS team is committed to their welfare and dreams their dreams. The informal friendly interaction has helped the JRS team to communicate the kingdom values and inspire them. Educating parents and community elders, creating an interest in female education, cultivating an attitude of sharing, inspiring the community to work hand in hand and building up a good relationship with the neighboring villages are the challenges ahead.
Jerome Sequeira SJ
Program Director – Herat

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