Education offers one of the last routes out of country for young Afghans

A new initiative offering online English classes to Afghans is aimed at helping students get opportunities to study abroad

The Taliban has not officially banned girls’ education but in some parts of the country girls’ secondary schools have been shuttered and women barred from public universities since the group took power. Some women are looking for opportunities abroad to pursue their educational ambitions and are looking for lessons and scholarships to make that happen. AP
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Months after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August, the economy is in freefall as the group’s ultraconservative politics put paid to the financial aid the country has relied on for decades.

With nearly $10 billion in assets frozen in the Afghan Central Bank and major aid agencies operations suspended, a humanitarian catastrophe has led to warnings from the United Nations that millions may die of hunger.

The unravelling of Afghanistan came as no surprise to the thousands who fled from the Taliban’s takeover.

In one of the largest airlifts in history, more than 122,000 people, including foreigners and vulnerable Afghans, were flown out by US forces and coalition partners.

Since August, about 18,000 people, about half of them Afghan nationals, have arrived in the United Kingdom.

There are resettlement schemes where Afghans who have worked or been affiliated with certain countries may apply for relocation, and there are others for vulnerable refugees.

However, the opportunities are limited and the numbers available are scarcely a drop in the ocean among a population of 40 million.

For those who do not meet the criteria for these schemes, there are few avenues left to safely and prosperously relocate.

However, pursuing education abroad is one of those routes rapidly gaining ground among Afghans and with international educators such as Clarence Hatch.

Two months ago, the American part-time teacher was in touch with an Afghan man who had asked for online help improving his English so he could take the TOEFL, the standardised test to measure the English language ability of non-native speakers who wish to enrol in English-speaking universities.

“He said if he got a good enough score he could apply to a scholarship abroad to continue his education. That’s when I realised this was an escape route,” Mr Hatch tells The National.

That spurred him to seek out others who might be also benefit from online English classes.

“I thought there might be more people I could help,” says Mr Hatch, who is a film maker.

“Like a lot of Americans, I was very disturbed by how the pull-out of Afghanistan happened and I had heard on the news how women and girls couldn’t go to school and I wondered if anyone was teaching them online.”

The lessons are mainly taught on messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, which are more likely to be used on mobile phones and take up limited bandwidth.

As well as their time and experience, the project organiser says the teachers are forging important connections between societies.

Mr Hatch says things can sometimes get quite emotional as students talk about what is happening in their lives.

“Teachers can be left speechless sometimes after hearing their stories. There’s a lot of compassion – it’s a big part of the reason a lot of teachers signed on to this project.”

The popularity of the project has led to a fundraising drive to pay the teachers and to pay for the tests, which can cost up to $250 each.

Unstable internet and electricity cuts are problems that Mr Hatch hopes some of the money will solve.

“On testing days, if you don’t have internet or electricity then it is a waste, so we are looking at ways of backing up power supplies. Some [students] will also need computers and testing rooms to take these tests in,” he says.

The harassment included scrutiny from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice because he was not seen at the mosque enough.

Although the Taliban has not officially banned girls’ education, in some parts of the country girls’ secondary schools have been shut. Women were barred from public universities when the group took power.

The Taliban have blamed an "economic siege" and a lack of resources for the suspension in teaching and say education in Afghanistan will be open to men and women.

Last month, Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s government and deputy minister of culture and information, said classrooms for all girls and women would be opened in March.

However, given the group’s antipathy to educating women and girls, there remains a great deal of scepticism among activists and the international community about their policy.

For Sima Hatami, 22, who lost out on completing her undergraduate degree when the Taliban took power, waiting is not an option.

She was in her third year, studying computer science at Kabul University and working as a part-time radio journalist when the Taliban took over. She says she “lost everything”.

“My work stopped, my university, it was horrible. My life changed a lot,” says Ms Hatami using WhatsApp from Afghanistan. “It was so strange for me and all the girls in Afghanistan. We just stayed at home.”

But with the help of some foreign teachers and institutions, she may soon be far from home.

She has been accepted for a journalism degree at Cyprus International University beginning in March, but she must pass the IELTS, another English language test required for foreign students.

She has joined the digital English classes, the only external learning option available to make her “dreams come true”.

“Because all the courses at university are closed [to girls] these classes are really useful, especially for girls who have dreams to leave and to study,” she says.

“All girls in Afghanistan are in danger. We are all scared and we need to get out, so this is one way to do that. It will make it easier to get out.”

Updated: April 01, 2022, 9:36 AM