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On the Afghan border, Pakistani teacher strives to educate children, especially girls

Students at Gulistan the Land of the Flowers School in Balochistan, Pakistan. (Photo provided, used with permission.)

A teacher and social activist in Pishin, Pakistan, Muhammad Ikram is the founder of a school that provides education to refugee children, orphans, poor children, and especially girls.

Gulistan the Land of the Flowers School is in the Balochistan Province of Pakistan, on the national border with Afghanistan.

Muhammad Ikram with some of the students at his school. (Photo provided, used with permission.)

New policies by the Pakistani government are a worry for Ikram, 38, and his students.

Since September 2023, Pakistan has begun a mass deportation of immigrants, mostly Afghans, who the Pakistani government say are living illegally in the country. According to the BBC, the order impacts about 1.7 million people.

Muhammad Ikram collects water for the children. (Photo provided, used with permission.)

During the crackdown, he met Afghan refugees who were being deported. 

The negative way that children’s education will be impacted is a big cause of concern for Ikram.

He said Afghan people had the “strong mentality” that “they are scared to send their girls to schools because of their religion.”

“They don’t think that girls should go to school,” he said.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, they banned secondary school education for girls. During the 20-year war between the United States and the Taliban, a new, U.S.-supported Afghan government once again allowed education for girls.

(Photo provided, used with permission.)

But after the U.S. withdrew its forces in September 2021, the Taliban took over once more and continued its history of restricting and marginalizing the lives of its citizens, especially women and girls.

“Education is the tool that lets our mind grow up,” said Ikram. “So, if there is no education, what is the difference between animal and human?”

In operation for more than a decade, Ikram’s school has more than 500 students who go to school six days a week and 10 months in a year.  Approximately 33% of students study for free and 67% pay a nominal monthly fee which is between 100 to 500 Pakistani rupees, which in U.S. currency, is 35 cents to $1.77 per month.

The fees are its main source of revenue. 

It teaches a range of subjects such as science, English and Urdu languages, mathematics, social studies and history, art and computing. However, the computing lessons are taught through books as they have no computers in the school.

Students taking a test. (Photo provided, used with permission.)

During the 2022 floods, much of the infrastructure of the school was destroyed and they lack the funding to rebuild new classrooms, Ikram said. Despite the classrooms now being dangerous due to flood damage, the children still use them.

Muhammad Ikram surveys some of the flood damage. (Photo provided, used with permission.)

The classrooms remaining are made of mud and wood. This is just one of many challenges the Gulistan School faces, according to Ikram, including needing plumbing for proper washrooms, safe drinking water, a library, a computer lab and additional solar panels for power.

The school also has hens running around the site to kill the scorpions that go inside.

Many Afghans – who have lived in Pakistan their entire lives and never been in Afghanistan before – may be at direct risk of persecution by the Taliban upon their arrival in Afghanistan. Besides women, this includes journalists and those who speak out about human rights.

“They took birth in this society. So, they know nothing about Afghanistan,” Ikram said, commenting that the “biggest” thing they knew was that they “don’t want to go to Afghanistan.”

A video tour of Gulistan the Land of the Flowers School

Political instability, the prolonged humanitarian crisis and threat of war are fearful factors for those being told to leave Pakistan, according to Ikram.

Ikram expressed further concern about the inability for his students to live a full life in Afghanistan due to its strict censorship.

“That’s why I don’t want my children to go there, to stay there, to live there. Because I see the land where the war is going on there. Nobody can live his or her own picture.”

Gemma Christie is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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