He was a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize this year. We spent a day in Aziz Royesh’s school last fall—here is a snapshot of his commitment to educating the children of Afghanistan.
Aziz Royesh strolls the corridors of his school, gently chiding students about why they’re not in class as the bell rings. He seems to know each of them by name—asking one student how her exam went and another about university. He is guiding a visitor through the halls, sticking his head into various classrooms, asking his teachers if they can give up a few minutes to talk to a Western journalist.
Even in a suit, Royesh looks slightly disheveled, like the last person you would expect to be running a school, which he is, since he never finished his own studies himself. When he was just 10, his family had to flee the country after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They sought exile in Pakistan, where he could not continue his education, instead, cramming in a few hours of reading a day after work at a local bakery. Returning to Kabul at the age of 16, Royesh realized the need for literacy in his neighborhood and established a school with the help of the Pakistan-based Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. Soon, he was running five schools in the district, making risky trips across the border to Pakistan for badly needed school supplies. In 1994, he had to leave Afghanistan again, after the Taliban came to power and banned education, so he established the Marefat School in Pakistan for Afghan refugees like himself. He founded the school on the principles of civic education and humanism.
Classes were co-ed, and students were taught to collaborate and work in small groups. They were taught to debate and share ideas in preparation for life in civil society. When the Taliban fell, Royesh brought the school back home to Kabul with only $600 in assets and 37 students but big dreams for its future.
“Our mission wasn’t only to provide hope for the people after the Taliban,” Royesh said in his sparsely furnished office, which he rarely occupies. “We had to establish a foundation for a future for the people that would be based on education and civic engagement. So we came here with that idea. To provide civic awareness for the people and through education to go on to form their own destiny.”
He started writing his own textbooks to include the principles of humanism, democracy, human rights, and ethics to counter the old, religious-based government curriculum of the Ministry of Education and to instill in students values like liberalism and secularism. Those principles, he says, are the building block of civil society.
Marefat is located off a dirt road in the Daschte Barchi neighborhood of Kabul, an area mostly populated by ethnic minority Hazaras. The school now has a student population of 3,000 but is divided along gender lines, something Royesh fought for years, but finally caved under pressure from the Ministry of Education. Officials threatened not his to allow graduates to attend state universities if he kept his classrooms mixed, so Royesh had no choice. The boys' school is across an alley from the big gray building housing the girls’ school. Royesh is still frustrated by the separation so he insists that certain programs are co-ed, like the school radio station, the student-run school magazine, and student government. “The interaction between boys and girls helps them a lot in creating a harmony, or a culture of harmony when they grow up,” he says. “And the result of that was amazing. It helped even the community to be influenced by this culture—by this new culture which was emerging through the school.”
The school is entirely community-supported and locally run. Students pay tuition of about $250 a year, much less than most private schools here, but there’s a box of money set aside to help those whose families can’t afford to pay.
That this is a community school is one of the most important elements of its success. Royesh hopes the way Marefat has made Daschte Barchi a more cohesive neighborhood can stand as a model for the rest of the country of inclusiveness and progress through education.
“We do not rely on foreign aid,” he says proudly. “And we have the highest salary for our staff (about $400 a year) so we are able to attract the best teachers.”
In the afternoons, the school runs a literacy program for women in the community aged 15 and older. “We take what we teach the children,” he says, “and we tailor it for their mothers. Many of the mothers are illiterate. This way, it helps them be more involved with the school and with their children.”
Many of the girls who come to Marefat are the first females in their families to go to school. Thirteen-year-old Farzana Sarwary, who aspires to be a politician when she grows up, stands up proudly in class when asked what her plans are for the future. Already sounding like a politician, she puts her hand on her heart and says, “I want there to be a day in Afghanistan where everyone, old, young, child, can love, can speak and express their ideas and their feelings very freely, and I think that the one very big thing that we need today is we need a society or a country where everyone can have an equal life and everyone can express their feelings and have freedom.”
When Royesh challenges her, as he loves to do with all of his students, asking what will happen if the Taliban make a comeback, she is defiant. “I am not afraid of Taliban.”
Royesh has come under scrutiny from officials over the years. In 2009, when parliament passed the Shia Family Law, which would have legalized rape within marriage, a group of his female students organized a protest. The conservative clerics who had drafted the law organized a mob to storm Marefat in retaliation. They smashed windows, threatened to kill Royesh, and burn the school down. Royesh escaped through a window after calling police. The school was closed for three days, and he feared families would not want to send their children back when it reopened, but he was wrong. 95 percent of the students returned with their parents. It was a testament to the philosophy the school was founded on.
Many of the teachers are former students who have come back with university degrees. Royesh’s sister, Mahtab, is one of them. She was married off at the age of 14, when the family fled Afghanistan, but her husband left her a few years later. Never having gone to school, Mahtab’s future seemed bleak, until her brother encouraged her to go to school. She is now running the school’s kindergarten program and teaching math to first graders.
“Aziz has a 100 percent graduation rate,” marvels Lauryn Oates, the Afghanistan program director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and a friend of Royesh’s. “It’s hard to argue with that. No one who visits the school leaves unimpressed.”
The school is unique, she adds, for the way it uses education to teach conflict resolution and democratic principles. It is those principles, Oates says, which make Royesh stand out as a visionary in education in this country. He has built his school on the same values the country will need to rebuild itself—pluralism, democracy, and gender equality.
“This model can be expanded,” he smiles. “If you encourage the community to establish an institution of themselves and then to protect that themselves, it can guarantee sustainability.”