Kabul’s Miracle School for Street Kids Struggles to Survive Among the Wealthy

Aschiana is an Afghan miracle — a school where dedicated people teach and feed hundreds of Kabul’s street kids, many of them orphans.  As investors rushed t0 profit from billions of dollars in aid and wartime spending, the school’s Afghan landlords  forced it to close to make way for a hotel.  Then a U.S. businessman blocked construction of a new school because he wanted the land to build luxury homes for foreign aid workers. . . .

Aschiana classroom and artwork
Kabul street children study beneath students’ artwork at the Aschiana school, 2005. Afghanistan’s former royal family, which owned the building, forced the school to leave so it could build a luxury hotel on the site. When President Hamid Karzai granted land for a new school, a U.S. businessman walled it off to build instead a gated community for Western aid workers. (Photo by James Rupert)

Newsday, 26 Nov. 2006

(See also our initial story about how wealthy investors expelled Aschiana in 2005 from its original school.)

By James Rupert — Staff Correspondent

KABUL, Afghanistan — On most days, Wasim, a thin 12-year-old, leaves home at 5 a.m. for an hour-long trek across Kabul to work. At a muddy street market, he sells the filmy plastic bags that shoppers fill with a kilo of potatoes or onions.

Afternoons, Wasim joins other boys at a line of minivans taking workers home to the sprawling suburbs of this city of 3 million. Amid roaring traffic, crowds and diesel fumes, the boys call out for passengers to the taxis’ destinations. Getting home as late as 8 p.m., Wasim usually has earned a dollar or so for his family of 11.

Wasim wants to be a doctor, an ambition ignited at the school he attended last year. There, a charity called Aschiana taught him reading and math, fed him a hot lunch and provided the only doctor he has ever met.

“The doctor takes care of people,” Wasim said. “When I was sick, he knew what medicine to give me.”

But the rebuilding of this shattered city makes little room for its estimated 50,000 street children or their dreams. Wasim was forced back to full-time hustling 15 months ago when landlords razed the school to build a luxury hotel on the site.

Soon after, President Hamid Karzai signed decrees giving Aschiana an acre of downtown land. A Washington-based foundation with backing from First Lady Laura Bush raised money for a new school. But a U.S. company took over the land and built a wall around it, saying it was part of 29 acres the company had leased to build a gated community of upscale homes for western aid workers.

It’s routine here. In July, Education Ministry official Zahoor Afghan said more than half of government schools in Kabul have no buildings and use rented space or tents instead. A $4-million fund for school construction was sitting partly idle because the land allocated for 20 of the schools had been seized by others, Afghan told the independent Pajhwok news agency.

After a year-long tussle, it appears Aschiana will get its land. But it will likely lose a crucial $200,000 European construction grant if it cannot break ground by Friday, said Aschiana director Muhammad Yusuf.

The key in the battle was a switch by the U.S. Embassy.

During the summer, both sides said the embassy was backing the U.S. company, Red Sea Engineering & Constructors, which had built housing for the embassy. But after pressure from Aschiana’s backers in Washington, U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann pushed Red Sea to cede the acre allotted by Karzai, embassy personnel say.

The fight is partly a clash of priorities and cultures in the business of nation-building. Amid the glut of handsomely furnished international aid agencies here, Aschiana is a poor, no-frills Afghan cousin. Its rented properties have dirt courtyards and curtainless windows, but the offerings to students go far beyond basic studies, including calligraphy, music, computer studies, vocational trades, a student newspaper and a student-run bank.

Foreign visitors marvel at the student artwork on the walls of Aschiana’s six schools around Kabul, but the group can pay its teachers only $4 a day, and its trained staffers are routinely lured away by richer foreign aid groups, Yusuf said.

The big money in Afghanistan’s development is not reaching the majority of its 30 million people. Much of the $13 billion in foreign aid pledged since 2002 is “wasted on high salaries, large overheads, luxury cars, luxury houses that Afghanistan cannot afford at all,” President Karzai declared in January.

While foreign aid workers theoretically are working to improve life for ordinary Afghans, many spend much of their time escaping that reality. Millions of dollars in international aid and laundered opium profits have created rich classes of Afghans and foreign aid providers who say a critical part of development is luxury hotels, restaurants and homes for themselves and foreign businesspeople.

Behind its concrete walls and razor wire, Red Sea’s housing complex is bidding for a profitable role as a primary escape for foreigners. Of a planned 100 homes (one to three bedrooms), 32 have been built. To avoid Kabul’s failing electricity and sewage systems, they are connected to the complex’s private utilities.

Inside the walls, an Australian-run restaurant called Red Hot Sizzlin’ serves 16-ounce steaks. It has become “the favorite haunt of the beard ‘n’ baseball-cap brigade,” according to Afghan Scene, a slick magazine for Kabul’s expatriates.

Afghanistan’s renewed explosion of war has killed an estimated 3,700 people this year, quadrupled the rate of violent attacks and frightened many foreign investors. But Red Sea president Roy Carver says his niche – providing comfortable housing and entertainment for U.S.-paid contractors – is secure. The rising instability has brought “much more activity in building up the [Afghan] police and army,” Carver said. A $1.4-billion U.S. government contract for construction of roads, power and water projects around Afghanistan means he will have American tenants for his homes and apartments for the next five years.

Carver, an affable Oklahoman, seems to have accepted losing one of his 20 acres as just another unpredictable cost of working in a country without a clear legal system. “It’s an uphill battle to be a foreign investor here,” he said Thursday at his office.

Carver doesn’t deny the need to teach or care for the kids who pick through Kabul’s garbage or scavenge scrap metal to help feed their families. He’s never seen Aschiana’s school, “but it’s a noble cause” he said.

Still, it’s a noble cause that doesn’t belong next to his little piece of heaven for foreign aid workers. Meeting Yusuf during the summer, Carver voiced his discomfort half-jokingly. “We’re gonna have 100 homes of expatriates out here, and there wouldn’t be any way to keep them separate,” he said as a reporter looked on. “You don’t want your kids coming around them, do you? I mean, come on! We’re all a bunch of Yankees!”

On Thanksgiving morning, at his office inside the Red Sea complex, Carver added, “I’ve never seen a street kid here [in this neighborhood]. They tell me there are thousands of them.”

He invited an American visitor to the restaurant that evening for a feast with turkeys flown in frozen from Dubai.

Outside the Red Sea gate a few minutes later, a couple of boys poked aimlessly through a pile of trash. Why weren’t they in school?

“School? How?” asked a boy named Amin. “That costs money!”

Rukiya, a student at Aschiana, stands with relatives.

Rukiya, a Kabul orphan and student at Aschiana’s school for street children, stands at center in an informal refugee camp, surrounded by her cousins and an uncle. When Rukiya is not studying at Aschiana, she sells plastic bags in a street market in downtown Kabul. (Photo by James Rupert)

© Newsday (New York), 2006.


3 responses to “Kabul’s Miracle School for Street Kids Struggles to Survive Among the Wealthy

  1. Corruption is one half of this, but clueless entitlement on the part of foreign aid workers and those who cater to them is the other. No one actively set out to obstruct the schools; they’re just not a high enough priority. And yet, taking the long view, there is no higher priority for Afghanistan’s future prosperity than educating these kids.

  2. Pingback: First Do No Harm – media voices for children

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