Empowering Afghan schools

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Barbara Ruben

Qayum and Anna Safi, of Chantilly, Va., recently established a nonprofit organization to provide electricity and computers to schools in rural Afghanistan, where Qayum grew up. Even today, it is difficult for boys and girls in the Khas Kunar district bordering Pakistan to get an education.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

In the remote region of Afghanistan that Qayum Safi once called home, the odds are still stacked against children getting an education.

Youngsters in mountainous Khas Kunar, which borders Pakistan, may be from families too poor to spare them each school day. In addition, spots at schools often go to children of privileged families or clans. And many girls are not given the opportunity to attend school.

Add to these challenges the lack of electricity and clean water, and a location in one of Afghanistan’s least secure regions, and the obstacles can appear insurmountable.

But Safi, 71, a resident of Chantilly, Va., is working to give these children in his homeland an opportunity for an education.

Inspired by an Afghan proverb, “No matter where a person goes, he always comes back to the children of his ancestors,” Safi and his wife Anna recently established a nonprofit organization called Rural Afghan Schools.

The organization is raising money to bring electricity and computers to educational institutions in Khas Kunar, about an hour’s drive from Jalalabad, the main city in eastern Afghanistan.

Learn computers from books?

While Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, from 1996 into 2001, most girls’ schools were closed. But since then, the number of girls attending school throughout Afghanistan has skyrocketed from about 5,000 to 2.4 million.

There is now a new girls’ school in Khas Kunar. Prior to that, girls had been learning in makeshift schools in mosques and homes.

“Education is now far better than under the Taliban, but there are still huge gaps,” Safi said. “I asked [schools in Khas Kunar], ‘can we provide books, or provide stationery for writing?’ I was told they had those things, but the schools still had no reliable electricity source.”

The Safis’ organization raised enough money to install solar panels that now provide electricity for the girls’ school in the area. The Safis personally contributed $10,000 for this first project.

They are now working to raise an additional $28,000 to bring electricity to two boys’ schools.

They also hope to be able to provide a computer lab. “We have a computer instructor, but no computers. He said [the students] could learn about computers from books, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Safi said.

In addition to seeking donations of funds for these rural schools, the Safis would like to find American schools that would like to become sister schools with them.

“We have connections to the villages, schools and local officials in Khas Kunar,” said Safi. “My relatives teach at these schools, and I talk with them weekly. So I can be sure what we give will end up in the right hands.”

An education abroad

To obtain his own education, Safi had to leave his hometown, and eventually Afghanistan itself. While he eventually earned a PhD in education from Columbia University, as a youth he thought he might never make it past elementary school.

Growing up in poverty as the eldest of three children, Safi’s first home had an open fire for cooking, and the ground floor was shared with the family’s cows, donkey, sheep and goat. Waste water drained outside through an open, odoriferous trench.

In elementary school, he was first in his class and won a scholarship to a middle and high school in Kabul, about 145 miles away, where he could board.

Continuing his stellar educational record there, he was awarded a college scholarship to the American University in Beirut, where he majored in psychology.

But in order to take classes there, he had to learn his fourth language — English. Safi was already fluent in two Afghan languages (the country has no single national language) and Arabic. He failed the English entrance exam twice before he finally made it in.

It was an eye-opening experience for Safi to live in a large, modern city. For example, it was in Beirut that he saw television for the first time, calling it “miraculous and unbelievable.”

He then received another scholarship, to attend graduate school at the teacher’s college at Columbia University, where he earned his PhD and met Anna.

She remembers the day: “There was this really geeky guy with dark hair and dark horn rimmed glasses,” Anna said. “They say there is love at first sight. That is not [quite] what happened. I looked at Qayum and thought, ‘This person is going to be in my life for the rest of my life somehow,’” she recalled.

But the two of them had to surmount many differences. Blonde, Rhode Island-born Anna was a Catholic, nine years younger than Qayum, a Muslim.

They got married, fittingly, in a building owned by the United Nations that was across the street from the U.N. headquarters in New York City.

“I am glad we did not get married in a place where one religion was considered superior to others,” Safi said. “I have always been in favor of faiths that encourage belief in one God and focus on the ultimate objective, rather than on the different ways of achieving it,” he wrote in his memoir, One Life: An Afghan Remembers, published in 2012.

Safi would hole himself up in his study to write the book, not divulging to his family that he was pouring out his autobiography until the book was finished.

Stranger in a strange land

Safi has not returned to Afghanistan in over 30 years. Instead, he visits relatives who cross the border to Pakistan to meet him there. He said it could be dangerous for an educated person like himself to return.

While in graduate school, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and the communists revoked his scholarship. Religious extremists in the Taliban, and now Islamic State, would also not look at him favorably, he said.

As Safi explained in his memoir, “With Afghanistan’s once-stable political situation rocked by violent turmoil, I had no desire to go back home again. Caught between the extremes of communism and religious fundamentalism, my country had become a narrow, stifling space, where I would have found it difficult to breathe had I returned.”

But in the middle of his graduate studies in 1979, Safi almost had to return.

“Talk about being toast,” Anna recalled. “The State Dept. basically said you either have to go back, or prove you have the finances to stay here.”

Instead, Safi found a position in Kuwait, where he established the Center for Evaluation and Measurement at Kuwait University. Anna found teaching work there as well.

Their three children were born in Kuwait. Six years after moving there, the family was finally able to return to the U.S. But in Rhode Island, where they settled, Safi felt his blended family did not blend in.

“Our immediate neighbors on either side were Irish Americans, who seemed strangely uncomfortable about having a foreigner like me living in their midst,” he said. “Some claimed I was black; others decided I was an Arab from the Middle East.”

Despite the fact that both of their neighbors had children the same age as the Safis’, the neighbors discouraged their kids from playing with the foreigners.

At home in Virginia

When Safi got a job in Northern Virginia in 1998, he found the Washington-area’s diversity much more comfortable.

“A great many people living here have mother tongues other than English and speak English with a distinctive accent. I feel so much more at home among them,” he said.

Safi works as a translator for the defense company Leidos (until recently called Science Applications International Corporation — SAIC).

His children are now grown. His daughter and grandson live in Florida, while one son remained in Rhode Island, and the other recently moved from Washington, D.C. to Boston with his wife and son.

Now that he is nearing retirement, Safi is looking forward to directing Afghan Rural Schools full time — and possibly visiting his home country for the first time in decades.

He looked around his spacious brick colonial house in a development that isn’t yet a decade old, carved out of the Virginia countryside near the Loudoun-Fairfax County line. It is so different from the childhood home that he shared with farm animals over 60 years ago.

“You look back and you see you’re not getting younger, so you want to help those who are less fortunate,” he said. “The time is now for me to make a difference.”

For more information about, or to make a contribution to,  Afghan Rural Schools, see www.afghanruralschools.org, call (703) 542-2724, or email safiqayum@yahoo.com.