These days, Afghanistan makes international headlines more and more rarely and when it does, it is always about yet another tragedy. A humanitarian crisis, an earthquake, a deadly attack, a drought, expelled and suffering refugees.
I used to work for Daily Outlook Afghanistan, the first English-language media outlet in the country. In our small newsroom, we recognised the negative psychological impact that the constant stream of bad news had. So we set out to look for positive stories to print side-by-side with our regular coverage and try to counter this decades-old tendency to paint Afghanistan in all-dark colours.
Daily Outlook Afghanistan is no more. The newspaper, like many other media outlets, had to shut down shortly after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 2021. Most of my colleagues fled to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan; one of them, Alireza Ahmadi, tragically died in the bombing of Kabul airport on August 26 that year. So now there are even fewer journalists in the world looking for the positive Afghan story.
I, myself, fell into the dark trap of fatalism. From a writer, who always viewed and analysed political issues from the positive side and tried to give hope to the readers amid two decades of war and violence, I turned into a man full of chagrin. Life became extremely hard overnight. I was unemployed, struggling to provide for my family. Everything seemed meaningless to me.
I often heard complaints from female relatives about their struggles under the Taliban regime and the ban on secondary and university education. This saddened me and just added to my anguish.
As the months passed, I slowly started to realise that I could offer a lot more than words of consolation. As a Chinese proverb goes: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”.
So I decided to light the candle of literacy and education. I had years of experience as an English-language teacher, having worked with various educational institutions and initiatives throughout Afghanistan. It was time to put it into use.
I found like-minded people who had also decided to start playing a positive role for the younger generation in these hard times. Together, we founded a private academy to teach English in Dasht-e-Barchi, a western neighbourhood of Kabul.
None of us had any extra money, so we had to borrow from friends to cover the expenses of renting a space and equipping it with chairs and desks, whiteboards, solar panels, MP3 players and screens. We put together a syllabus ourselves and passed the registration process with the Ministry of Education.
Despite the ban on secondary and university education, girls are still allowed to study in private education centres. So we have welcomed them as our students, along with boys.
We abide by the legal requirements and keep the girls and boys in separate rooms; we also ensure all female students wear the Islamic hijab in the class as prescribed by the authorities.
We have set a low tuition fee that is relatively affordable and we also offer waivers. Of the 200 students currently studying with us, 15 are not paying and 40 are paying half of the fee. The payments we collect are just about enough to cover the rent.
We teach for free, but we are still rewarded. The daily encounter with so many young girls and boys who want to study and achieve is inspiring.
We have one male student, for example, who recently got into a road accident. A rickshaw hit his motorbike and hurt his fingers seriously. He sent us a message, saying, “I had an accident and going to have a surgical operation. Please pray for me so that my fingers do not be chopped off.” To our surprise, he showed up for class right after he had the surgery.
Another student who inspires us with her determination is a 16-year-old girl who works at a tailor shop where she receives little pay to support her family. She is highly keen on learning English but cannot afford to study, so we gave her the opportunity to join our academy without payment. To cover the cost of books and stationery, she sets aside 10 Afghanis ($0.14) every day from her pay.
I look back at the past few months in which the academy has been open and I feel regret for losing the previous two years to depression and hopelessness. If we had started earlier, we would have helped many boys and girls pursue their education dreams.
Some of the students I taught a few years ago are now studying in foreign countries such as India, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, France and the United States.
But I am also happy that I have left behind the paralysis of despair and embraced hope. I try to help my students fight depression and despair, as well. I try to inspire enthusiasm and optimism and motivate them to be active in their communities and create the positive stories Afghanistan so dearly needs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.