Sanctuaries of learning give vulnerable Afghan youth the skills they need to live a better life, away from the streets
Street children carve out a future at Kabul's Aschiana centre
In a quiet, sunlit classroom, Mahboob Ullah paints deft, colourful brushstrokes. Mixing orange and golden hues, he carefully outlines a pattern of flowers and vines, occasionally checking the design with his teacher, Ahmad Shah Marufi, who has helped coach him to create the images this art student hopes one day will form the basis of a new career.
"I come here to get the skills that will help me in the future, and I've been coming on Thursdays and Fridays for the last six months," Mahboob says in the sanctuary of the Aschiana centre in Kabul, the Afghan capital. At 15 he has already had long-term employment of a sort, washing cars on the streets.
"Coming here has given me a future beyond what I have experienced and thought I would do - I used to wash cars on the roads 12 hours a day," Mahboob says. "When I'm not here I still have to continue that work to give money to my family - but Aschiana will hopefully give me a different job."
Mahboob comes to Aschiana, as do hundreds of other children just like him, who have grown up working and sometimes living on Afghanistan's streets, to receive an education and to learn the skills that can mean better prospects for the future.
Meaning "nest" in Dari, Aschiana helps around 4,000 students in eight centres in Kabul, and thousands more across Afghanistan - there are Aschiana branches in several areas around the country, along with a growing number of outreach programmes and shelters.
Established in 1995 with 100 boys and 50 girls attending the centre, the registered non-governmental organisation focuses on those children at risk following Afghanistan's decades of conflict, especially those who live or work on the streets to support their families. Other children can attend the centres for hot lunches.
"We're helping about 8,000 kids across Afghanistan, in centres in cities including Mezar-e-Sharif, Herat and Kandahar," says Nazar Hammad, the general programme manager. "We teach basic education, health education, gender awareness, embroidery, carpentry - the idea is to build a skill-set as well as educating and providing awareness training."
In a population whose overall unemployment and poverty rates are estimated to be around 35 per cent, Aschiana targets those areas of society most at risk. The children Aschiana helps have lived through Afghanistan's bitter conflicts. Hammad explains what effect this has had, and why the work of the centre is so vital and valued.
"We're working across eight districts in Kabul right now, and we're doing a lot of work with internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees," he says. "These groups often have high numbers of children working on the streets because they have to help support a family where one or both parents are ill or injured by the conflicts, or have died. It's up to the children in the families to provide an income, and these children will also have had terrible experiences because of war."
Amir Gul has taught carpentry at Aschiana's Shar-e-Nau centre in Kabul for eight years, both passing on skills and helping his students to find work placements through an apprenticeship scheme. Sitting in one of the centre's workshops surrounded by intricately carved boxes, geometric vases and low tables, he explains, between instructions to three of the centre's newer pupils, the role of the workshops and how Aschiana helps students find employment.
"We work with local businesses to give the boys apprenticeships that will hopefully lead to careers," he says. "We train the boys with locals and give them certificates when they reach certain standards, so they have a qualification." There's also a programme within the organisation to sell some of the products made by younger students, as a way of channelling funds back into Aschiana, to buy more materials to keep the carpentry workshops running.
As well as learning subjects including maths, English and Dari, Aschiana's students also attend compulsory art classes and work towards learning practical skills they can use to get off the streets.
Fifteen-year-old Shadab has been coming to Aschiana's Shar-e-Nau centre for a month. Seated at a low bench in one of Aschiana's carpentry workshops, he is carving a circular, flowered pattern into what will be, when finished, a door for a cabinet.
"I want to pick up skills that can help me get a job and learn," he says. "I have come here to learn and also to try to get a job working with a business or a workshop - I want a career as a carpenter."
His friend and classmate Wahid, 14, is from the Paghman area near Kabul. Looking up from a woodcarving he's trying to complete, Wahid says that coming to the centre has meant the chance to gain a career to provide for his family, and also to get back some of what it means to be just a child.
"It's relaxing, we can play here, it's safe - and we learn a lot - it's fun and you make friends. It's just fun," he says.
The centre caters to children from around the age of five to 16, with classes and further study for older students. The Shar-e-Nau centre is set up to support and encourage a range of activities, housing a sports hall, an outdoor basketball court, workshops, a computing lab, an art room and a series of classrooms, hung with posters and chalk boards and catering to around 25 students at a time.
For some children just starting at the centre is as important as what they'll learn there. The art teacher Marufi recognises the need to let them adapt.
"When we first bring the children here we try not to pressure them - we let them do what they want, whether it's art, or playing, or just watching what's going on," he says. "The main thing is to educate them - that's the most important thing. In a country with a 28 per cent literacy rate, education is at the heart of what teachers at Aschiana highlight as particularly important.
"You start to see a huge change after they've started coming here, and between them and those still on the streets," Marufi says. "They start to open up, they understand subjects better, they are more confident. There's a real change in what they are learning." That change can be huge - several of those who have attended the Aschiana centres have gone on to work for the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, or to attend art college in Kabul.
One Aschiana scheme encouraging the transition between art student and professional is the exhibition and sale of artworks produced by older children at the centre. Provided with materials, studio space and the chance to market their work, students can sell their art and keep half of the proceeds - the other half goes back to Aschiana to help it fund the art projects.
Estimates put the number of children living or working on Kabul's streets at 30,000, with charity organisations and government bodies striving to determine exact figures - difficult in a shifting population of IDPs and refugees flowing into and around the capital.
What Aschiana provides is in stark contrast to life on the streets. At traffic lights, market squares and shopping malls, war widows in fluttering iris-blue burqas are surrounded by children selling postcards, phone cards and packets of tissues, or offering to wash cars. The scene is played out around the city, with unaccompanied children working from dawn until dusk to bring in extra cash.
Many of the children at Aschiana report such street experiences, but also tell of being approached by one of Aschiana's instructors, who regularly look for children in need.
"I was working on the streets and one of the teachers from Aschiana came up to me and asked if I wanted to come," says the art student Mahboob. "I said yes and she brought me here. Some of the teachers here hand out numbers to kids on the street and then we can call and come in."
Aschiana's work costs around €100,000 (Dh495,000) annually, Hammad estimates. "We have secured funding until 2012 through donations from bodies like the European Commission," he says. "But we are always looking for funding. We've also had help from agencies like Unicef - but it has been a concern, where the money will come from."
He says the organisation is keen to expand towards family-orientated projects that can support mothers, and to increase its healthcare programmes.
"We regularly visit the families of the children that come here, and we run courses for them too, which we want to develop.
"We want to look at agricultural programmes, do more micro-financing work than we're doing now, develop health centres, provide counselling phone lines providing health advice, and start a 'Nutrition for Life' programme for mothers."
Hammad is keen to get more girls involved (the gender mix is 50-50 now) because, he says: "Girls are often harder to reach out to and they are often more responsible for family life, so we'd like them to come in."
One girl in the art teacher Marufi's morning class is keen to explain her reasons behind attending Aschiana, and her hopes for the future. Twelve-year-old Mari has been at the centre for almost a year, and says painting has given her something to focus on beyond her family and her financial responsibilities.
But her words also illuminate what the centre stands for, and the work it aims to develop further. Painting a delicate watercolour from a postcard bearing the same image, Mari mixes colours and talks.
"I come here to learn but also because here you have time to learn music, learn painting, make friends," she says. "It means I don't always have to work or think about working for my family." Uncertain about her future, she knows she wants more chances to study.
"I want to be able to learn, but I don't know what I will do," she says. "I just want to get more education now, and learn new skills. And here it's safe and welcoming. That's why I want to keep coming."
The Aschiana file
WHAT An Afghan non-governmental organisation helping street-working children
AIM To assess the needs and promote the welfare of vulnerable children and their families in accordance with basic child and human rights
HELPS About 8,000 children across Afghanistan
PROGRAMMES Education, vocational training, life skills, psychosocial support, internships, outreach and more
HOW TO HELP All donations are made through the National Bank of Pakistan - Kabul Branch. To donate or find out more, e-mail email@example.com. Child sponsors are welcomed at US$260 (Dh955) a year - $20 (Dh73) a month, with an additional one-time $20 to cover medical needs.