For a better future

For a better future

A scholarship at UWC Thailand International School in Phuket is helping two Afghan girls realise their dreams of an education

For a better future
Marsela, left, and Hamida received two-year scholarships to complete secondary education at UWC Thailand International School in Phuket. (Photo: UWC Thailand)

After the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, Hamida and Marsela are happy to be back in school in Thailand. Despite being far from home, they are not only taking interesting lessons but growing up in a safe environment with new friends and teachers.

"I love it when I can choose what to study. When you have the right to choose your passion, you learn what you are interested in. It is something I always dreamt of," said Hamida in an interview before she returned to an afternoon class.

After the Taliban's return to power last August, sweeping restrictions have been reimposed on women. In an about-face after a six-month closure, girls are not permitted to attend secondary school. Hamida and Marsela were no exception. But when the opportunity came, they left their home country to follow their dreams. Now, they are beginning a new academic year at UWC Thailand International School in Phuket.

"Before the Taliban's takeover, life was much better. We had schools, hospitals and everything was going well. Most people were employed and had a good income," said Hamida. "It was not that good, but it was still developing. When the Taliban came, everything just stopped working."

Political turmoil dealt a blow to her family. Her father lost his job because the local markets came to a halt, and so did her sister because women were not allowed to work anymore. Her siblings no longer went to school or university. Hamida lost her network of those advocating for change on social media. On the day the American soldiers left, most of her best friends followed.

(Photo: UWC Thailand)

Afghanistan came under the first stint of Taliban rule in the late 1990s. Hamida learned the brutality of the previous regime from her mother and grandmother. She lost her grandfather to an attack. For Marsela, her parents got married at the time. They told her the Taliban enforced regulations on daily life.

"I never thought they would come again because they are an unreal nightmare, like a monster," she said. "But in a second, they came and it was announced that the Taliban took over. My mom got a panic attack. My dad helped my mom, but I could not help them because I was shocked."

In a series of escalating restrictions, the Taliban ordered women to cover their faces in public, otherwise their male guardians would be fined or jailed. Women have been barred from travelling alone and from secondary education. Since October, girls are forbidden from enrolling in some university courses but are still permitted to attend primary school.

"They define their rule and say it is Islamic. They misuse religion in order to get support from people and maintain their power," said Hamida. "For example, they say you are allowed to work, but according to Islamic rule, you must have your father, husband or brother with you. It is impossible because there are many people who don't have any relatives like that."

There are at least 2.3 million refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan in neighbouring countries, according to the 2021 data by UNHCR. Hamida and Marsela joined the exodus.

Pornpan Prongchitr, a lecturer in history at Srinakharinwirot University's Faculty of Social Sciences. (Photo: Pornpan Prongchitr)

Each year, UWC Thailand offers scholarships to students from conflict zones to complete their high school education. Each student applies to the national committee in their own country and is selected through a rigorous process. Scholarships are funded through individual donors, community events and partnerships.

Hamida said the whole process takes nine months, involving rounds of interviews and other activities. After that, they must apply for visas, but the fact there is no Thai embassy in Afghanistan required them to travel to Pakistan. Marsela said it was a long journey and she cannot believe that she has made it to Thailand.

However, not everybody can flee their country. After the Taliban's return, girls are now increasingly prone to child marriage, according to Unicef. Families sell their daughters as young as 20 days old into future marriage. Marsela said when she checked on Instagram, she found that her friend, 16, was engaged. Hamida said her mother got married at 13, but education has changed her family's attitude.

Hamida and Marsela arrived in Thailand and started a new semester in August, which marked the first anniversary of the latest Taliban takeover. But they have not forgotten their home and will make the best of the scholarship. Marsela said she plans to study medicine and go on to become a heart surgeon. Meanwhile, Hamida said she will study international relations or public policy.

"I love my country and will go back, not now but when everything gets better. I am going back and working for the people," she said.

In the last graduating class, UWC Thailand had three refugee students from Palestine, Syria and Tibet. Nicki Robertson, chief advancement officer at the international school, said the plight of young students, especially females, should be at the forefront of fundraising efforts. Scholarships help them open the door to opportunities at US and UK universities.

"Many students wish to return to their home countries to have a positive impact and be changemakers," she said.

However, political instability in many countries is forcing talent to live somewhere else. After China cracked down on political dissent, coupled with stringent pandemic rules, many are departing Hong Kong. Following the military government's clampdown on the pro-democracy movement, Thais are leaving for where they can have a future.

"The emigration of these two female students is a case in point for an onset of brain drain from Afghanistan," said Pornpan Prongchitr, an expert in the Middle East at Srinakharinwirot University's Faculty of Social Sciences. "After they graduate, they won't be able to return to a repressive environment in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban remains in power."

Pornpan said the previous government allowed women to study at university. Her Afghan friends received scholarships to study in Iran and were able to return home to work. However, the Taliban have reversed such progress. Infringement of women's right to education will take a heavy toll on their freedom and standard of living.

"For example, they are denied opportunities to study medicine. In Muslim communities, patients must receive treatment from doctors of the same sex," she said.

The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s when Soviet troops left Afghanistan. They are a predominantly Pashtun, Islamic group that took control before the US toppled them in 2001. After two decades, the Taliban returned after the US withdrew its remaining forces following a peace deal. Initially, they said they would allow women freedom, but within the framework of Islam.

Pornpan said despite their claim of religious adherence to gain public support, the Taliban's interpretation is based on local tradition and is different from Islamic law or Sharia. Islam does not endorse gender inequality, but many countries, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, make interpretations according to their customs. When it comes to education, the Koran encourages all Muslims to seek knowledge, no matter how far it is from home.

"The Taliban have made up [regulations] and claim they follow religious principles. It is a misinterpretation," she said.

Whether those who leave for better opportunities, including Hamida and Marsela, will be able to return depends on many factors, especially international support, Pornpan said, because local Afghans lack the power to resist the Taliban. It will take some years to see change.

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