Dr. Mohammad Khan Kharoti was born in Zabul Province, Afghanistan in 1943 and lived a nomadic existence until his parents settled on land in the Nad-i-Ali district of Helmand province in 1950. He still recalls the motion of the camel as he rode beside them as they traded across Afghanistan and India before partition. In 1955 Mohammed began primary school, something no one from his village had ever done before. After school Muhammad began an auxiliary nursing program in Lashkar Gah hospital and later became Charge Nurse of the entire hospital. In 1978 he was sponsored by an American doctor to complete his secondary schooling in Lebanon and this was followed by an invitation to study in Iowa, where he completed a pre-med program. He was elected President of the International Students Club and remained in that position until he graduated in 1975.
Stealing the Light, directed by Aimie Burns, is an independently-produced documentary which focuses on the story of Dr Kharoti and his personal journey to build a school in his home village of Shin Kalay in Afghanistan.
In March 2001 Dr Kharoti began supporting classes for 10 boys and six girls in the Kharoti family compound in the village of Shin Kalay (“Green Village”), with a population of 11,000, in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. The country at that time was under the control of the Taliban and the education project was undertaken with their consent, including instruction for girls.
Two literate women from another village were hired as teachers for the girls. Mohammad personally funded the construction of three classrooms within the family compound, but as the demand for classes increased, the teaching space became stretched to capacity.
After Green Village Schools (GVS) gained official recognition as a US charity Mohammad met with the elders of Shin Kalay in 2003 to discuss the need to build a real school. Construction began almost immediately on half a hectare of land owned by Mohammad’s brother, Habib. The educational complex eventually comprised eight classrooms for boys on one side and eight for girls on the other, providing space for nine grades. A well was dug and an elevated storage tank constructed, with separate latrines for boys and girls, and a privacy wall around the entire complex. In addition, there was a library which also served as a community centre, and a computer lab was under construction.
By 2007, with about 800 boys, 400 girls and a teaching staff of 35, the school was licensed by the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan and they provided some financial support for teachers’ salaries. Other support came from a diverse range of community and international partners. The Provincial Office of the Minister of Education records that over 2,400 students attended the school during its short history.
Then, in October 2008, Dr Kharoti received a phone call in the dead of night: the school in Shin Kalay was being destroyed. He asked if anyone had been injured and insisted that villagers shouldn’t intervene. Safety was paramount. Who did this and why is still uncertain. Over a period of three days, a mechanical digger was used to destroy much of the structure, as unarmed villagers watched from a distance. Most of the furniture, supplies and building materials were looted.
Mohammad said, “I didn’t cry but I couldn’t stop the tears. I was in shock.”
The school was soon replaced by the Afghan Appeal Fund, a UK based NGO, using traditional mud brick classrooms built in a more central location near the mosque.
Teachers’ salaries were paid by GVS throughout June 2011; since then, village elders have had responsibility for arranging for teachers to be paid through the Ministry of Education [MOE]. Around 700 boys were enrolled at the school and 170 girls but, because of the continued unrest in the area, the girls were schooled in private homes nearby.
In 2012 the Afghan Appeal Fund decided to help Dr.Kharoti rebuild the original school on the land that his family had donated. The entire village has been involved with this huge project. The site had to be cleared, stones were gathered from the countryside and the old bricks were cleaned by hand.
A recycled brick costs 1 Afghani: a new one 6 Afghani. Villagers queued up for work; during Ramadan they worked at night under floodlights to finish the school. It is built in round a large courtyard with a central dividing wall to separate the boys from the girls. The tall outer wall – integral with the classrooms – provides security.
Each half of the school has its own well and flushing latrines which operate with a solar powered pump. The latrines are thought to be the first of their kind in rural Helmand – and Dr .Kharoti had to give instructions for their use!
The school now has 36 rooms in total – 24 of which are classrooms; 1,150 boys attend l and 550 girls, but numbers are growing and there is much more work to do.
The school needs a library and computers and would love to add a sports field and an area to grow vegetables.
Dr.Kharoti is a rare person who has the personality and intimate understanding of the local culture to drive this project forward. He sits on the ground with the village elders in his native dress and discusses such issues as girls education and the responsibility of providing protection for them. He will turn his hand to anything – whether it’s teaching physics or sweeping floors!
Shin Kalay is a deeply conservative community which takes great pride in its new school. The MOE has visited on several occasions and regional exams were taken at the school. It has also been used for weddings and has become central to the community.
But it’s the enthusiasm of the children – particularly the girls – that is helping to soften their father’s hearts and that enthusiasm is central to the success of the school. Mothers receive cooking oi, which is another incentive to send their children to school. The children no longer live and work barefoot all day in the scorching opium fields, and boys no longer need to go to the Madrassas across the border in Pakistan.
In 2010 GVS received a grant to set up an Advanced Education Centre(AEC) in Lashkar Gah. Mohammad spent five months in Afghanistan setting up the project. The centre is equipped with 30 computers and internet access via a VSAT (very small aperture terminal) system. Afghan teachers were interviewed via Skype and four, all university graduates, were hired for computer and English instruction. The English teachers completed a TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages) course over the internet. The first class of 240 students, almost half of them female, received certificates in June 2012.
Families and children are hungry for education. We have learned from the original school’s destruction and the community’s reaction to that great loss, that this hunger cannot be denied and families in rural communities will enrol their children, boys and girls, at every opportunity.
GVS wants them to be prepared to participate in a local, national, and world economy and that requires not just reading, writing, mathematics and science, but computer literacy as well. Dr.Kharoti is keen for his students to forge links with schools and colleges around the world.
Afghan Appeal Fund has worked on 11 school projects in 6 provinces in Afghanistan.