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The Afghan Schools Run by Afghan Refugees

December 20, 2017
Aida Ghajar
8 min read
The educational center House of Sun was founded in 2005 by Afghan refugees to help other Afghan refugees
The educational center House of Sun was founded in 2005 by Afghan refugees to help other Afghan refugees
Teachers at schools like Farhang are Afghan-born but Iranian-educated
Teachers at schools like Farhang are Afghan-born but Iranian-educated
The Afghan Schools Run by Afghan Refugees

The House of Sun caters to the children of Afghan immigrants who need an education, and is affiliated with the Farhang (“Culture”) School, a collection of schools founded and run by Afghan refugees. Despite having provided education and support to the community for several years, it has still not found a place in Iran’s state school system — and yet, even faced with enormous obstacles, staff and volunteers are committed to keeping it going. 

For years, the Iranian government evaded the question of education for the country’s large Afghan refugee population. But finally, in 2015, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei ordered that state-run schools must enroll Afghan children.“Schools must enroll all Afghan children, even if their parents are illegal immigrants,” he announced n May 17 of that year. “No child should be deprived of education and they should all be able to go to school in Iran.” 

So, two and a half years on, how are schools serving the Afghan immigrant community performing? Have they been incorporated into the state school system? What role do institutions like House of Sun and Farhang play now? 

First of all, despite the Supreme Leader’s declaration, quite a number of Afghan children have still not been able to attend school for a variety of reasons — including negligence from their own families, short registration periods, and specific shortcomings in individual schools. So, following on with its years of work, the Farhang School — which employs teachers who are themselves Afghan refugees, and appoints Afghan refugees to other posts at the school too — continues to provide these disadvantaged children with an education. The House of Sun itself supports “self-financed” schools founded by Afghan refugees in several Iranian towns by providing them with course material and helping them to put on exhibitions and festivals [Persian link].

The House of Sun’s umbrella organization, Farhang School, dates back to the year 2000, when a group of Afghan refugee students at Tehran University founded the institution. When it was first launched, it enrolled about 900 immigrant children. In 2005, the school received government approval and the required permit to operate. And, due to the fact that state-run schools began to accept larger numbers of refugee children, fewer students enrolled at Farhang. In the current academic year, the school enrolled just over 100 new students. 

Five years on from Farhang being set up, the school founded the House of Sun, but the sister organization has yet to receive a government permit.


Help from University Students

The faculty of the school — both teachers and other staff — are all Afghan refugees who have gone to school in Iran, and many of them were actually born in the country. In Iran, officially recognized primary schools must hire permanent teachers who work with children five days a week. For the students at high school level, however, a number of Master’s Degree or Ph.D. students from Tehran University have joined the faculty and teach the students as volunteers one day a week.

According to statistics provided by Farhang School, 70 percent of its students are enrolled in the first to the sixth grades, 20 percent in the seventh to ninth grades and the rest in the 10th grade and above. For this academic year, the 10th grade had only two students.

Until Ayatollah’s Khamenei’s order, Afghan children had a very difficult time in getting enrolled in state-run schools. Those whose parents did not have residency permits were rejected outright, and volunteers took it upon themselves to teach them. In 2015, the news of the Supreme Leader’s order came only a week before schools were about to start, making it extremely difficult for children to enroll at state schools for the 2105-2016 academic year. So, despite Khamenei’s order, because of this short timeframe — and because undocumented families were afraid of getting into trouble — many children were unable to enroll that year. For the 2017 academic year, however, the enrolment period was extended to almost a month, making it much easier for families. And those children with undocumented parents received special permits so they could register as well.


Keeping the Connection

Among other activities, the House of Sun has published the magazine Children of Sun since 2014. The magazine reports on children of Afghan immigrants who have studied in Iran and have been successful in their careers, whether in Afghanistan or in Iran. Most of the examples are from students who have studied at Iranian self-financed schools like Farhang.

One section of the magazine is called “Good News,” and it reports positive stories from Afghanistan so that Afghan children can see that not everything that happens in the country is bad. Other sections tell stories by and for students, and there’s a letters section, where students write friendly letters to the Afghan president and Iranian children, but also more hard-hitting ones, such as to the Taliban. In these letters, students really speak their minds. They ask the Taliban questions, or tell them what they have been through and the pain they have suffered. One child asks why the Taliban killed his father, and another wants to know why the Taliban does not want them to be educated. Another section encourages children to talk about good and bad aspects of their lives. Those who run Children of Sun feel these parts of the magazine are extremely important, and encourage dialogue and debate.

Another section provides the children with valuable information about Afghanistan — its geography, its culture and its history. This section is particularly useful and of interest, as Iranian textbooks contain no such detailed information about Afghanistan. 

Farhang School also organizes group breakfasts and entertainment programs. Twice a week, the school provides Afghan dishes for students. 

Many of the students who go on to state schools maintain their links with Farhang or House of Sun. They stay connected with their classmates and regularly visit the school. 

To encourage students to continue their education at Iran’s state-run schools and universities, the school’s faculty also provides counseling in the classrooms for students and former students. Former students who have gone on to state-run schools often complain about being badly treated by Iranian teachers and students, and Farhang staff listen and advise, encouraging them to do their best in their studies to prove themselves, and to show that nationality is not a barrier to learning.


Out of Sync

Farhang School, the House of Sun and other self-financed schools cater to children whose schooling, for a variety of reasons, has been interrupted. Some have entered Iran after the start of the academic year and have had no chance to enroll. Others do not have a complete dossier or records that show what grade they have completed or they have not taken the required placement exams. But a large number are children whose education does not measure up with that of students taught in Iran’s state-run schools. The quality of education in Afghanistan is generally lower than that of Iran and by the time they get to Iran they are too old for the grade for which they are qualified. For instance, a student from a middle school in Afghanistan might be accepted at a primary school level but he or she might not be enrolled because of his or her age. The majority of students at Farhang School fit this description.

Another obstacle for Afghan immigrant children needing to enrol at Iranian state-run schools is their change of residency. Often residency permits for refugees are issued in towns other than the capital, but Afghan families may have moved to Tehran for a variety of reasons, including their parents’ jobs. Khamenei’s order does not apply to these children and so they are not allowed to enrol at state-run schools.

Afghan refugees and immigrants are generally poor and live on the margins of big cities. The density of the population in such areas is very high and, as a result, schools are filled to capacity and must often turn away immigrant children. It’s been especially difficult over the last few years, since Iranian schools began running on a single shift system instead of two shifts as it once was. As a result, classes are even more crowded than they were in the past.

Escaping Humiliation

In some cases, children of Afghan refugees encounter humiliation from other students or their families. For this reason, many of them prefer to study at self-financed schools with students from their own country, even though these schools are considered less prestigious. When a student passes his or her university entrance exams at these schools, acceptance to institutes of higher education can be more of a challenge than it is for those students from state schools. 

For one year of schooling at Farhang School, the tuition is close to 600,000 tomans, or around $170 — an amount some families cannot afford. To help them, school administrators evaluate the financial situation of such families and adjust the tuition accordingly. Some students are allowed to study at the school for free. These include children who have lost their fathers, or whose fathers are unable to work, and whose mothers are the family’s sole breadwinner. 

A number of Iranians and Afghan nationals from within and outside Iran sponsor many of these children. Through a program set up by the House of Sun [Persian link], people can pay the annual cost of education, food, tuition and clothing of one student, which amounts to close to two million tomans, or around $570. Donors have the option of paying in monthly installments.

A volunteer teacher working with Farhang School and the House of Sun told me he believes that if people help such self-financed schools to continue in their activities and educate these children — many of whom have nowhere else to go — it will help cut down on “hate-mongering” substantially. “If we do not pay for these children, be it in Iran or in Afghanistan, and do not provide for their education,” he says, “they will be absorbed by the extremists and become hate-mongers. They will take their revenge on their neighbors, on the society, and on the whole world. Then it will cost hundreds of times more.” Of course, he is talking not only about a monetary value, but also about the cost to society and threats to the ties that bind communities.  


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