Help Save the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre in Kandahar
Canadian taxpayers can be proud that modest contributions from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) over the past few years have supported an exceptional school in the heart of southern Afghanistan, the Afghan Canadian Community Centre.
Tucked away behind unassuming but protective gates down a quiet street in Kandahar city, hundreds of young people bustle in and out of the small building every day. Women swell the ACCC's classrooms in the day, while young men come for their classes in the evenings. Operating much like a community college, Kandaharis can take computer, business, marketing and English classes here that allow them to land good jobs and earn good incomes. They take online classes with Canadian profs at places like the South Alberta Institute of Technology, making use of the benefits offered by free software like Skype and Canadian 'virtual volunteers' keen to pitch in where they can.
In this deeply conservative setting, access to education opportunities like those offered at the ACCC are hard to come by. Many international and Afghan NGOs have no interest in going anywhere near Kandahar given its precarious security situation, while it is the southern region that most needs more social development services given its exceptionally low literacy rates and other human development indicators that are often worse than in other parts of Afghanistan.
For women in particular, the south is nortoriously inhospitable to social change. In Kandahar, women fit within a tribal structure that usually condemns them to a lifeltime of purdah, restricted to the bounds of the private sphere, rarely venturing into public life. Child marriage and forced marriages are common; violence against women is higher than in other parts of the country, but there are few services that give women alternatives, or offer them more hopeful futures. The ACCC is an exception in this regard, and may prove in the long run to be serving as an important catalyst for improved status among women in Kandahar. But the school's ability to continue playing this role is in jeopardy.
As Canadian troops depart Kandahar, some of the Canadian aid appears to be going with them. Many other provinces in Afghanistan offer much easier environments in which to deliver aid, not having to contend with the tribalism, insecurity and the conservativeness of the south. On February 28, the ACCC's current funding from CIDA runs out, and they have no word yet as to whether any new funding will be forthcoming. CIDA is no longer focusing its aid on Kandahar. Yet without continued funding from Canada, the ACCC's operations would be significantly scaled back.
And its work has only really just begun. Lasting, sustainable social change takes time and a surefooted commitment of support beyond the short-term. CIDA does not seem to be giving the time needed in Kandahar. As Ryan Aldred, president of the Canadian International Learning Foundation (CILF) points out,
These brave students are attending school at great personal risk to themselves and their families with the dream of building a better life. If these young women are willing to risk everything, I feel that the least we can do is to ensure that there’s a school that can give them an education.
Kandahar native Ehsanullah Ehsan, the founder and director of the school, justifies his mission, and the enormous amount of personal risk he shoulders in carrying it out, by appealing to shared values of enlightenment and civilization. Literacy and learning are the antithesis to the closedmindedness of Taliban ideology, he points out, and if change is to come to Kandahar, people will have to take the risks associated with individually fighting for that change. Last fall, sipping pomegranate juice and sitting cross-legged in his living room in Kandahar, Ehsan explained to me succinctly,
They have to face the music. Resistance is not easy. You have to leave or resist.
When a woman in Kandahar decides to defy danger, social pressures and tradition in order to enact that resistance by choosing to pursue an education, it's a small revolution. When many such decisions are added up, it may be a revolution of some consequence. Those of us living in the comparative safety and comfort of a Canadian community thousands of miles away could lay claim to some pride for playing a modest role in this revolution through our tax dollars, if only our government would step up the plate.
TAKE ACTION: The CILF is asking Canadians to write to their MPs calling for continued CIDA funding to the ACCC, so that its doors can stay open for women. Please copy and paste the letter found here and send it to your local MP.
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.