Peshawar, Pakistan - He is only 13 and a refugee in a not-too-hospitable country, but Ahmed Jamal already knows what he wants to do for the next decade or so: follow in the footsteps of his older brother.
The 6th grade student at the Dawat School here recounts that after as his brother passed 12th grade at a Peshawar school, he crossed the border into Afghanistan and enrolled at the Kabul Engineering University.
"My brother graduated from electrical engineering two years ago and is now employed by a U.S.-based electrical firm in Kabul," says Jamal. "Given his salary, I want to (emulate) my brother and get a good job."
But the youngster knows that what his brother has achieved is nothing less than a feat, and that he himself is lucky to have reached even this far in school. After all, he says, most Afghan refugees like them lead a hardscrabble life here in Pakistan and many are unable to continue their education unhindered.
The boy even says that based on what he has seen in his community, about 30 percent of the younger set of Afghan refugees quit school before reaching Grade 5 because their families have no money for uniforms or transportation costs – much less shoulder the 30 U.S. dollar monthly fee that is asked of each Afghan student here. This is even as Muhammad Tahir, an Afghan teacher in this border city tells IPS, "Educating their children is the dream of all parents…in Pakistan, (including) the refugees. The parents do hard work just to pay for the fee of their sons and daughters."
There are about 1.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, with most of them in north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. At one point, Pakistan was hosting as much as five million Afghans who had fled their war-torn homeland. Since 2002, however, United Nations data say that some 3.5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan.
Pakistan has a U.N.-facilitated repatriation programme for the Afghan refugees. The country, though, has agreed to let registered Afghan refugees stay in Pakistan until 2012.
Tahir says that in the last several years, the refugees have taken more interest in pursuing education, in part perhaps because of news about improving circumstances in Afghanistan.
Another Afghan teacher, Jalal Shah, remarks, "All the Afghans want education. They have learnt a lot from their miserable conditions. They are sure that only education can bring them satisfaction and happiness."
The irony is that their renewed interest in schooling coincided with the shifting to Afghanistan of at least 10 colleges and universities that catered to them after U.S.- led forces toppled the Taliban government in Kabul towards the end of 2001, as well as the eventual drying up of international aid for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Abdul Jabbar, principal of Rana Afghan School in Peshawar, confirms: "As the number of Afghan students is rising, that of schools is shrinking because most of the schools have been shifted to Afghanistan."
"The problem is that we need rented buildings for schools, which are very expensive," he says.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Minister Sardar Hussain Babak puts it bluntly, saying that because the refugees should seek help from their own government because Afghan schools are run by the Afghan education ministry.
"We are here to facilitate them if they want any technical help, but we cannot provide them space", he says in an interview. The Afghans here should go back home to continue their studies, Babak adds.
"Now, there is no foreign aid and only those Afghans who can pay can study in educational institutes," says Aziz Safi, a Grade 12 student in one of the Afghan colleges in Swabi district. "The U.N. encourages repatriation of refugees and is not willing to help the refugees anymore."
An education section in the Afghan consulate here that is supposed to oversee matters relating to Afghan students is also now without funds. Says Shah: "We are facilitating the Afghan students to get admission on the seats reserved for them in Pakistani institutes, but those seats are extremely limited in number."
Pakistan’s universities have a limited number of seats for Afghan refugees; medical and engineering courses, for instance, have only one seat each reserved for Afghan students every year.
This is why most Afghan refugee students wishing to continue on to university head for the border and into Afghanistan once they finish high school in Pakistan.
Still, many refugees balk at having their younger children return to Afghanistan because of the resurgence of violence and uncertainty there in more recent years.
"Pakistan is better than Afghanistan because our children are safe," says Afghan schoolteacher Zubeida Bibi. "In Afghanistan, the female schools are the worst-hit by (attacks from the) Taliban."
She quotes a 2009 World Bank report as saying that there were 1,153 attacks on "education targets" in Afghanistan just last year alone, including the destruction of schools by arson or grenade bombing, as well as murder of students and teachers. Asks Bibi: "How can we advise the students to go to Afghanistan?"
Those who want to receive degrees that they believe would give them a better shot at steady jobs, however, feel that they have no choice but to return to Afghanistan.
"I work in a shop in the morning and study at school in the evening to pay for my expenses," says one Afghan refugee student here. "I plan to study medicine at Kabul Medical College after passing Grade 12 here."
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