A better world through education

Afghan Chevening scholar Naimat Zafary shares his reflections on the importance of education beyond individual opportunity

Last summer, the eyes of the world were on Afghanistan. The departure of US forces and those of other allies was quickly followed by the return of the Taliban. Crowds of desperate people gathered around Kabul airport hoping to be on one of the last flights out of the city. Through scenes of horror which will live with me for the rest of my life, families spent days pressing towards the airport boundary wall so we could give the British forces our names and be lifted to safety.

Amidst all that chaos, one of those families fearful for our lives was mine. For two days I guided our group through scenes of horror, often with my daughter on my shoulders. I will never forget the British soldier who finally hauled us to safety and towards the plane that took us on our journey, one of the saddest and yet most important of our lives.

The reason I was on that flight at all was education, and a deep desire to use it to make a better world.

Earlier that year when none of us imagined what lay ahead, I had been awarded a prestigious British Chevening scholarship to build on my existing studies and experience working in Afghanistan on various development projects and in particular in relation to the mining industry and human development. The Chevening awards are focused on individuals the UK Foreign Office hopes will use their education to be prepared to give the leadership needed in their home countries. It is a privilege that carries with it a duty to serve.

Yet I almost wasn’t on that flight at all. The determined advocacy of friends and colleagues in the UK such as the President of the CBI, Lord Bilimoria, and Study Group’s Senior Advisor, Ruth Arnold, helped persuade the UK government to include Chevening scholars on the list of those who were eligible to leave. My scholarship status arguably saved my own life and that of my beloved young family.

But my commitment to education goes back far longer than the events of last summer, and is far wider than simply my own life and opportunities.

Those who have followed the recent history of Afghanistan understand that it is a turbulent one, and my own life story reflects that. As a boy I spent a period of time with my family in Pakistan for our safety. The life of a refugee is hard but I knew education was the only way forward for all of us. As a child I sold boiled eggs and sewed carpets every day to raise enough money to go to school.

Earlier that year when none of us imagined what lay ahead, I had been awarded a prestigious British Chevening scholarship to build on my existing studies and experience working in Afghanistan

Later on, better times came for me and my family. I worked hard, passed my examinations and went on to university in Kabul to study a degree and then a master’s, before beginning my working life.

Once I was earning, I could help others. I am deeply committed to women’s education and was so proud that one of my sisters qualified as a dentist. I then used my career to help provide the financial support for another sister to become a doctor. She too studied hard and had just one more term left to qualify before the Taliban arrived. She is still in Afghanistan and we desperately hope that, even in these difficult times, she will be able to complete her education and serve the people of our country who so desperately need her. My own young daughters also began their education and love to learn. And I helped fund the children of a friend and orphan neighbours to attend school when it was clear this was the only way it would be possible.

Why would I and my family care so much about the opportunity to study? The answer is simple. Because without any doubt, education is the greatest investment an individual and a society can ever make for its own good.

How do I know that? In part because all of the statistics gathered by organisations like the UN tell us so, including that the best way to benefit young people in a society is to educate mothers.
But I have also seen the lessons of hard experience and know the price of an uneducated society is cruelly high. This is nowhere more true than Afghanistan where over 10 million teenagers and adults are illiterate. In 2020 the UNESCO Institute for Statistics confirmed this figure had increased to 43% of the population.

What this means is that Afghan citizens are not only disadvantaged in gaining the skills and opportunities which will lift them out of poverty but, perhaps worst of all, that they have been unable to fully participate in civic and political life, to scrutinise leaders or to understand where the wealth acquired from the country’s natural and mineral resources was being spent. Corruption abounded, the seeds of conflict grew, with consequences of unimaginable horror now witnessed by the whole world.

Only education will provide a lasting solution to such circumstances of multiple deprivation, not just in Afghanistan but across the world. It was no accident that the Greeks believed a democracy relied upon the demos properly understanding the complex issues upon which it had to judge. And how much more true is it today in our age of digital media that we must be educated to question when, as Mark Twain said, a lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.

Today I work at my education as a Chevening scholar knowing it is preparing me to help others facing the challenges of a developing nation, without being sure exactly where in the world this will take me. I do know though, as Nelson Mandela said, that education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world.

For now, I am one of the comparatively few Afghans who can study in safety here in Britain, where I and my family have received the warmest of welcomes. The wonderful academic staff of the University of Sussex are sharing their expert knowledge with me, and I am hoping to continue to a PhD to really prepare to make a difference, possibly here in Sussex or in Oxford. And my daughters are now in school, free to learn and to lay the foundations which will one day allow them to improve the world in their turn.

A President of Harvard once said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” The Afghan people and so many others around the world have paid a heavy price.

Our children deserve better. They need a society in which the poor can use knowledge to become more productive and prosperous, where families in remote regions can connect to the world by mobile phones charged by solar batteries, where new technologies and medical advances can improve health and reduce mortality. And where the young can grow up to use power for good rather than seize it at gunpoint.

This is my ambition and I am determined to use the opportunity I have been given to help make it happen. As I look around so many great British universities, home to students from right across the world, I know I am not alone in this dream.

Written with Ruth Arnold, Senior Advisor to Study Group and cofounder of the #WeAreInternational campaign.

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