“My life began when I was twelve.”
It’s a strange statement for a 19-year old to make, but hearing Ahmad’s story, I’m struck by the distance he’s covered in 5 years. At twelve, thanks to a friend of his elder brother, Ahmad met Peter Dalglish, then Deputy Chief of Party UN-Habitat in Kabul. Ahmad became part of Dalglish’s organization Street Kids International, and for one and a half years, he travelled every weekend to the UN Compound in Kabul to learn English. The journey was an hour each way, with a mile-long walk up for security reasons and Peter himself escorting his students through the final leg. ‘English class’ was more an education in political and general knowledge and an opportunity to meet and interact with UN workers and visitors from all over the world. “Joining Street Kids is my favourite story to tell. Until then, I was stuck.”
Born in 1998 to Tajik parents in Panjshir, a valley north of Kabul, Ahmad’s early memories are primarily of his family. His father worked as a radio operator with the resistance army and daily existence was not without a sense of peril. As the third of six children – three boys and three girls – his respect for his father and elder brothers is impossible to overstate. Indeed, he spends as much time talking about his family as himself, and on occasions I have to steer the conversation back to his own life.
But the more I speak to Ahmad, the more I begin to consider the possibility that Ahmad does not have the same notion of self as I might. To him, achievement is not something that happens in isolation, away from the people and issues that define one’s life. And perhaps this is why, more than for personal reasons, he holds Dalglish as a model and inspiration. One of the primary ways in which Ahmad’s world opened up thanks to Street Kids was his ability to access and understand cultural artefacts from all over the world – most notably films. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but watching those movies educated me a lot. In class, Peter used to have a test, like a quiz, it was about general knowledge. I always answered more than the other students.”
Ahmad recalls the thrill of copying and circulating on pen drives films from all over the world. Without personal access to the internet or a cinema, Ahmad’s family computer seems to have functioned as his private window on the world. Sleeping with all his family members in their large hall, with a cupboard to create makeshift bedrooms for the two genders, Ahmad would watch films alone in the dark, when the lights were out and the curtains were closed. “My father was a very heavy sleeper,” he says with a grin. “I watched it in a way so I could see just the movie. And after every movie, I felt like I learned something more. It was this weird feeling, I realize now that they became part of my memories… It was like reading a book to me – I watched everything so deeply, very carefully.”
Films, education, and Street Kids – all of these seem to have created a hope in Ahmad that he is dogged about preserving. “I saw my friends not find jobs or have hope that things could change… some of them became addicted to drugs, some of them ran across borders… some of them just killed themselves. No hope for life.”
Although Peter Dalglish had to leave Afghanistan in 2014 – he was one of the last foreign workers to leave – Ahmad and he stayed in touch. Dalglish has been a renowned proponent of the UWC movement, championing the brightest Afghani, Ethiopian, Sudanese and Nepali students into UWC campuses over the years. He and others were forced to leave Afghanistan in large part due to a terrorist attack on Kabul Hotel, where, as ill fate would have it, another UWC proponent and humanitarian, Roshan Thomas, was gunned down while preparing for UWC Afghanistan interviews. But for Ahmad, as for the UWC movement, education is the antidote to terror. “Whenever I saw the situation, I saw hope in studying… I wanted to go to a better school.”
Ahmad’s deep appreciation for the extensive and diverse learning infrastructure at UWC Mahindra is yet another quality that sets him apart from his fellow students, some of whom might consider studying to be as much an expectation as an opportunity. He speaks animatedly about finally being able to play sports and pick from numerous co-curricular activities, and is very positive about being able to make up for any gaps in his education thus far. “The thing I appreciate most is actually everything! I can study very well here, I can go to the library and study for hours without interruption… I thought it was going to be really hard, I thought I wouldn’t be qualified for it. Being here now, I actually realize I’m not, but I can work with it,” he laughs.
When asked about his plans after UWC Mahindra College, Ahmad returns to his love for films. “I would love to be a director, a movie director.” But he is quick to emphasize the main reason he left home – to be able to return to Afghanistan in order to work with youngsters like himself. Cognizant of the ways in which his father, brothers and humanitarians like Dalglish have changed the course of his life, Ahmad is keen to sustain that cycle of hope. UWC deliberately fosters a diversity of history and perspectives among its student body, and while there is no one kind of UWC student, Ahmad embodies and hopes to champion several fundamental values of the movement. A scholarship for Ahmad’s education will enable him to continue on his transformative journey at UWC Mahindra and contribute new hope to heal the rifts in this increasingly divided world.