CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar –
Evacuated Afghan children who have been out of school since August 2021 are back in class thanks to a newly-renovated community education center here.
Located across the street from where Afghan evacuees are temporarily staying while awaiting processing for onward movement, the center is opened to adults and children and a result of collaboration efforts among multiple organizations currently participating in the largest evacuation of at-risk personnel since the Vietnam War, said Maj. Delphoney Kargbo, a 29th Infantry Division chaplain currently supporting Task Force Liberty.
Morning classes are reserved for children ages 4 – 18 and include basic math, English as well as an introduction to American geography to help put them at ease about their prospective new home. In the afternoons, older Afghans receive English lessons and in-the-classroom driving instructions to help prepare them for full integration with their new lives.
Students currently receive instructions from local and Afghan volunteers while Soldiers help facilitate when appropriate, said Sgt. 1st Class Nicole Edgington, the TF Liberty civil affairs noncommissioned officer-in-charge. For Edgington, the classes are critical because they provide children a sense of normalcy after their lives were interrupted in August.
“After all these children have endured, providing a supportive environment and routine is especially important for their mental health and emotional well-being,” she said, adding that since families can stay at Camp As Saylilyah for up to two months, the activities offered at the education center give evacuees something to look forward to each week.
While the classes are voluntary, there is already a waiting list because of Afghan travelers’ eagerness for the school.
An example of that excitement, said Kargbo, took place on the first day of class, when parents and students were in line 40 minutes before the center opened.
“I decided to get there early to take care of all the last-minute details and to greet the students during the first week,” she said. “To my surprise, I was met by a group of excited children and parents. I asked why they were already at school 40 minutes early and the parents said, ‘Yes, we know. But the children just wanted to get here early.’”
The excitement has also translated to many parents volunteering to teach classes. This Afghan-led approach is especially critical, said Col. Tim Culver, the TF Liberty chief of staff, because it is the most culturally-appropriate approach that also empowers guests within their own community
“The Soldiers are always glad to provide support to accomplish the mission of running the center,” he said. “Ultimately, the subjects taught are decided through the U.S. Department of Education and from our travelers, students and kids. Involving our guests as volunteers helps them get back a sense of control.”
One of the volunteer teachers is 32-year-old Nasir who recently arrived with his wife and three children. A former professor in Kabul, Nasir said he volunteered to teach English and math to children ages 8-11 because many are still struggling with the language, and he wants to ensure they receive instruction during their free time. His daughter, 8-year-old is one of his students and Nasir said he is grateful that she and other children have a space where they can brush up on math and English, thereby ensuring they will be ready for school once they get to their destination.
“She is learning new things so that she will be ready to go to school once we get to America,” he said. “As parents, we are always worried about their lessons and their future. I really appreciate that Camp As Sayliyah established a center like this.”
Edgington, who helps to facilitate some of the classes, said students are already thinking of how they can give back to their new homes.
“Our room begins each day with a journal prompt to inspire creative thinking and develop writing skills. For the first daily journal, they were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up. So many chose to be doctors, police officers, or lawyers and described a desire to serve their community,” Edgington said.
Although the education center is meant to enhance the lives of evacuated parents and their children, Edgington said Soldiers like her have also benefited because of the purpose it provides.
“From the moment we delivered the enrollment flyers for the education center, the joy and excitement displayed by the parents and children gave me a sense of accomplishment,” she said.
For Kargbo, the center’s successes are particularly meaningful because it provides young girls opportunities they otherwise may not have gotten, she said.
“There are no words to describe the joy that comes from knowing this is an opportunity the girls will cherish for the rest of their lives,” Kargbo said. “For us to have an opportunity to be part of something much bigger than ourselves, only brings tears of joy to my eyes.”