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Torn Between War And Dreams: Dispatches From A Refugee Classroom

Although most of the children in the classroom have not seen the violence firsthand, the fangs of war haunt them. Even in the subtlest of ways, the remembrances—which mostly come from the anecdotes of their parents— of the perpetual wars and the unending suffering somehow find an ingress into their minds in myriad ways. 

Sana Sultani, 13, gives a presentation in her classroom about the life of the legendary Muhammad Ali
Sana Sultani, 13, gives a presentation in her classroom about the life of the legendary Muhammad Ali Peerzada Muzamil

It was time for a test. All the children in the classroom, most of them 13-year-olds, tore out a page each from their notebooks, wrote their names on it, and waited until the teacher asked them to write down a few examples of conditional sentences.

Ahmad Khan Anjam, their Ustad, muttered a few words in Pashto, and the classroom erupted in laughter. When Outlook asked a boy what his teacher told them, he timidly replied, “Do not cheat!”  

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The classroom went nearly silent, except for the sounds of scribbling on paper and faint, occasional whispers of Afghan kids, conspicuously seeking help from each other. After a while, a young boy in a blue shirt stood up and waved the answer sheet at his teacher.  “I finished, sir,” he said triumphantly, with a cheerful grin.  

The classroom was not very big — an oblong hall, with two rows of tablet armchairs lined across each wall, and in the middle, tables arrayed in a row behind each other. On one side of the hall sat Afghan girls, and on the other, the boys. 

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Ahmad Khan Anjam, an Afghan in his late 20s, started the tuition centre in 2017 for refugee children of his war-ravaged country. Called Anjam Knowledge House, the centre is located in the bustling neighbourhood of South Delhi’s Bhogal, a locality that houses dozens of Afghan eateries and is one of the three prominent areas of Delhi which have been home to thousands of Afghan refugees who have fled the country since the 1980s to escape the horrors of a seemingly never-ending war. 

The cycle of violence largely began by the second half of the 20th century, a timeline marked by a cascading spate of brutal violence—the April coup of 1978, the Soviet invasion and their withdrawal, the rise of the Taliban, and the subsequent US invasion which only made things worse.  

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America’s war—aimed at freeing Afghan people from the clutches of the radical Taliban—ended in 2021 after two decades of excruciating violence that had left at least 1.76 lakh people dead, only to bequeath Kabul back into the hands of the Talibs once again. Throughout these years, millions of Afghans have been fleeing their home, seeking refuge in other countries.  
An estimated 21,000 Afghans are living in India at present.

Delhi dreams 

In Delhi, huddled together in the classroom, the students of Anjam sit safely hundreds of miles away from their war-torn homeland. Most of them have not seen the war firsthand. They have only heard about the horrors from family members who lived through the war and survived bombs and bullets. 

Although most of them have not seen the violence firsthand, the fangs of war haunt them. Even in the subtlest of ways, the remembrances—which mostly come from the anecdotes of their parents— of the perpetual wars and the unending suffering somehow find an ingress into their minds in myriad ways. 

Also Read | Rohingya Refugees Choosing To Flee To Bangladesh Over Risking Separation, Detention In India

As the exam time ran out, Anjam asked Sherzad to “collect the answer sheets from the rest of your friends”. 

After Anjam had put all the papers in a folder, the classroom buzzed with a cacophony of voices, giggles and sighs. And a moment later, the class went quiet again, and dark too. Ustad Anjam had switched off the lights as Sania Sultani, 13, stood to deliver a PowerPoint presentation that she had prepared at home. Every day, one student in the class has to come up with, and deliver, a presentation on any topic ranging from science, moral values, history, environment, technology and much more.

However, Sultani had chosen to tell her classmates about how “inspiring” the life of Muhammad Ali was.  

From the rostrum, Sultani delivered the lecture with eloquence and grace, as slides went one after the other, explaining major events from the legendary American boxer’s life, including his decision to reject the offer of being inducted into the US Army during the Vietnam War.  

Although Sultani did not know who Ali was before her father gave her the idea to profile his life, she dealt with her subject carefully and intimately. 

Sultani wrapped up her presentation, retired to her chair glibly, as the classroom greeted her with applause. Anjam turned on the lights again and asked students to comment on the presentation. Reviews started pouring in. Most of the children, nervous, shy and miser with words, appreciated Sultani’s job, but a boy sitting quietly in the back appeared amused and Anjam asked him to comment. 

“Pouya, what do you think of Sana Sultani’s presentation?” he asked. 

Pouya, 16, sweating profusely amid the roar of air-coolers, stood with confidence and said, “Sana is a very intelligent girl, and the topic she chose is also very good, and her presentation was very well prepared.”  

“Her body language,” Pouya went on, “reflected confidence. And the intonation along with her expression complimented the choice of words she employed." Anjam later said Pouya was among the brightest kids in the class. “They call him the 'Professor',” he said.  

Pouya aspires to be a historian someday and wants to settle down in the United States. “I want to understand the world,” he told Outlook

His family had left Afghanistan in 2008 when he was just a few months old and fled to Norway. They came back after two years, only to leave the country again in 2014 when they finally came to India. Pouya barely remembers anything from Norway, but haunting memories of Afghanistan are still fresh. 

Rattling gunfire and bombs going off in neighbouring areas, he said, had made their lives miserable, and in 2014 the family decided to leave the country.  

“One day I was playing a video game, and I heard a loud explosion,” Pouya said, adding, “I was scared, and I remember I was shaken for nearly five minutes.” Initially, he had thought it was an explosion in the game, but Pouya saw his mother rushing back and forth in the house, and when she turned the television on, a local news channel confirmed that a bomb had gone off nearby.  

The unprecedented violence in Afghanistan has shaped his perception and outlook toward life in more ways than one. “Nobody wants to fight, you see. It is the political leadership and their personal interests which drag countries to fight each other. People who barely knew each other before the war, are suddenly on a killing spree against each other,” he said. “And the spate of violence doesn’t stop unless it affects the politicians directly.” Pouya’s political understanding of conflicts comes from the time he spends reading.  

For these children, their dreams are varied. Some closer to the aspirations of the present generation. Some more lofty.
Sana Sultani wants to be an actress. She has already played a small role in a documentary about Afghanistan, her teacher proudly mentioned.  

“I want to fly a jet one day,” another student said.  Asked whether he wanted to fly a fighter plane, he instantly replied, “No, No! I want to fly a passenger jet. I don’t want to be dangerous.” 

Zehra, a 13-year-old girl, wants to become a climatologist and wishes to save the world from the havoc of climate change. 

Another boy, who spoke only Pashto, rushed in with sheer excitement to show a toy bike he had made by assembling ice-cream sticks, a couple of wires, some glue and a small battery.  

“Bike, bike,” he said, and muttered something in Pashto while showing the DIY toy. He put it on the floor, joined a wire with another, and the toy careened like an agile mouse. All the children giggled after the bike ran into a wall. He had learnt many things about electronics while he was working in a small AC repair shop in Delhi. He wants to become an engineer. 

Like most of the Afghan refugees living in India, all these children dream of settling in a third country, as they do not see their future here, a country where they do not have the legal right to work.  

Repository of knowledge

The Anjam Knowledge House is located in the basement of a building, and can be entered through a narrow and dimly-lit corridor, too narrow to allow a second person to pass at the same time. Apart from a small reception or a waiting room, there is a classroom and a small library adjacent to it. 

In the library, the steel racks and shelves are mostly swelled with books on grammar, language and computer skills.  There are also some titles by French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. A thick layer of dust lies on them.    

Usually, Pouya does not frequent the library as such, he likes to read mostly from the internet on his smartphone, because, “the web is vast and accessible, and there I can find everything under the sun”.   

“The other day,” he said,  “I saw a video on the internet. Two veterans—one British and one German— of World War II, who were supposed to kill each other in Normandy, met on the same beach after 75 years, and called each other brothers.”  

Pouya knows how cruel history has been to Afghanistan and its people, and he likes to read about wars because he relates to the subject. “I have seen destroyed houses, and families. I am just curious to learn about how the other parts of the world deal with this,” he said.

Although the internet for Pouya is a gateway to the repository of knowledge, at times, the things he comes across on social media are perturbing— violence, bad news from home, and the acerbic hatred that razes like a frenzied wildfire. But he is not the only one who finds the internet disturbing. His classmates often feel depressed for days after they see unpleasant things on the internet, especially things that bring them foreboding news from their homeland.  

“I struggle a lot to keep these kids away from social media, they see things that they are not supposed to, and they are in a depressed state of mind for days,” Anjam said. He urges all the students to keep a safe distance from triggering content online.

Ufra Mir, a Peace Psychologist, said that social media is a very “triggering space” for everyone but more so for "people who are marginalised, or displaced or have borne the brunt of sustained violence in one way or the other”. 

To scores of Afghan kids in the classroom, life lies ahead with a hundred possibilities. Hope is a panacea, a way out to chase their dreams.  

And for Pouya, his hopes of seeing all the violence end in this world might not fare well. He is smart, and knows it for himself: “I hope one day war ends, and everyone lives in peace, but knowing human beings, that day is unlikely!”

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