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Kabul school sparks new opportunities for young people and a brighter future for Afghanistan
Areebah Ajani
14 October 2011
  • Sparks Academy in Kabul is a catalyst for community development and learning opportunities for people of all ages. When Tahmina Shayan began volunteering with a community-based early childhood development programme of the Ismaili Council for Afghanistan that was supported by the school, she discovered new opportunities for herself and an avenue to make a difference in the lives of other young Afghans.

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    Children play with everyday food items as they learn about the world in which they live, at the National Council Sparks Early Childhood Development Program in Kabul. Photo: Karim Thomas
    Children play with everyday food items as they learn about the world in which they live, at the National Council Sparks Early Childhood Development Program in Kabul. Karim Thomas

    When she visited the offices of the Ismaili Council for Afghanistan, 16-year-old Tahmina Shayan was not looking for more work – in fact, she had been busy preparing for her school exams. But during the visit, she met Ismaili Council President Shair Baz Hakemy, who told her about a community-based programme of the Council in early childhood development. Initiated and supported by the Sparks Academy in Kabul, the National Council Sparks ECD Program was now run by the Ismaili Council for Afghanistan in jamatkhanas across Kabul, and was looking for help.

    That evening, when Tahmina recounted the conversation to her father, he became excited. Her father, who had always sought out the best educational opportunities for his five children, had heard good things about the Sparks Academy, as well as its founder – Roshan Thomas. Convinced that Sparks could be an avenue towards a better future for Tahmina, he persuaded his eldest daughter to pay a visit to the school.

    An unlikely friendship

    Tahmina was born in Kabul, where she and her family lived until the security situation challenged their safety, forcing them to move north to Baghlan province. But when even that part of the country came under threat, the family saw their quality of life deteriorate, and with difficulty made the decision to flee the country. In 1999, they joined other Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

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    Mothers and teachers spend time developing low-cost resources for the students at Sparks Academy Kabul. This serves many purposes, including preserving the important cultural tradition of needlework, familiarising mothers with the education of their children, and providing the children with much needed locally produced toys. Photo: Karim Thomas
    Mothers and teachers spend time developing low-cost resources for the students at Sparks Academy Kabul. This serves many purposes, including preserving the important cultural tradition of needlework, familiarising mothers with the education of their children, and providing the children with much needed locally produced toys. Karim Thomas

    Coincidentally, it was in these same refugee camps in Karachi that Canadian optometrist Roshan Thomas and her husband Rahim, an ophthalmologist, began their relationship with the Afghan community. For five summers during the 1990s, the couple would fly in from Vancouver –– with their young children, Karim, Rishma and Samira, in tow –– to provide comprehensive eye services to the refugees and other local vulnerable communities.

    A close bond developed between the Thomas's and the Afghan community. “We realised there was something remarkable about a community that shared so generously with us, even though they had survived decades of horror,” says Roshan Thomas. Humbled by their experience, they felt compelled to follow the community back to Afghanistan should they return home.

    And return they did – by the autumn of 2002 many Afghan refugees, including Tahmina and her family, were back in their home country. Though they had braved the migration and transition, access to quality education for children had become a casualty of the war.

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    Numbers 1 – 10 in Dari with pictures sewn by mothers for the Sparks Early Childhood Development Program. Photo: Hussain Ali
    Numbers 1 – 10 in Dari with pictures sewn by mothers for the Sparks Early Childhood Development Program. Hussain Ali

    “We had moved a lot and could not have a traditional kind of education growing up,” reflects Tahmina. Education had become a matter of rote memorisation and was only considered good if it vaguely mimicked perceptions of Western education. Meanwhile students and teachers alike suffered the residue of wartime restrictions and a lack of ingenuity. Afghan culture, Muslim history and the stories of the nation were slipping through unattended cracks.

    A new kind of learning

    The deep friendship that had developed over the years in the camps compelled the Thomas family to find ways to support Afghanistan. It became clear to them that education was needed to enable community development.

    In 2002, Karim Thomas arrived in Kabul to work on a development project, and by 2003 he had helped envision and implement a plan for an early childhood development programme. In October of that year, his mother Roshan arrived in Kabul with two suitcases full of school resources. Two weeks later, the doors to the Sparks Academy, Kabul opened for the first time to welcome children.

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    Roshan Thomas uses materials sewn by mothers to train a group of teachers at a new Early Childhood Development centre in Kabul. Photo: Karim Thomas
    Roshan Thomas uses materials sewn by mothers to train a group of teachers at a new Early Childhood Development centre in Kabul. Karim Thomas

    Today 900 children file into the halls of Sparks Academy each morning. The place is filled with the joyous sounds of children learning, singing, playing and following a path to a successful future.

    The first thing Tahmina says she noticed when she walked into the Academy was the abundance of books. She began volunteering there and took up a teacher-training course. “I was learning how to engage students by helping create the curriculum,” she says. “We teach parents and children as young as three how to use playtime and build thinking skills.”

    Perhaps most importantly, young minds like Tahmina's are hard at work reimagining the Afghan educational model. “Sparks Academy is not just about importing Western education into Afghanistan, because that will not work,” says Tahmina.

    “There is a tendency to feel enamoured with Western education,” adds Roshan Thomas, “but we must learn from the Afghan people that which simply cannot be lost in an effective Afghan education.”

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    Navroz – the first day of spring and the start of the Afghan New Year – is celebrated with traditional activities at the Sparks Academy in Kabul. Photo: Karim Thomas
    Navroz – the first day of spring and the start of the Afghan New Year – is celebrated with traditional activities at the Sparks Academy in Kabul. Karim Thomas

    The Academy welcomes kids from all of Afghanistan's diverse ethnic groups. The teachers use curricula to engage Afghan folk traditions, to reflect on Muslim civilisations, and to embolden the youth with confidence in their heritage.

    “At Sparks Academy, we are taught the values of cultural pluralism and voluntary service,” says Tahmina. “There are too many news reports on Afghanistan's ‘warrior culture' that make even Afghan youth start to believe we are fighters. But we are not a violent people.”

    By encouraging Afghan lifestyle and tradition alongside critical thinking skills in the classroom, Sparks Academy is pioneering a model for international early childhood development. “Afghans make sandali when it is too cold outside,” says Tahmina, explaining a local tradition. “The whole family gathers around a hot stove under a table which is covered by a blanket. We prepare tea and desserts while elders tell stories to the children.”

    Sparks that keep on giving

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    Mothers are engaged with the daily life of their children at the Sparks Academy Kabul, and often enjoy music and dancing when they come to collect their children at the end of the day. Photo: Karim Thomas
    Mothers are engaged with the daily life of their children at the Sparks Academy Kabul, and often enjoy music and dancing when they come to collect their children at the end of the day. Karim Thomas

    One of the goals of Sparks is to build a model for connecting parents, teachers and the local community. The dedication of student Ahmadshah and his mother Gulbadan provides a typical illustration. Like many mothers, Gulbadan was anxious to enrol her son at the Academy, but without having had access to formal education herself she “erroneously felt she was ill prepared to contribute to her children's education,” says Roshan.

    Due to the encouragement of the educators, Gulbadan was soon involved in designing and stitching letters and numbers as school resource materials. Today she is learning to read words and phrases, and Ahmadshah – who attends classes and uses materials created by his mother – is proud of her contributions.

    This kind of community connection is a quintessential educational model, says Roshan. Not only is Gulbadan learning to read, but she is also passing on her talent for embroidery to other mothers through Sparks.

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    Teachers Tahmina Shayan and Laila Attai joined the Sparks Academy in Kabul together. Photo: Karim Thomas
    Teachers Tahmina Shayan and Laila Attai joined the Sparks Academy in Kabul together. Karim Thomas

    Meanwhile, Tahmina just received her International Baccalaureate diploma from the Lester B. Pearson United World College in Victoria, Canada with the help of the Thomas family. Roshan encourages Afghan youths like Tahmina who are studying in IB schools to bring their innovative ideas back to Afghanistan and help implement them.

    “There is much that is different between Afghanistan and North America,” says Tahmina, “but we are one community. I find that we are all willing to volunteer and serve.”

    After returning home for the summer, Tahmina led courses for special education and special needs students at Sparks. “Tahmina is one of our bright young stars and we have high hopes for her,” says a proud Roshan, who splits her time between Kabul and Vancouver.

    Tahmina has also set the Academy on a new trajectory: She is the first Sparks Scholar to return to the school to volunteer for a year. She will be working with Roshan's daughter, Samira as well as a team of IB schools to expand the alumni programme. In the autumn of 2012, Tahmina plans to return to Vancouver to commence her university education.

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    President Shair Baz Hakemy and Aitmadi Karim Dad Mehri visit the National Council Sparks ECD Program. Photo: Hussain Ali
    President Shair Baz Hakemy and Aitmadi Karim Dad Mehri visit the National Council Sparks ECD Program. Hussain Ali

    Tahmina has high hopes for the future of Afghanistan. “We are strong, open and diverse people,” she declares. “Once we work together, we can overcome things that weren't possible during war.”

    With determined young visionaries like Tahmina, there will certainly be many sparks in Afghanistan's future, guiding and lighting the way.