The price of education
An Afghan teacher’s story
Photo by Jack Looney
By Mary Carlson
We all recognize the value of education, but rarely do we consider it literally as a matter of life or death. Yet for Kamela Adish, an Afghan woman who defied the Taliban by teaching girls, the stakes indeed were that great. This is her story.
Sitting in her family’s new house near the University, Kamela Adish describes the remarkable chain of events leading her from her war-torn country to a new life in Virginia.
Born in Kabul in 1957, Adish grew up during the reign of King Zahir Shah. In 1973, as she finished high school and began to set her sights on becoming a teacher, the country’s political fortunes abruptly shifted when the king’s brother-in-law staged a coup and abolished the monarchy. As Afghanistan adjusted to the new regime, Adish trained at a teaching academy before entering Kabul University to study biology and chemistry. Upon graduating, she taught in a French-sponsored elementary school.
“I decided to become a teacher to serve my country and my people,” Adish said. “With the help of other teachers, I wanted to educate the next generation and help them out of ignorance.” During the next several years, her career flourished and she began teaching high school biology, chemistry and mathematics. She also married Naaem Adish, a geologist at Kabul University. As they welcomed the first of their four children, Afghanistan plunged into political chaos.
In 1979, Soviet troops invaded, sparking a brutal war with mujahedeen, Muslim guerrillas backed by the United States. The language of war soon permeated all aspects of Afghan culture, including the very textbooks that Adish used in her classes. “We used to teach children how to count by saying, ‘One apple plus one apple,’” she recalled. “But now the books were about ‘one machine gun plus one machine gun.’”
Afghanistan’s political strife reached a nadir in 1996, when the Taliban seized control of the government. Overnight, it seemed, the Taliban had reversed decades of educational and social progress. Females could no longer attend school, work outside the home, or appear in public unless covered by a burqa and accompanied by a male relative. Under virtual house arrest, Afghan women and girls faced a bleak future.
Robbed of her teaching career and social freedoms, Adish quietly chose to resist the Taliban’s strictures. “I began teaching my children at home. Then neighbors came and brought their children to be taught.” Before long, she was running an entire school in secret. Yet despite the risks, Adish knew that without an education, her children — and children of others — would have no future at all.
In 1998, after two years of clandestine teaching, Adish heard the knock on her door that changed her life forever. “It was Aug. 15 at 11 in the morning,” she recalled. “Two armed men came inside and began beating us. The children got away. I was bloody from their blows. They said, ‘We will kill you!” Then they left.
That evening, the Taliban arrested Adish’s husband. Neighbors urged her to flee with her children, but she refused. “I couldn’t leave until I knew where Naaem was.” The next morning, the armed men returned, and told her she would be killed the following day and asked if she had a final message for her husband.
Adish faced a terrifying dilemma: leave immediately without her husband or face almost certain death. Unwilling to abandon her husband, she chose to stay. Her neighbors stepped in to help, assuring the Taliban authorities that if they released Naaem, he would make sure that his wife stopped teaching. Naaem was released from jail three days later.
Then, in an astonishing display of loyalty and courage, the neighbors risked their own lives by helping Adish, Naaem, and her three youngest children escape to Jallalabad and then on to Pakistan. Their oldest son, who was not with them at the time of the escape, also succeeded in fleeing the country and reunited with them later.
For the Adishes, life in Pakistan was grim. Separated from family and friends, they had little money and were forced to share a single room. Yet even in reduced circumstances, Adish made sure that education came first. She taught high school and sent her children to study English. Desperate for a fresh start, Adish wrote a plea for help to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a humanitarian program established by the United Nations General Assembly to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees worldwide. “I told them that I wanted to go to a peaceful country, and my children needed an education.”
Months later, a reply finally came. After multiple interviews with UNHCR representatives, the Adishes learned where they would be sent: Charlottesville, Va. They arrived in September 2002. Aided by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Adish and her husband found an apartment, jobs and schools for their children. “I’ll never forget the IRC’s help. They rescued us.”
Now in the third year of their new life in the United States, Adish and her family feel settled. She and her husband work for U.Va.’s Facilities Management — she at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Naaem at Jordan Hall. Two of their children are U.Va. students: son Honishka studies foreign affairs and daughter Sahar is a premed major. The oldest son, Baktash, is a social worker living in Canada, and 15-year-old Ali attends Charlottesville High School.
Without question, the Adishes’ ordeal with the Taliban has left an indelible mark on the children and parents alike. Sahar, who was only nine years old when her family left Kabul, has produced two short documentary films that chronicle her family’s experience and underscore her deep appreciation for education. Produced in 2003, the first film, entitled “Eye of Hope,” focuses on the differences between Afghan and American culture, and was screened at Vinegar Hill Theater, the Virginia Film Festival, and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. In her next film, “Sahar Before the Sun,” the young filmmaker delves more deeply into her experience of growing under the Taliban’s rule and being home-schooled by her mother. It was produced in 2004 for Beyond Borders, a program that mobilized refugee youths from Afghanistan, India, Ukraine. and other countries to create short films about their personal experiences of fear and security. In making this film, Sahar used equipment and resources provided by Light House, a Charlottesville-based, nonprofit, independent media education center for teenagers who want to make movies with an emphasis on personal expression. “Sahar Before the Sun” is slated to air nationally on PBS in late 2005.
Kamela Adish hopes to return to teaching someday. Toward that end, she attends adult education classes to improve her English speaking and writing skills. Reflecting on her career and the heavy price she paid for resisting the Taliban, she has no regrets. “I’m proud that during the war, I taught my students a sense of love for humanity and made them hopeful for the future. I hope that peace casts a shadow everywhere.”