Knowing that he comes from Afghanistan where temperatures can reach as low as -10 degrees centigrade in the winter, I asked Umair if he likes to play in the snow. Gravely, he replied, "No." In an effort to break his reticence, I trudged on. "Did you like to throw 'galoola barfi' (snow balls) at your friends in Afghanistan?" His face turned colorless. "I couldn't sell the hats and gloves, I sold every day when it snowed. I would just sit in the room and wait for the snow to melt. How else would I earn the hundred rupees required to feed my family?" My heart sank to a bottom less pit.
My landlord's house was a humdrum of activity. New carpets were being laid out, the old wall paper was being ripped apart and the walls were getting a fresh coat of paint. Two Afghan boys in the age group of 14-16 years were going to be taken under foster care. Days later when the children arrived, they were seemingly quiet and scared, grappling with a strange environment and people. Their eyes narrated stories of extraordinary courage and relentless determination to deal with adversity. In an effort to search for a better life, they left behind their home and families, with some having no means to communicate to their loved ones that they were alive at the end of their excruciating ordeal to reach the West.
In the days that followed the arrival of the boys, my husband and I offered to teach them English and mathematics for better school preparedness for admission in the next academic session. Afghanistan is home to more than forty languages, though Afghan Persian, known as dari and Pushto are the widely spoken and understood languages. As multilingual as the Afghan society is, so were the children from diverse linguistic backgrounds. Teaching them proved to be challenging but a lot of fun. In fact it became a mutual experience. I rummaged my memory for Persian words which I had not used since the Persian 101 course I had taken in university. The fact that our mother tongue was Urdu which traced its roots in Persian, aided us. Using flashcards, small interactive games and puzzles as teaching tools, their hunger for learning humbled me.
It was amazing to observe what a phenomenal impact a loving, supportive environment had on the children. Having traversed two continents, passed through war zones and lived in jungles on their way to reach the West, they relished the comfort provided to them by their foster carers. They oozed confidence in their daily lives. They exhibited a resounding enthusiasm for learning, dreaming to become doctors, engineers and government officers. Such was their hunger for learning that even if five minutes had passed the stipulated time, there was a familiar knock on the door, beckoning the ustad (teacher) to start the lesson.
Another interesting character in this experience was my four year old son. He would often accompany me whenever I went to the landlord's house for giving a lesson. Sitting in my lap, imitating the audience with a paper and a pen in hand, he would make an attempt to copy the words we discussed. Once when I took a Dr. Seuss book as a teaching aid for learning about rhyming words, he proudly announced, "It's hop on pop!" The room broke into rapturous laughter. His presence would keep the classroom aura cheerful and light. Learning was a mutual experience for him too. The boys would correct him when he made a mistake in counting, and he would garb his professorial gown to correct the boys when they erred in four letter rhyming words.
I recall a famous Latin proverb at this point: 'By learning you will teach; by teaching you will learn'. Teaching these children has practically demonstrated to me some very important lessons in life. That a spirit which imbibes the willingness to learn is stronger than the sharpest blade. That an environment that fosters love, support and encouragement can make broken, battered souls shine. And that learning and education is the true beacon to fight darkness in this world.
(*names have been changed for this article)