“If even a single student wants to come to school tomorrow, the school should be open.”
It’s a thing many of us take for granted, the ability to go to school. Not only that, but for many it feels like a burden, the place they want to avoid so they can just get on with their lives. In the Marefat school, the subject of Jeffrey E. Stern’s beautifully written and heart-wrenching new book, The Last Thousand, passing through the doors of the school and into its classrooms is the only way the students will find a life of purpose and meaning beyond the dusty hills beyond Kabul.
The word “Marefat” means many things: wisdom, enlightenment, gnosis, spiritual enlightenment, knowledge. These are the ideals by which the school’s founder, Mr. Aziz Royesh, a self-taught teacher and former teenage fighter for the Arar lives his life, and what he strives to bring out in his students.
The students themselves are an unexpected bunch. They are girls and boys—emphasis on the girls, whose educations are actually more important to Asis than their male counterparts and given priority of better classrooms—who come from the humblest of backgrounds, children born in the poor Hazara community, a Shia minority group whose unknown origins and Asian-influenced looks make them outsiders and targets among the rest of the Afghani people. In times of internal strife, the Sunni majority population would take their anger out on the Hazaras, attacking those who stayed instead of trying to flee to Iran, though Iran—a mostly Shia country—was neither welcoming nor sympathetic.
When foreign forces began moving into Afghanistan after the events of September 11, 2001, the Hazara were optimistic that the outsiders would free them from under the heavy hand of the Taliban, so they did as they were told; they handed over their weapons to the Americans and began to act in a capacity to help bring the Western World to their towns and villages.
Teaher Aziz, as he is known, was a community leader who built relations with high-ranking American military leaders, showing them the impressive work that he and his staff were doing—and it was very impressive.
Marefat began as a single-classroom school in a small apartment, but over the years steadily gained students and the respect of the community until Aziz was able to purchase land and, with the students, literally build a school for hundreds of students with their own hands. At the point when it started to reach its full potential, in order to help the students succeed, they had to comply with the demands of the government by segregating the students by sex and using government-approved texts. With some ingenuity, however, and a lot of guts, the Marefat teachers found ways to forward social thinking as well as education. They did so well, in fact, that their poor students from illiterate families were winning full scholarships to top universities the world over.
The Last Thousand is told through the experiences of the some of the teachers as well as the students, each chapter focusing in on the individuals and how the school changed their ways of thinking and their lives. From the illiterate but inquisitive (and probably depressed) mother of four to the teenage boy with innate mechanical skills to the young firecracker who raises her own kind of hell, starting at age six, who dreams of becoming a terrorist, they all come to find a kind of home, as well as themselves, in Marefat. It is an island of hope surrounded by a sea of Taliban and others who would rather see it burn.
Stern’s style is lovely, even lyrical at times, as he gives equal care and attention to every person he introduces, telling us about their concerns and histories, the things that make them fearful and those that fill their dreams. He also captures much of the frustration of life in the Marefat community. Girls who grew up learning to be worldly and independent thinkers must come to terms with the facts of life in their home country, that they must marry to have protection or avoid being treated like an outcast. The students who sit in protest of unfair treatment by the university, only to be lied to and have their hard work even further diminished, will not find fairness in an Afghani university. Even the American diplomat who wants to see the school thrive, but can do nothing to make it look like it has American funding or support, in case that would bring attacks when the American forces would inevitably retreat.
Learning is a blessing and a curse, a gift and a source of despair for young people whose minds soar even when their feet shuffle through the desert dust. Of course, as long as there is hope there will be those who refuse to give up the fight, who will continue to nurture their minds even as tyrants try to drive them down. That is Marefat.
Jeffrey E. Stein’s photo by Nasim Fekrat
The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War
Jeffrey E. Stern