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Couple help Afghan kids get back to school

The school building is virtually all the development that exists high in the Nuristan village (Joseph Häfliger) Josef Häfliger

In the remote Hindu Kush mountains, some 250 Afghan children – around half of them girls – sit in newly constructed classrooms funded by a Swiss couple.

This content was published on January 3, 2004 - 13:57

The school shines as a beacon of hope in a region marked by decades of war and poverty.

Joseph Häfliger and his wife, Johanna, from a mountain village this time in Switzerland, raised the money to give the children of Nuristan an education.

Joseph, who is a precious gem trader and craftsman, first visited the Afghan province in the 1970s in search of stones he could craft and sell back home.

Attracted by the warmth and hospitality of the people, the couple have kept returning to the region where they are helping to build three schools in the villages of Ateti, Diwana Baba and Patschigram.

swissinfo’s Samantha Tonkin caught up with Joseph to find out more about the couple’s work in Afghanistan.

swissinfo: Tell me how the project to build the schools started.

Josef Häfliger: The people of Nuristan have nothing: no schools, no medical care. Initially they asked for our help with providing electricity to the local mosque. We replied that any support from us should be directed at building schools or medical care facilities.

swissinfo: So how did you go about raising the money to start the projects?

J.H.: We started [donating] our own money and then we collected from friends and family. Soon our village of Guttanen in the Bernese Oberland began supporting us, and with the help of press coverage, people from Bern and other cities also contributed to our projects.

The local people have built the schools themselves; we only paid for all the material. So they have finished constructing two schools which are simple and in typical, traditional Nuristan style with four classroom and one staff room.

swissinfo: I understand that half of the students are girls.

J.H.: Yes. In one village more than half are girls; in another about half of the students are female; and in the third village girls account for 20 per cent of students.

J.H.: Yes. You know if the local people want to do something, they can. They were too far away from the centre of Taliban power. But still there are some extremists in this area who don’t even like the fact that boys go to school. Fortunately, at the moment they are not so powerful.

swissinfo: What do the students actually learn? Is it mainly religious teaching?

J.H.: The teachers (there are about four) returned to Nuristan from refugee camps in Pakistan and they are very well educated. They teach the children about the Koran and Islam. And from the first day the kids learn in three languages: Nuristani, Dari – which is one of the national languages – and also English. They learn maths, science, everything.

swissinfo: Describe what it was like for you and your wife to go back after three years and see the schools and the children attending them.

J.H.: We saw a change: how the people - especially the children - are happy. They do everything to go to school. A few boys don’t like it but that’s normal – but the girls want to learn. And when we ask them what they want to be when they get older, they tell us they’d like to go to university, become a teacher or be a doctor. They have had enough of war and they want a normal life.

J.H.: We are “kaffiri” or non-Muslims, and that makes things a little difficult. One of our head teachers is a mullah, and some people accused him of being a “Christian mullah”, which was very bad for him!

But it’s our policy to ensure they have control over even what the children learn, otherwise it would be very dangerous for us. Still the last time we went (in September) was not so easy. In this mountain area there are still some terrorist camps and they don’t like foreigners.

But you know, September 11 showed to us that if we keep people in Afghanistan in backward conditions, it will affect not only Afghanistan but other countries like ours in the future.

swissinfo-interview: Samantha Tonkin

In brief

Some 250 Afghan children are able to attend school in three mountain villages in Nuristan province.

Money raised by Joseph and Johanna Häfliger from Guttanen in the Bernese Oberland has gone towards building two schools and providing teachers.

The teachers receive a salary of about SFr50 ($37) a month.

It costs around SFr1,500 a year to run a school.

Häfliger said he hopes to construct a third school soon.

There are also plans to add showers and toilets to the existing buildings.

In future, Häfliger plans to raise money to improve the villages’ health care facilities.

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