What I Learned From Teaching the Children of War

03/13/2015 01:17 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

My country never practiced democracy or true freedom of thought and expression before the fall of the Taliban in 2001. I returned to Kabul just weeks after, alone with no family, friends or relatives. They had all fled after the Taliban took over in 1996. My lonely return reminded me of escaping the country in 1982, aged 12. As I fled the horrors of the Soviet invasion, the last words my father told me, before kissing my forehead as his farewell, were short and simple: "I wish you to stay alive." I returned with a vision to help create a safer place for future generations of my country, through education -- civic-oriented education.

I started teaching when I was 16, feeling it was my responsibility to share my basic literacy with those less privileged than me. When I arrived in Pakistan, however, I realized that now I had to deal with traumatized refugees fleeing the Taliban instead of eager village kids. I founded Marefat School for Afghan Refugees. Most students were carpet weavers from refugee families who could not afford private Pakistani schools. I chose the name "Marefat," meaning insight and knowledge, in order to provide a sense of hope through the power of education.

Back in Afghanistan the house we originally rented for a new Marefat school was not more than a muddy cottage with four small rooms in one of the poorest areas in the war-stricken alleys just at the far-edge of West Kabul. However, it was enough to accommodate our enthusiastic group of students: both boys and girls, aged 7 to 27, sitting in mixed co-ed classes. We started with only $600 worth of assets and 37 students.

My work in the refugee camps and later in Afghanistan made me realize the challenges were graver than I had initially thought. The school needed to counter the legacies of wartime, such as the culture of violence, hatred and pessimism, through civic-oriented approaches.

My vision for a long-term educational institution, which would be sustainable with the basic resources at hand, was not only to focus on classroom education, but promote a worldview across the community. So, my colleagues and I have taken different approaches to enhance students' experience both within and outside classrooms.

In the classroom, students organized into groups of three to help each other with all activities, promoting a sense of bonding between them and encouraging healthy competition with other groups in the class. Similarly, every class has a council of five elected students to manage all classroom affairs, helping students with their lessons, overseeing class discipline and sanitation, and maintaining the relationship with the office.

Despite lack of resources, Marefat asks its teachers to bring creativity and innovation to the classroom. Literature classes encourage students to write creative poems and short stories for the school magazine, while physics classes teach students to make simple machines. So far, students have made an electrical water heater, a radio transmitter which can carry sound waves across 200 meters, and an electric camera crane, among many other innovations.

Marefat also offers extracurricular activities to promote constructive interaction between the students - a biannual meeting with the school faculty, teachers and elected representatives from first to twelfth grades, sees all school issues openly discussed, bolstering friendly relations between students and faculty while promoting active citizenry.

Student-founded-and-run clubs and organizations offer them opportunities to engage with each other and develop communication, collaboration, and leadership skills. Students' Council has 10 associations working on issues such as environment, discipline and order, school bulletins, and magazines. Marefat Library has around 700 members. Radio Marefat, art gallery, music department, and sports clubs allow students to explore their passions and gain hands on experience.

In a country where the abysmally-low rate of literacy has undermined the value of education and where each year poverty forces many to drop out of school in order to win bread for their families, Marefat's work has provided an alternative outlook.

In 2009, when the Shia Family Law, which violated women rights and legalized marital rape, was passed, several female students from Marefat launched a protest calling for its amendment. In response, the clerics who had drafted the law mobilized a mob to storm the school, call for my execution, and try to burn the school. The Ministry of Interior had to dispatch its Special Police Unit to disband them. However, when the school reopened in three days, more than 95 percent of the students, accompanied by their parents, attended school.

This showed the impact of Marefat on the community, and in return, their support for the school, a result of our belief in women rights, which has given hope to thousands of previously-suppressed girls. They have not only altered their self-image, but also changed the mindsets of their families and communities.

I believe this work has helped the community adjust better to incoming liberal values post-2001. Despite the fact that patriarchy and anti-Western ideologies are still prevalent in Afghanistan, tens of girls from Marefat have gone to study in the West with the consent of their families.

When I initially founded the school, almost all the teachers were personal friends of mine, who would rapidly assume my role both as teachers and administrative staff. Everything is built on practical and scalable solutions.

Now Marefat has 4000 students (and 450 graduates), 44 percent of which are girls, 40 percent of the teachers and 80 percent of our administrative staff are graduates of the school. Several Marefat graduates have gone to establish three other schools (Koshan, Talash, and Rahnaward-e-Noor high schools) and several English and natural science centers around Kabul and in provinces.

I could not be any prouder that the hard work they're doing is reaping such wonderful results.

This post is part of a series produced by The Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, an annual $1M award for an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession. For more information on Global Teacher Prize, read here.