Editor's Note: Ali Sina Doosti is an education activist based in Afghanistan.
“Formerly, if I had heard the term summer program, I couldn’t have made heads or tails of it," says Faiza, one of the thirty participants of the first ever summer program for school students in Afghanistan," But attending Rainbow taught me what it is.”
Like Faiza, the term "Summer camp" does not ring any bells for many other Afghan teens who have been raised in the midst of violence, bloodshed and forced immigration because of the war. Unlike other countries, here summer camps are not part of the educational system.
Looking back to annals of summer camp for school students in Afghanistan, they date back to never.
It is expected that those who have been moving out of one concentration camp and into another would not know what a Summer program is, but for the middle class of a country, it also sounds odd.
They do not understand summer camp.
Rainbow Cultural Diversity Summer Program is the very first Summer program for Afghan school students. It was organized by five Afghan college students who have experienced such programs abroad, and was hosted by Cultural House of Afghanistan for five days. The program gathered thirty Afghan school students, aged 14-18, from various ethnicities and cultures.
Rainbow aimed to discuss the issues relevant to cultural and ethnic diversity.
“Afghanistan is a multicultural society, but the cultures all have been in conflict and their quarrel has brought the nation into segregation," says Mohammad Mohammadi, one of the five program organizers.
One problem Afghans encounter is the geographical segregation of ethnicities, which of course leads to cultural exclusivism. For example, northern Kabul is the "base" for ethnic Tajiks. South and east of Kabul is for Pashtuns, while the Hazaras inhabit west of Kabul. The “ethnic layout” of Kabul has given the city a “mosaic face,” as Mr. Mohammadi puts it. When a child grows up only within the boundaries of his own culture, a division of "ego" and "other" shapes in his mind. The person will not be integrated in the society and is unable to interact with other ethnicities because the picture of “the others” is based on stereotypes that lead to a vicious segregation which is visible in schools, Mohammadi explains.
Within the span of five days, the thirty participants of the program not only discussed barriers standing in the way of cultural diversity, but also experienced living in a multi-cultural environment. As they were split into four groups, they discussed four topics they had tackled in society. Single-ethnic schools, street harassment, indoctrination of ethnicity in families, and cross-cultural marriage were just some of the topics addressed.
“In eleven years of my school, I never stood the opportunity of discussing street harassment,” says Eqlima Tahiri who joined the camp from the suburbs of Kabul, “Thanks to the camp that granted me the chance to dive in it.”
Many others had similar experiences. The camp covered topics not taught in schools. For many it was something new to discuss how their families indoctrinate them with the concept of ethnicity in their early years. Nobody talks about the key role the families and elders play in Afghan society, but it is the family which lays the base for breakdown.
Another massive challenge faced by those trying to achieve diversity is the stereotypes Afghans hold about each other. For instance, in the program it was mentioned that the popular image of Pashtuns was associated with suicide attacks on non-Pashtuns. All the participants agreed on the “single-ethnicity atmosphere of residency” as the root of stereotypes in their age and agreed that it breeds discriminatory attitudes in the future.
Razia Alawi, who recently left Quetta, Pakistan for Kabul shared her experience in this particular area: “In Quetta, a Baluch family was our neighbor in a Hazara locality. When they were bringing food to our family, we used to pretend accepting it; but, in fact the mere place for it was the trash box. We were always doing it because we taught they were different from us. “
Mohammad, a junior at school, spoke out about the way he felt about others before the camp, and how his idea was changed over the course of it. "To be honest, I felt they had portrayed a vicious face of others to us," he says, "In particular, I had a different image of Pashtuns. But when I co-worked with them in the teams, my previous beliefs went to [the] wind.”
At the end of the program, the participants were given books in lieu of certificates. It initially seemed odd to participants, but when the organizing team argued that a book can be more effective than a certificate, they all appreciated the idea.
Mahdi Sorosh, a program participant, wrote on his Facebook: “My certificate is when I get rid of discrimination and racism in my country.”