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'We Are Hungry': Afghan Schools Left Without Teachers As Instructors Struggle To Survive

Sayed Abdul Rahman (right) hasn't been paid his teacher's salary for so long that he now repairs broken watches to try to feed his family. (video grab)

Like most teachers across Afghanistan, Sayed Abdul Rahman has not received a paycheck since the Taliban seized control of his district earlier this year.

Rahman was initially able to feed his family in the Almar district of Faryab Province by promising shopkeepers that he would pay them back when he received his overdue salary.

Shopkeepers were happy to help Rahman, who was respected in his community for helping many children learn to read and write.

But now, eight months after the Taliban captured his district in northwestern Afghanistan, and more than three months after the militant group stormed into Kabul, Rahman is still waiting to be paid.

His credit with shopkeepers has run out. So, Rahman has been forced to quit his teaching job and look for other means of survival.

Now, he spends his days sitting beside an open drainage ditch on a busy street in the provincial capital of Maimana. From a blanket spread out under containers of salvaged parts, he offers to repair wrist watches for passers-by.

Afghan teachers who continue giving lessons haven't been paid since the Taliban seized power.
Afghan teachers who continue giving lessons haven't been paid since the Taliban seized power.

“I had to start this watch-repair business so I could provide some small scraps of bread for my family and try to ease our misery,” Rahman explained to RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

“The shopkeepers tell me that I’m a teacher and my salary has stopped, so they will not lend to me anymore,” Rahman says. “Since they are no longer willing to lend me money, my family is getting desperate. We are getting poorer, and we are hungry.”

Schools Without Teachers

Rahman is not alone. More than 7,000 other teachers and 200 university professors in Faryab Province alone have not been paid their salaries for months.

His existential dilemma -- how to buy food so he and his family can survive another day -- is the same for tens of thousands of other teachers across Afghanistan.

Their desperation has plunged Afghanistan’s education system into crisis, threatening to deprive schooling for hundreds of thousands of students.

Afghan Student: Under Taliban Rule, Teachers Go Hungry Or Don't Show Up At All
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The Taliban banned all forms of girls’ education during its brutal rule from 1996 to 2001. But it has now allowed girls to attend primary school. While schools for older boys are open, high schools for girls in many parts of Afghanistan remain closed.

But even at the schools that remain open, the Taliban’s inability to pay wages means there are no longer enough teachers to instruct boys or girls.

In late October, hundreds of teachers in the western province of Herat called on the new Taliban regime to give them their unpaid salaries.

Mohammad Sabir Mashaal, head of the Herat Teachers’ Association, says at least 18,000 instructors have not been paid there since at least two months before the Taliban seized the provincial capital, Herat city.

Taliban education administrator Mawlawi Hafeezullah Mutasimbillah says teachers' salaries will be paid.
Taliban education administrator Mawlawi Hafeezullah Mutasimbillah says teachers' salaries will be paid.

They include more than 10,000 women whose families depended on their salaries to make ends meet.

“They have been earning money to stay alive by selling their home appliances, but now they don’t have anything left to sell,” Mashaal said.

Teachers across Afghanistan have gone on strike or are simply no longer going to work in their schools -- leaving classrooms with children but no instructors.

In Charikar, the capital of Parwan Province, 42-year-old instructor Hedayatullah has not been paid his $85 monthly salary for more than five months.

Hedayatullah says the lives of his own children will be in danger if he continues to spend his days teaching at a public high school for boys in Charikar.

"My children need to eat but I have not received my salary,” Hedayatullah tells RFE/RL. “I have even sold my carpet and my dishes so that we could have food.”

“My home and my family are at stake,” he says. “We do not have enough food to survive. I must do other things.”

“I am ready to stand on the road wearing a five-meter shroud to protest that, in the name of God, the Taliban have corrupted things,” he says. “They have taken our bread.”

Cash Shortage

Mawlawi Hafeezullah Mutasimbillah, a member of the Taliban’s Education Affairs Office in Faryab Province, insists that all teachers will be paid.

“The Islamic Emirate has decided to pay teachers’ salaries,” Mutasimbillah tells RFE/RL. “Some teachers have already been paid. Our Finance Ministry has said that teachers should be paid their salaries.”

But the foreign aid that Afghanistan has long depended on to pay teachers and other public sector workers has been frozen since the Taliban seized power in mid-August.

Washington also has frozen some $9.4 billion in Afghan central bank reserves held in the United States, refusing to release it to the Taliban’s unrecognized de facto government.

Those reserves remain frozen amid uncertainties about the Taliban regime’s human rights record and reservations about whether to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.

That has left Afghanistan facing cash shortages, along with bank closures and the suspension of money transfers into the country from abroad -- fueling hyperinflation and rising food costs.

Afghan instructor Burhanuddin has launched a petition to demand the Taliban give instructors months of unpaid wages.
Afghan instructor Burhanuddin has launched a petition to demand the Taliban give instructors months of unpaid wages.

The Taliban’s Finance Ministry announced on November 20 that it had collected enough taxes from Afghans to set up a payroll mechanism and start paying three months of back salaries for “all government employees.”

But Taliban spokesman Ahmed Wali Haqmal admitted the wages that will be distributed through the Education Ministry will be “meager.”

“The Taliban are facing a shortage of liquidity not just to pay salaries but to pay everything,” says Nabila Massrali, a spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Massrali notes that $350 million of EU humanitarian aid announced to “support basic needs in direct benefit of the Afghan people” is not being delivered through the Taliban.

Afghan girls sit in a classroom at a school in Kabul on September 18.
Afghan girls sit in a classroom at a school in Kabul on September 18.

“It goes through international organizations, I mean the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations on the ground” to guarantee the aid is not diverted by the Taliban, Massrali told RFE/RL.

UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, says it is planning to set up a system to directly fund Afghan teachers without channeling the money through the Taliban.

UNICEF Afghanistan’s chief of education, Jeannette Vogelaar, says the first step in the process will be to register all public school teachers.

“The best way to support the education of girls in Afghanistan is to continue supporting their schools and teachers,” says Vogelaar. “UNICEF is calling upon donors not to let Afghanistan’s children down.”

Waheedullah Hashimi, the director of External Programs and Aid at the Taliban’s Education Ministry, says his office has been working with UNICEF and “some other international organizations” to help resolve the crisis.

“We have meetings on a daily basis,” Hashimi says. “We have a problem that economically we are not good. That is why we are requesting the international community, international organizations, especially those who have funds for emergency situations, to help us in this regard.”

But despite Taliban promises and talks about alternative ways to distribute foreign aid, Afghanistan’s unpaid teacher are bracing for a difficult winter ahead.

“A teacher cannot even buy clothes for his own children now,” concludes Burhanuddin, an instructor at the Faryab Veterinary Institute who has launched a petition drive to demand the payment of overdue salaries.

“How can a teacher pay for electricity?” Burhanuddin asks. “How can a teacher provide the fuel to keep his family warm this winter?”

Written by Ron Synovitz with reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi
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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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    Ron Synovitz

    Ron Synovitz is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.