By David Jolly
Jan. 22, 2016
AFTER his return to Afghanistan from exile,
in 1986, Azizullah Royesh immediately became a tireless advocate of education
as a bridge over the divisions that have made his country a battleground for
Mr. Royesh has been hailed at home and
internationally for his work at Marefat High School, his innovative school
where girls make up almost half of the student population. He champions
schooling as a way into the professional and governing class for Afghan
minorities — and particularly for his fellow Hazaras, a mostly Shiite ethnic
minority that suffered heavily under the Taliban regime.
But on a recent chilly day, sitting in his
office at the school, Mr. Royesh had the resumed persecution of his people on
his mind. The man who found his calling after returning to Afghanistan was
reluctantly admitting that he understood the fear driving tens of thousands of
Hazaras — and many other Afghans — to flee the country.
“The Hazaras feel themselves defenseless
against the threat facing them,” Mr. Royesh said, pointing to the recent
beheadings in the southern province of Zabul of seven Shiite Hazaras, including
a 9-year-old girl, by militants linked to the Islamic State. In many other
places, the Taliban, the Hazaras’ old nemesis, are resurgent, gaining territory
by the week.
“The government is not in control of
anything,” added Mr. Royesh, 46. “Others feel the same fear, but the Hazaras
aren’t protected by anyone. The only way out is to flee the country.”
For Afghans who lived through so many
phases of conflict — the Soviet invasion, a civil war, the Taliban government —
the insurgency’s vast territorial gains over the past year, along with the rise
of the Islamic State, have felt like the resumption of an old nightmare.
Musing on how it all came to this, after
years of hope for a new way, Mr. Royesh expressed regret and anger over missed
“The new Afghanistan needed a new system of
values, and that couldn’t be achieved without an education to instill
democratic ideals,” Mr. Royesh said. “If, in 2001 and 2002, we had focused on a
revised education system based on democracy and human rights, we’d have a
completely different context here today.”
“We now have literate people, we have
educated people,” he added. “But very few of them are really equipped with a
democratic mind-set. Civic education was the missing link.”
Mr. Royesh was not speaking as a political
outsider — more than most, he has become invested in the Western-backed
civilian government. In the election in 2014, he was an early supporter of
President Ashraf Ghani, writing his election manifesto and campaigning on his
behalf with the expectation that he would be named chief of staff if Mr. Ghani
But relations soured as the election
neared, and he declined to support Mr. Ghani. Now, he accuses the president of
proving ineffective in crisis, and of contributing to ethnic and factional
divisions in Afghanistan.
MR. ROYESH has received international
recognition for his work, including numerous awards and fellowships. He was a
finalist in 2015 for the Global Teacher prize, an award given by the Varkey
Not bad for someone who never got beyond
the fifth grade. The Soviet invasion in 1979 ended Mr. Royesh’s formal
education when he was 10 years old. His father sent him to Quetta, Pakistan, in
1982 to escape deadly Russian airstrikes on the family’s home village, Talkhak
— which means “bitter.”
Mr. Royesh had no family in Quetta to rely
on, he said, so he worked — in tailor shops, bakeries, small factories — “just
to nourish myself.”
Such a childhood sounds fraught, but Mr.
Royesh said he looks back on it with pleasure, noting that he encountered many
Afghan intellectuals who had fled the Soviets. He was able to explore the new
bookstores that were popping up in Quetta, an introduction to a rich life of
“It was precious,” he recalled. “It was a
Mr. Royesh said that he read the literature
of resistance and freedom: Steinbeck, Che Guevara, Gorky, Howard Fast (author
of “Spartacus”). He was also intoxicated by the strong current of leftist
thought unleashed by the Iranian revolution, including the works of Ali
Shariati, whose writings have drawn comparisons to the Latin American
liberation theology movement.
“That gave me a liberal-minded approach to
interpreting Islam, as well,” he said.
Mr. Royesh returned to Afghanistan in 1986
and was immediately drafted by his community to share his learning. “I was one
of the few literate people in my village, so I started to teach the other
kids,” he said.
The Hazaras are known for their belief in
the value of education, and there was strong local support for his efforts.
Eventually, he helped open five schools, providing primary education for
thousands of children.
IN person, Mr. Royesh comes across as
formidably intelligent, if a bit bookish and shy. His academic formality drains
away quickly once he gets going, though, and he converses comfortably in
English, in addition to the main languages of Afghanistan — Dari and Pashto —
He describes himself simply as a humanist,
which he defined as “a secular type of interpretation for everything related to
human life and destiny; God is seen through the eyes of man, not man through
the eyes of God.”
After the Taliban government was overthrown
in 2001, Mr. Royesh moved from Ghazni Province to Kabul to open Marefat High
After years in which the Taliban had
completely marginalized women in public life, he found considerable success in
urging parents to send their daughters to his school. Today, about 44 percent
of the more than 3,000 students at Marefat are girls. In fact, classes
initially were coeducational, something unheard-of in Afghanistan. That changed
in 2006, when the national Ministry of Education insisted that boys and girls
be segregated as a condition of accreditation.
Marefat follows a secular curriculum, and
girls and boys interact on the student council, in the student Parliament and
clubs. Girls wear head scarves not because they are part of a compulsory dress
code, Mr. Royesh said, “but because of their respect to the culture of the
In 2009, those girls took a very public
role opposing a law to give Shiite clerics control over the administration of
family law for Shiite Muslims, which they derided as being deeply misogynistic.
“The clerics were furious, and accused us of teaching Christianity and
anti-Islamic values,” he said. “They sent a mob to attack the school, to burn
the school. They called for my execution.”
“Fortunately,” he added, “the Interior Ministry
sent the special forces.”
In 2012, Marefat was again attacked,
accused of being pagan and anti-Islamic. The national council of clerics issued
a fatwa attacking it, and the Ministry of Education responded by demanding that
Mr. Royesh’s civic education courses be dropped. But the National Endowment for
Democracy agreed to give money to establish Marefat Radio, which broadcasts the
course content for four hours a day.
Mr. Royesh’s relationship with Mr. Ghani
has worsened after the killing of the seven Hazaras. He helped organize a
protest in which tens of thousands of mostly peaceful demonstrators descended
on the presidential palace on Nov. 11, 2015, carrying the coffins of the
victims. Some were met with gunfire when they tried to enter the grounds, though
no one was killed, he said.
Since then, though, resignation has been
outpacing defiance, and Mr. Royesh said he knows hundreds of high school and
university students who have given up and joined the migration trail.
Losing educated young people “is a disaster
for Afghanistan,” he said. “But don’t call me a pessimist; I’m optimistic
“I’m happy with the things that have
emerged in the new Afghanistan,” he added. “We have to protect our
achievements, and the international community has to support them, protect
them. The work is not done.”