RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Teaching requires courage, especially if you teach in Afghanistan. We're about to meet a man who has overcome all sorts of odds to bring quality education to boys and girls in his country. He caught the eye of NPR's Ed Team in its quest to highlight 50 great teachers. NPR's Philip Reeves paid him a visit.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is something you don't usually see in Afghanistan - a highly conservative Islamic society. A teenage girl is debating with her fellow students. Pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln adorn the classroom walls. The students are discussing whether you should break the law if that law is set by autocrats like the Taliban. Most schools here expect kids to write down what their teachers tell them without asking questions. This institution is different and so is the teacher leading this discussion, Aziz Royesh.
AZIZ ROYESH: All these students around me, they can easily come and they can challenge me. They can reject me. They can oppose me. They can laugh with me. Sometimes even they can laugh at me, you know, they can.
REEVES: This is Marefat School. It's set within a warren of muddy alleys on the western edge of the city of Kabul. The students are almost all poor and almost all Hazaras, a Shia Muslim minority hard hit by years of conflict. The school was founded by Royesh in 2002 after the Taliban was thrown out of power.
ROYESH: Thirteen years back when we started our school here, the city was completely destroyed. This was the same with the people. They were psychologically destroyed. They were very pessimistic, you know, full of hatred, cultural violence.
REEVES: Baroness Frances D'Souza met Royesh around that time. She has since become speaker of the House of Lords in the U.K.'s parliament.
BARONESS FRANCES D'SOUZA: He's quite a small man, and he has a huge brain and a huge heart. And he seized upon me because he wanted to discuss women's liberation, democracy, civil society, civic education. And we talked for hours and hours and hours.
REEVES: This school started out in a bombed-out building with just 37 students. Using funds Baroness D'Souza helped raise, Royesh refurbished another building and made a smart move. He put in heating. Locals flocked in to escape the winter cold. Royesh set about persuading fathers to let their daughters enroll. His school now has more than three and a half-thousand students, nearly half are female. This achievement is still more remarkable when you consider Royesh's own education.
ROYESH: I went to school just 'til grade five. I've not been to school beyond grade five.
REEVES: Royesh is a farmer's son from Afghanistan's eastern province of Ghazni. He was 10 when the Soviets brought his schooling to an end by invading. It was 1979. Royesh says his father sent him alone through the mountains to seek refuge in neighboring Pakistan.
ROYESH: Because I couldn't stay there. And every day there was an attack of the Russians. And my family, my father, they were afraid of being, you know, killed.
REEVES: In Pakistan, Royesh had to survive on his wits.
ROYESH: I work in the factories and the bakery and the confectionery, you know, sweet shops and tailoring and carpentry and as laborer force worker just to nourish myself.
REEVES: Royesh says throughout all of this, he carried on studying alone in his spare time. At 16, he returned to Afghanistan and set up a classroom in his home to teach basic literacy to local boys. When the Taliban took over in the mid-'90s, Royesh fled again to Pakistan. There he set up a network of schools for Afghan refugees. That network created the structure that eventually turned into today's Marefat School.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)
REEVES: Students in the music department proudly show off their skills. The school also has a radio station and a thriving arts department. Creating this kind of environment in Afghanistan has not been easy. A few years back, the government, then headed by Hamid Karzai, forced the school to segregate girls from boys and end civics lessons. Civics are now folded into extracurricular activities. The school even has a student parliament. Royesh says his approach isn't about denying conservative Islamic views.
ROYESH: When I talk to the students, when I help them to be free, to be liberal minded, I'm not ideologically opposing any of these clerics. They are here. They have the right to have their own interpretation. But I am a Muslim as well. I have my own rights to interpret Quran.
REEVES: In 2009, a mob attacked the school after some female students protested a new law legalizing rape within marriage. The crowd threatened to burn down the place and wanted to kill Royesh.
ROYESH: And that was really a shocking moment. For me, that was one of the things that has all the time, you know, traumatized me.
REEVES: This failed to dampen Royesh's passion for his work.
D'SOUZA: He's a teacher. He's a born teacher. You know, one of those people whose joy is in sharing information.
REEVES: Baroness D'Souza says he has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
D'SOUZA: In the early days when I was going regularly to Afghanistan, he once said to me could I bring him a French dictionary. He said because he wanted to learn French philosophy, but he didn't know how to speak French.
REEVES: Royesh admits that with his skills and connections he could have a highly lucrative job somewhere else.
ROYESH: I could be an influential member in the government. I could be a very good translator, maybe, for example, for one of these embassies. None of them really tempted me. I felt that no, that's not the thing that I want. I want to be a simple teacher.
REEVES: Being a simple teacher brings its own kind of rewards, says Royesh.
ROYESH: This is not my school. This is the school of the community. But I am helping my dreams to come true in the school. So I am rich. I'm very rich.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Kabul.
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