Thursday, December 3, 2009

"a country with a bright future"

China Daily


In the words of an Afghan student in China, "The young people of Afghanistan want a country with a bright future. To have a country with a good name among other countries, not one that is infamous."

"I want to further my education so that my children can be educated, too."

"Our country is hurt. And like the country, our people are hurt, too. Not just physically but mentally and spiritually."

The military mission President Obama gave to General McCrystal is clear, and well resourced, to give the Afghan people a chance for a brighter future.

The civil and diplomatic surge tied to the military mission makes the brighter future possible.

America is not alone in this mission. With dozens of other countries in the world participating, America will again regain the moral leadership to give light to a dark corner.


Afghani students learn kungfu at Taiyuan University of Technology. Photos by Brendan Worrell
Afghani students learn kungfu at Taiyuan University of Technology. Photos by Brendan Worrell

At the age of 14, Aman was forced to quit school, leave home and seek asylum in neighboring Iran. "My uncle and I traveled days by bus, car and foot until we managed to find safety and employment, two things absent back home in Afghanistan."

Then with the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and the subsequent fall of the Taliban, Aman was able to return to his homeland - although conditions were still precarious.

At one time while traveling by car back to his town from Kabul, he was stopped by bandits and robbed at gunpoint of all his possessions.

Almost a decade later, Aman's journey continues, where he finds himself at a more tranquil locale, at Taiyuan University of Technology (TUT) in Northwest China's Shanxi province, studying for a Bachelor's degree in Chinese. He is part of the first group of Afghani students in a new program set up by Afghanistan's Kabul University and China's TUT, funded by the Chinese Ministry of Education and Culture's Hanban office.

Thirteen Afghani students are being funded to study for two years in China with free tuition, board and food, plus a monthly stipend.

Expectations are high for these students who after graduation will be proficient to work at the forefront of cross-border trade and diplomatic exchanges slowly developing between China and Afghanistan.

Afghan students get a taste of Chinese life

Aman and his fellow students have already spent eight weeks in China and with little more than a year of studying Chinese in Kabul, the group is doing exceptionally well. They are able to read characters at a pre-intermediate level in a class taught entirely in Chinese.

Their teacher Shen Xiaoyan conducts the class with a glow in her eyes that conveys the pride she has developed for her students - the majority of whom tower above her in height.

It's a surprise they can even get their legs under the desks as they curl their backs and necks to read through their textbooks.

One dialogue in class is about buying a laptop computer and shopping in Beijing's famous Wangfujing mall.

Teacher Shen throws out questions in Chinese and the students respond on cue, not missing a beat though in slightly accented Afghani Chinese.

Such will be their life in Taiyuan until February 2011, with most classes beginning at 8:30 am and finishing late in the afternoon.

Most are up until midnight studying in their rooms with many already eager to get out and explore what wider China has to offer beyond the campus.

"I want to go to Shanghai," one blurts out.

"No, I want to go to Beijing and see the Great Wall," another interjects.

Professor Zhao Anyuan, vice dean of TUT's College of International Education Exchange, says they will try to organize trips for the group, although sticking to the budget is a priority.

While only two Afghani students share a room, most Chinese students at Taiyuan usually lodge with about eight other students, Zhao says.

Shen says she has taught students of many nationalities and Afghanis are no different. The smaller class size helps her to pay more attention to each student.

Afghan students get a taste of Chinese life

When asked what has been the hardest thing for them in a new country, without hesitation Aman and his classmate Shaheen respond: "The food!"

"Chinese food is so different," Shaheen explains, "the vegetables they use and the way they cook them is different from that in our country food. Also, we are Muslim."

The university cafeteria, like most Chinese universities', has a Muslim restaurant catering for their needs. Nevertheless, it will take time for the group to learn the menu and, until then, they usually just point and choose, telling the cooks what they would like to eat.

Later in the afternoon, the students don their sports attire and gather at the quadrangle outside the gym. It's -13C but no one complains.

Some lend a hand to the local Chinese students who are busy shoveling snow that is rapidly turning to ice, making walking and driving dangerous.

One couple, like young people anywhere, soon starts hurling snowballs at each other.

An older student, Ishmat, shifts from one foot to the other and murmurs: "Our country is hurt. And like the country, our people are hurt, too. Not just physically but mentally and spiritually."

Then with a wry grimace he turns away and goes back to his usual introverted self.

Finally, after the students have waited half an hour in the freezing cold, an apologetic PE teacher Professor Zhang greets them and quickly marshals them into formation. He is the provincial wushu champion and well into his middle age while still looking supple and robust.

Though initially haphazard and ragged, in time the young Afghanis too begin to gel, punching and kicking the air in unison.

It's a process that seems to personify their determination and potential for triumph, once given the chance, some structure and training.

Aman's pal Shaheen says that after the four-year degree program, the group hopes to find work as translators or interpreters for the private or public sector.

Becoming a teacher and instructing others in Chinese is also another job option.

Aman, who speaks very good English he learnt from a Pakistani teacher in less than two years, says he hopes for more opportunities for Afghani students to be able to study and particularly to study abroad.

"I want to further my education so that my children can be educated, too."

Shaheen goes further, encapsulating the stark trauma of their predicament.

"The young people of Afghanistan want a country with a bright future. To have a country with a good name among other countries, not one that is infamous."

Taking Confucius to Kabul

While Aman and 12 others from Afghanistan learn Chinese in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, more students back in Kabul also have a chance to learn about Chinese culture with the opening of a Confucius Center on Nov 10.

Professor Zhao Anyuan, director of the Confucius Center in Kabul University, says a second and larger group of Afghani students chosen for a joint program between Kabul University and the Taiyuan University of Technology (TUT) is expected to arrive in Taiyuan early next year. They are currently learning Chinese from a Taiyuan instructor on the Kabul campus.

Zhao, also vice-dean of the College of International Education Exchange at TUT, says students will spend the first year in Kabul, the next two years at Taiyuan and the last year back home.

The joint program goes back to last January, when the Chinese and Afghani governments signed an agreement to commence a language program, thanks to an earlier conversation between Afghani President Hamid Karzai and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.

In that conversation, Karzai expressed his desire for an institute to teach the Chinese language to be set up in his home country.

The Taiyuan university had been seeking, via the Ministry of Education's Hanban office, to link up with foreign campuses.

The first pilot Confucius program was established in Uzbekistan in 2004. By August this year, 356 Confucius Institutes had been set up in 84 countries and regions.

However, when the invitation came to team up with Kabul, staff at Taiyuan were slightly cautious, although in time they soon embraced the idea and the challenge.

As the pioneering teacher in Afghanistan, Wang Huangqing took a job few would consider. As a husband and father to a young child, he admits it wasn't an easy decision.

"I had never been abroad before and never had a chance to use the English language, which I majored in. The opportunity would make my dream come true."

In a country where the average life expectancy is less than 50 years and where over half the population cannot read or write, director Zhao says one of the biggest challenges is not so much the harsh living conditions as the security situation. He says this means it is hard to recruit people to work there as they think it is too dangerous.

Wang agrees: "People all over the world know that the situation in Afghanistan is worse than other places because of the war. So guaranteeing one's personal security was a big worry."

Zhao says each time he turns up in Kabul, the Chinese embassy frets over his safety. "They tell us not to go out with strange people, even those dressed in police and soldier uniforms - as they may be kidnappers in disguise."

But the ordinary Afghanis Zhao met are so friendly that it makes him forget about the war.

Wang says the people of Kabul and the students have also left him with good impressions.

"They have good manners and are very polite to teachers and among themselves. Those students are very smart and hard working."

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