A School for Afghan Refugees in South Delhi
‘One of the biggest challenges they face is the language barrier’
Back home in Afghanistan, Sara didn’t feel safe going to school. Education was not something girls were encouraged to pursue, and even if they did there was constant chaos around them, often disrupting their education. In fact, even the teaching method was hard on them. Teachers would often resort to corporal punishment to ‘teach’ the kids. But things changed for Sara when she arrived in India a few years ago, along with her parents and two sisters.
She now studies at the Bridges Academy, a school in south Delhi run exclusively for Afghan refugees. Situated in Lajpat Nagar, the school was established in 2016 after extensive research on the Afghan diaspora in India. The community was identified as a group that had not been integrated with the Indian public school system, although education was one of their high priorities. Hence the school serves as a bridge, preparing Afghan students to transition to their next educational goal, most often in Western countries where some are able to move with the help of the UNHCR.
Currently, there are about 30,000 Afghans living in south Delhi waiting for the UN High Commission for Refugees to resettle them in the western world. Bridges Academy, which has 85 students at present from grades VII to XII follows the Indian NIOS and the American GED curriculum making it easier for the students to continue their education in Western countries once they relocate.
The school was the brainchild of Dr Dilip Joseph, who served as a doctor in Afghanistan for several years until the Taliban kidnapped him in 2012. He was kept captive for four days and thought it was the end of his life. However, he was miraculously rescued by a US Navy seal team. Since then, although his heart was with the people of Afghanistan, he couldn’t return due to the threat to his life. But he wanted to continue to help them, so in the years leading up to 2016, he collaborated with the Transerve Educational Trust and founded Bridges Academy at the heart of Delhi’s Afghan refugee community.
Sheeba Varghese, one of the key advisors to the school, who was involved in the planning stage describes the challenges their students face. “They live in very small homes because the rent is very high in Delhi. They can’t afford it. In most homes, there’s two or three generations living together. Hardly any of the parents work, only a handful of them work as interpreters for Afghans who come to India for medical treatment, and others work in restaurants run by Afghans in Lajpat Nagar and Malviya Nagar. Some work in typical chemist shops and Afghan travel agencies. But there’s very little income that comes in. Many of them have relatives abroad who send them money. That’s how they survive.”
She added, “One of the biggest challenges they face is the language barrier. They learn Dari back in Afghanistan and have no knowledge of English. So, at Bridges Academy, we focus a lot on enabling them to communicate well. The outcome is excellent. Students are happy that they can be among their own people. They all speak English now.”
Varghese says the Academy has been instrumental in changing the lives of girls especially. “The girls love wearing their uniforms and they’re happy because it’s a safe place. Everything is monitored. Every day during the assembly, we invite a speaker to share about issues that are relevant to their age and the needs around them. Some of the students ask very intelligent questions.There are a lot of artists. We have done two exhibitions so far. We had someone come over to teach them and the paintings were displayed and sold. A portion of the money was given to the students and the rest was used for the school.”
During Covid-19, in order to avoid any barrier to their education, the management provided basic facilities and laptops to the students.
As of 2020 they had six graduates, and many others who had migrated to the West. Nawid is one such student who studied here with three of his siblings. He and his sisters all showed promise. They learnt how to play guitar and communicate well, excelling in various fields. Nawid was even named head boy of the school. After 12 years of living in India, they were sponsored by the UNHCR to fly to the United States and are now pursuing their higher studies there while working part-time to support themselves.
The kids at the academy also learn etiquette. They are taught to respect, love and care for others. The staff here, who work tirelessly, are also trained in the basics of trauma counseling as many students have been through traumatic situations back home.