Turning grief into hope: one Afghan terror victim’s legacy of learning

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T

he night before she died, Rahila Rafi felt too tired for homework; uncharacteristic for the studious 17-year-old. When her brother Hamid asked what was wrong, she told him she had a strange feeling in her heart and couldn’t bring herself to look at her books.

Hamid kissed his sister’s forehead and asked her what she wanted to do after she passed the Kankor exam – Afghanistan’s standard university admissions test. 

“I think you could be a doctor, nono,” Hamid said, using the term of endearment often given to the youngest child in an Afghan family. Rahila scowled. “I’m going to challenge you by studying economics, and become even smarter than you!” she teased. 

Hamid accepted the challenge. He said he would reward her if she was accepted into the economics faculty of Kabul University. 

The next day for the family began like any other.

Except that morning Rahila died. 

In the classroom where Rahila was studying with her friends, a bomb exploded. A thick cloud of black smoke engulfed the room as the ceiling collapsed. Forty-eight students including Rahila were killed that day in August last year. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the suicide bomb attack on the Kabul tuition centre. 

Despite the Taliban’s recent pledge that girls would be educated – a reversal of the group’s policy from when they ruled in the 1990s – their gains across the country have been accompanied by a rise in attacks, particularly on girls’ schools. This was not the first or last educational centre targeted in Afghanistan.

The worsening security situation and high rates of poverty caused the number of children not in school to increase last year for the first time since 2002. Girls account for 60% of Afghan children not in education.

Recalling the day he lost his sister, Hamid’s eyes well up. “She would often remind us she wasn’t a child any more. But she was always the baby, no matter how old she was.” He often thought about ways to avenge her death, by finding her killers. 

But then he found her notebook. 

Filled with memories and dreams, one item stood out: Rahila had written how she believed education was the only way to end the war in Afghanistan, which has dragged on for 18 years: essentially her whole life. 

Hamid decided to build an educational centre, the Rahila Foundation, in her honour. It opened in October last year.

In a country dogged by endless conflict, and where women and girls face discrimination, educational centres in the name of terror victims are appearing more frequently. They offer a glimmer of hope to communities torn apart by violence. 

In central Daykundi province, a library in honour of government worker Najiba Bahar was set up after she was killed by a suicide bomber two years ago. The Najiba Foundation also offers writing courses and scholarships for young Afghans, especially girls, to follow in her footsteps. Bahar studied in India and Japan before returning to Afghanistan as a database manager at the Ministry of Petroleum and Mines. 

In 2013, in Kabul, the Hamida Barmaki Organization was set up to honour a lawyer killed in a supermarket in the city in 2011, along with her husband and four children. Her legacy lives on as the fund promotes legal justice across the country, with a focus on the rights of women and children. 

Students prepare for their Kankor exam in the library of the Rahila Foundation.
Students prepare for their Kankor exam in the library of the Rahila Foundation. Photograph: Zainab Farahmand

To set up the Rahila centre, Hamid raised more than $8,000 (£6,500) through a GoFundMe campaign and from family and friends. The family gave Rahila a modest funeral and diverted the money towards her library. Starting with his sister’s own collection, the library now boasts thousands of books. 

Today, more than 500 students attend the Rahila Foundation, where they can use the library and prepare for exams.

Some of Rahila’s former classmates study at the centre. “I cannot forget the day we lost her. At first I was hopeless and didn’t want to study any more,” said Rona Yusufi in the library. “But Rahila’s centre encouraged me to start again.” 

Now, the Rahila Foundation wants to expand and support students in rural areas of Afghanistan. It hopes to open a branch in the eastern province of Khost, where most girls do not attend school due to Taliban rule. 

“We are turning our unfathomable grief into momentum to spread education,” said Hamid, smiling. 

The Guardian

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