Afghan youths form a sort of YMCA

Young people flock to a grass-roots program spreading across the country.

There may be no telephones or newspapers here. But that hasn't stopped news from spreading about an extraordinary project run by a group of young people in this bustling city in northern Afghanistan.

Every day, new students register for classes in the unheated office of the Youth and Children Development Program, a home- grown, community-development initiative that plays a role not unlike the YMCA. English classes are the most popular offering, but the YCDP, as the program is known, also offers Farsi, religion, martial arts, and drama classes.

With the ouster of the Taliban, young people here are seizing the opportunity to pick up the pieces of a shattered civil society.

"Many people see the needs of our society, but it's the duty of enlightened people to start such a program," says Najib Paikan, president and founder of the program. "There's a very high barrier between words and actions. Even if we just repeat 'peace, peace,' peace will not come. We must do something for it."

Mr. Paikan, a medical student with a black belt in judo, founded the YCDP in 1996. But when the Taliban conquered Mazar two years later, they closed the school and sent home the women who had been working there. The organization, however, grew on an informal basis and has been replicated in dozens of projects across the country.

The program's charter, handwritten in almost perfect English, was established "by senseful youth who are enthusiastic to help people and society. This program is far away from any kind of political and military connections, and also is far away from racism, lingual, and religious fanaticism." The goal of the program is "self-sufficiency of the community."

While large amounts of foreign aid are clearly needed to help rebuild a society whose meager resources have for years been chanelled into warfare, there is already a loose network of grassroots activists who have started community projects for income generation and education.

"The indigenous process of consultation, or jirga, has a long history in Afghanistan, says Sayed Sawayz, head of the Mazar office of Habitat, a United Nations project that supports community-based development projects.

YCDP, says Mr. Sawayz, emerged from Mazar's community. "The young people took the essence of the process and developed their own procedures."

"They have a crucial role in raising awareness and can be trained for the future of development. It is a structure with lots of potential resources," he says.

Since the reopening of the YCDP school in late November - four rented rooms on the second floor of a shabby building - enrollment has increased by the day to more than 200 students of all ages and abilities. They include grade-schoolers getting a headstart on English, young women denied education by the Taliban, and doctors keen to read current medical journals. Hundreds more take part in courses in martial arts, drama, and painting, and in YCDP-sponsored soccer and volleyball matches.

For a monthly tuition fee of about $1, the language courses are a bargain even in dirt-poor Afghanistan. The teachers volunteer their time and skills, as the students' thirst for knowledge and their ability to pay are in inverse proportions.

"When I see that young people are very enthusiastic to learn but have no resources, it motivates me to help them," says Yama Behgan, an English teacher. He says he makes a living through translation and calligraphy. Mr. Behgan says that exactly because the Taliban kept people in the dark about the outside world, they are all the more eager to learn now.

As many of Mazar's public schools are poorly equipped, students attend only a few hours a day. In contrast, the classrooms at the YCDP have desks and blackboards. Also unusual in a place where schools are segregated by gender, all YCDP classes are co-ed.

Hardship has made Afghans resourceful, and intermediate- level English students, such as Wahida Paikan, pass on their knowledge by teaching beginner classes.

"We want to learn computers," says Ms. Paikan. "If there's [electrical] power, we'll bring computers to the school and start a class."

Ideas that even a few months ago would have been impossible are now becoming reality. With an enrollment increase of more than 10 students per day, YCDP organizers are already considering a move to a larger building.

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