A former street child in Afghanistan, now giving back where he found help

Hashmatullah Hayat works at a school in Afghanistan for street children, and his life story is an inspiration to the kids studying there.

After being a student there himself, Hashmatullah Hayat now works at Aschiana, which educates street children.

At a school in the capital of Afghanistan, little boys wearing oversize white uniforms hurry down a flight of stairs to make it to judo practice, while girls in colorful headscarves eagerly wait for their tailoring class to begin upstairs. Hashmatullah Hayat, a project supervisor at the school, offers advice to the children who pop into his office asking about their computer classes or English homework.

All this may sound like a typical scene. But Aschiana is not a regular school. And Mr. Hayat may best symbolize what this school is accomplishing.

The boys and girls who study here are street children. Some of them spend much time selling balloons to passersby or collecting plastic on streets that are ruled by gangs and drug lords.

Hayat was once one of these children. But while still a boy he found his way to Aschiana, taking a special interest in its painting classes.

Now he’s a smiling young man with impeccable English, the walls of his office decorated with his own impressive artwork.

Hayat’s life story has become an inspiration to the children who are struggling to get off the streets. And he’s determined to help them as much as he can, even though living somewhere else could be less risky.

“No, you cannot say that you feel safe here,” he says. But for him, leaving the work he is doing is not on the table: “If the people at Aschiana were able to help me, then I should also be able to help others.”

Aschiana operates in various corners of Afghanistan, and it is currently helping about 5,700 boys and girls get access to basic education. At the main school in the capital, Kabul, about 300 children attend classes.

The organization was established in 1995 by engineer Mohammed Yousef. A year later, the Taliban rose to power in the country, which brought fighting in Kabul to a halt. But the regime also opposed girls’ education, banned women from working, and largely isolated the country from the rest of the world. It didn’t shy away from flogging or publicly executing those who dared to defy its rules.

Given the Taliban’s stance on schooling for girls, Aschiana started secretly educating them, with the classes taking place in people’s homes. According to Mr. Yousef, the organization ran into many problems with the extremist regime.

It was against this backdrop that Hayat arrived at Aschiana.

He was born to a relatively well-off family in Kabul in 1989, but civil war forced the family to flee to its ancestral home in Wardak province. Although they moved back to the city in 1996, it was hard to find work. The family’s difficult financial situation forced the 11-year-old Hayat to sell newspapers in streets that were now patrolled by the Kalashnikov-toting Taliban.

Hayat’s cousin started going to Aschiana, and he persuaded Hayat to join him.

“I think Aschiana was the only such organization that was allowed to continue its operations in the country,” Hayat notes, but adds, “The Taliban came to the school regularly to check what was going on.”

A chance to paint

The painting classes at the school caught his attention. “Under the Taliban, artwork depicting people was banned,” he explains. “Still, at Aschiana we were able to draw and paint landscapes and nature.”

After the US-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime, the paintings made by Hayat and others gained a much wider audience. Foreign aid money started pouring into Afghanistan, and in 2003, Elinor Edmunds Miller saw a presentation in the United States that featured art made by Aschiana’s children.

“I couldn’t imagine how these children living in a war zone could create such artwork,” recalls Ms. Miller, who cofounded Friends of Aschiana to help the school. She decided to travel to Kabul to purchase the works, sell them in the US, and send the money back to Aschiana. This is how she met Hayat, who was still a young student.

When he was 16, Hayat managed to open a shop at a US military base in Kabul where he started to sell his paintings. His customers were mainly foreigners – aid workers, soldiers, and journalists.

The money he made from his paintings gave him an opportunity to invest in his future. He decided to go to India in 2008 for a bachelor’s degree.

“The most important thing I learned [at Aschiana] was painting, because it helped me so much in my life,” Hayat says.

A return to Kabul

Once he became a university graduate, he felt it was time to give back. He returned to Kabul and found himself applying for a job at a familiar institution – Aschiana.

A regular day for him at the school consists of visiting all the various classes – basic education, vocational training, art, and sports – and making sure that things are running according to plan. He also visits camps for internally displaced persons in Afghanistan to monitor the literacy programs and schools that Aschiana has set up there. He reports his observations to Yousef and donors abroad.

“Hashmat [Hayat] is committed to do all that he can to further Aschiana’s goal of educating Afghanistan’s poorest and most vulnerable girls, boys, and widows,” Miller says.

In his office, the children clearly feel at ease with him.

Noorullah, 12, spends four hours a day selling plastic and comes to Aschiana in the evenings. His dream is to become a judge. When asked if he believes he can be as successful as Hayat, Noorullah looks at him admiringly and nods eagerly.

Says Yousef, the school’s founder: “[Hayat] is very good with kids.”

Hayat’s artwork, hanging on the walls of his office, includes paintings of rural Afghanistan, beautiful street scenes, and portraits of famous people. He’s been able to sell some of it for as much as $800 apiece – three times the average monthly salary in the country.

Challenges for the school

Not too long ago, Aschiana again received threats from the Taliban. Yousef falls silent when asked about it, fearing that commenting on the issue will bring back problems.

The Taliban, however, represent just one challenge in educating Afghanistan’s street children. The gangs and drug lords ruling the streets want to traffic these children or lure them into selling drugs, Yousef and Hayat explain. And when someone is working to get kids off the streets, this is seen as a threat to the underworld’s lucrative business.

Aschiana has never received any financial help from the Afghan government. With severe economic and security problems confronting the country, street children are not a top priority for the government. Most of the school’s funding comes through friends and supporters abroad, but the institution is still struggling to make ends meet.

Nevertheless, Aschiana has seen positive results. Many of the children have been integrated into the mainstream public education system, and many have gone on to work for government organizations or the private sector.

Most of Afghanistan’s problems, Hayat says, could be solved if only there were enough jobs and other opportunities for young people. “Children are the future of the country, but if no support is given to them, they will gravitate towards negative things, like drugs or joining armed groups,” he says.

But some take hope in the role models that people like Hayat have set. He’s “exactly the kind of person Afghanistan needs thousands more of,” says Wendy Summer, a longtime supporter of Aschiana.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups offering educational services and working to help children:

Nepal Orphans Home attends to the welfare of children in Nepal who are orphaned, abandoned, or not supported by their parents. Take action: Allow a child to receive an education at Papa’s House.

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources to achieve high levels of literacy in rural communities in Ghana. Take action: Empower an adolescent girl through education.

Achungo Children’s Centre provides education, food, clothing, and medical aid for more than 200 orphans and other children in rural Kenya. Take action: Fund a teacher for a month at the Achungo school.

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