Laughter and excited chatter burst out of the colourfully painted classrooms. In a quiet garden schoolhouse amid the jam-packed Afghan capital, Kabul, pupils run around, study and play in the country’s first official school for children with disabilities.
It’s a far cry from what most of these children have previously experienced. For many, it’s the first time in their lives they feel loved and accepted.
Afghanistan has one of the world’s largest proportions of people living with disabilities, according to a report from Human Rights Watch, but few services meet their needs.
More than 17% of Afghan children have a mild, moderate or severe disability, but stigma and resistance from schools to accept them means most have not been able to receive an education, according to the Asia Foundation. Children with the most severe difficulties are often neglected at home or left abandoned and uncared for.
Fatima Khalil school opened its doors in December and is now offering a safe environment for children who routinely face rejection. The tuition-free institute hopes to normalise special needs in the war-torn country, where almost 80% of adults have some form of impairment.
Each classroom is decorated with children’s paintings and filled with toys, schoolbooks and soft carpets. Children who live with all kinds of disabilities are placed in a grade depending on their level of ability and the amount of support they need.
The idea for the school was born out of tragedy: Fatima Khalil, a 24-year-old human rights defender, was assassinated by the Taliban in Kabul last June. Khalil had previously volunteered with the Enabled Children Initiative (ECI), a local charity working with children who live with disabilities.
Lael Mohib, ECI’s founder who now volunteers full-time for the organisation as director, says that in Afghanistan the biggest challenges for children with disabilities are stigma, shame and societal misunderstanding.
“When we establish such barricades, we close the door to opportunities in terms of creating programming and resources,” she says. “When most people think of disability, they think of inability, and that’s the root of many challenges people with disabilities face.”
After Khalil’s death, her family created a fund and partnered with ECI to set up the school, striving to fulfil Fatima’s dream.
“We currently have 34 students, but would like to expand to 50 by the end of the year,” says the school’s deputy administrator, Asya Ahmad, one of Khalil’s sisters. She says once word spread, applications soared. Fourteen of the pupils live in orphanages, after being left at hospitals or in cardboard boxes outside police stations shortly after they were born.
“Afghanistan’s school system is currently not prepared to include special-needs students,” says Ahmad. “We aim to eventually integrate some of our students into mainstream schools and hope to develop partnerships that encourage a more inclusive learning environment.”
Another issue that makes formal school attendance more difficult is that many children with disabilities are not registered with the authorities, often due to their families’ neglect or even shame of acquiring a tazkira, a national identification card, for them. This means they do not formally exist and so cannot obtain government services.
While such identification might be mandatory at some public schools, it is not required at Fatima Khalil school.
Farzad, 16, has Down’s syndrome and is still waiting for his ID card. His mother – injured during the war and now an amputee – has not been able to acquire it for him.
Belquis, another 16-year-old, is an energetic and ambitious girl who has perfected sign language and lip-reading and is determined to finish high school. She left her state school, because a hearing impairment left her unable to follow lessons. At Fatima Khalil school, she is catching up quickly and her teachers hope to establish partnerships with state schools that are willing to reintegrate special-needs students like her.
Tawab, a seven-year-old with severe cerebral palsy, has just enrolled. Previously he barely left his house, and his mother largely negleced him after giving birth to a healthy second child.
Lying on a gym mat, Tawab’s muscles are tense, and his head – which he is unable to control himself – rests on a pillow.
“I want him to be able to eat by himself one day and I’d love for him to walk,” says his physical therapist, Mary Sadat, navigating the little boy through his exercises. Eighteen pupils receive regular physical therapy – most of them were born with cerebral palsy.
“He should have been receiving therapy throughout his entire life,” adds Sadat, who, like most of the other teachers at the school, previously worked with an aid organisation.
Sitting in one of the school’s lunchrooms, the warm spring sun flooding in, Ahmad says she wished Fatima could have seen the school – and the children’s smiles.
“This place offers us hope,” she says. “We hope we can contribute to normalising special needs in Afghanistan. We hope this can be the beginning of a movement for change.”
Climate crisis leaving ‘millions at risk of trafficking and slavery’ | Global development
Millions of people forced to leave their homes because of severe drought and powerful cyclones are at risk of modern slavery and human trafficking over the coming decades, a new report warns.
The climate crisis and the increasing frequency of extreme weather disasters including floods, droughts and megafires are having a devastating effect on the livelihoods of people already living in poverty and making them more vulnerable to slavery, according to the report, published today.
Researchers from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Anti-Slavery International found that drought in northern Ghana had led young men and women to migrate to major cities. Many women begin working as porters and are at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage – a form of modern slavery in which workers are trapped in work and exploited to pay off a huge debt.
One woman, who migrated to Accra from northern Ghana, used to farm until the land was ruined by flooding and she was forced to move. For seven years she has worked as a porter (kayayie), carrying items on her head.
She said: “Working as a kayayie has not been easy for me. When I came here, I did not know anything about the work. I was told that the woman providing our pans will also feed us and give us accommodation. However, all my earnings go to her and only sometimes will she give me a small part of the money I’ve earned.”
She dropped a customer’s items once and had to pay for the damage, which she could not afford. The woman in charge paid up on condition that she repay her. She added: “I have been working endlessly and have not been able to repay.”
In the Sundarbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh, severe cyclones have caused flooding in the delta, reducing the land available for farming. With countries in the region tightening immigration restrictions, researchers found that smugglers and traffickers operating in the disaster-prone region were targeting widows and men desperate to cross the border to India to find employment and income. Trafficking victims were often forced into hard labour and prostitution, with some working in sweatshops along the border.
Fran Witt, a climate change and modern slavery adviser at Anti-Slavery International, said: “Our research shows the domino effect of climate change on millions of people’s lives. Extreme weather events contribute to environmental destruction, forcing people to leave their homes and leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and slavery.”
The World Bank estimates that, by 2050, the impact of the climate crisis, such as poor crop yields, a lack of water and rising sea levels, will force more than 216 million people across six regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America, from their homes.
The report is a stark warning to world leaders in advance of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November and calls on them to make sure efforts to address the climate emergency also tackle modern slavery. The report says labour and migrant rights abuses are disregardedin the interests of rapid economic growth and development.
Ritu Bharadwaj, a researcher for the IIED, said: “The world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking that’s being fuelled by climate change. Addressing these issues needs to be part and parcel of global plans to tackle climate change.”
Putin faces test of popularity in Russian election
Russians head to the polls on Friday for parliamentary elections in a test of authority for president Vladimir Putin, whose United Russia party is polling at a near-historic low of just 30 percent. There are few legitimate international observers, after the ODIHR, a Warsaw-based European monitoring body, declined to go because authorities refused to give them proper access. But some pro-Russian MEPs, such as France’s Thierry Mariani, are going anyway.
‘It helped me get away from crime’: Cape Town’s College of Magic – a photo essay | Global development
To fans of JK Rowling’s books, the story may sound somewhat familiar: a young boy living in difficult circumstances is enrolled in a mysterious school far from home, where his life is changed for ever by the transformative power of magic.
Anele Dyasi’s story is no fairytale, though, and the school in question is not Hogwarts, but the College of Magic in Cape Town, a unique institution that has been training some of the continent’s most skilled illusionists since the 1980s.
Dyasi, who grew up in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, where violent crime is rife and opportunities are few and far between, was 10 when the college began to train him in the ways of magic and sleight of hand. Within four years he was representing South Africa at magic competitions as far afield as Las Vegas and Beijing and had become a role model for a new generation of budding magicians.
“I think of it more as a college of life,” says Dyasi, now 23, and a teacher at the college. “It helped me get away from the crime and gangsterism.”
Dyasi says the most important things he learned in his six years as a student at the college had less to do with magic and more to do with self-confidence and effective communication: skills that he feels have left him in a good position to face life’s challenges.
On this particular Saturday, clad in a flamboyant polka-dot blazer over a plain white T-shirt, he is teaching closeup card magic to a class of fifth-year students who scrutinise every move of his fingers as they try to figure out the trick. Outside the window, younger students are juggling with batons and doing circuits around the car park on unicycles.
Less research has been done on the educational benefits of learning magic than other performing arts such as music, dance or circus. But the studies that do exist have linked it to physical and psychological benefits such as improved focus, a greater ability to solve problems and think laterally, better interpersonal skills, increased self-worth and an enhanced aptitude for teamwork.
“When we started out we never thought of all the spin-off benefits,” says David Gore, founder and director of the college. “We didn’t realise just how powerful magic was as a tool.”
The college’s students frequently give public performances at local venues, and Gore says he has observed how, within a matter of months, first-year students who arrived at the college shy and recalcitrant routinely end up being confident enough to perform on stage in front of hundreds of strangers.
Gore was just 19 when he and a colleague marched into the offices of a local newspaper wearing top hats and tailcoats and announced that they were starting a school for magicians. The newspaper published a story and before long 34 children had signed up. In the 40 years since, several thousand more students have come and gone through the hallways of the ramshackle Victorian mansion that houses the college.
Built in the late 1800s, the building has a distinctively Hogwarts-esque feel, replete with crooked staircases, secret doorways hidden behind bookshelves, and a special enclosure for the rabbits and doves occasionally used in performances.
“It’s a lot more fun than my other school,” says Duma Mgqoki, a fourth-year student and aspiring magician, who says he enjoys wowing the other children in his neighbourhood with the tricks he learns at the college.
While many of the college’s alumni have careers in magic and its associated arts, performing at children’s parties or corporate functions, or becoming TV entertainers, others say the college helped prepare them for a range of non-magical careers.
“Growing up, I went through a lot of trauma and depression. But here I felt free,” says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate of the college from Mfuleni township, who is starting her own shoe-cleaning company.
“This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong. I didn’t even know I could become the person I am now,” she says.
At the college, students from some of the city’s most underprivileged townships are learning alongside others from the wealthiest suburbs.
Twenty-seven years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town remains one of the world’s most divided cities, and many schools, indeed whole neighbourhoods, offer little in the way of ethnic diversity.
“We believed what we were offering should be available to everyone, and we did that from day one,” says Gore, who flouted the laws of the apartheid regime in the 1980s by insisting on teaching multiracial classes.
The college operates as a nonprofit organisation, and helps to find sponsors to cover the fees of those who could not otherwise afford the courses. It also arranges transport to enable those from more distant areas to attend.
“This is the rainbow nation,” says Dyasi after his class, pointing up at the building behind him. “We don’t judge each other here. Everyone is here to achieve the same thing: to become better magicians. It brings out the best in everyone.”
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