This month, the outgoing commander of America’s military effort in Afghanistan told Congress that the country the United States invaded more than 14 years ago was at “an inflection point.” The Taliban reportedly holds more territory than at any time since 2001, and civilian casualties are at record levels. Ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable; some fear that peace talks with the Taliban could open a place in the government for an organization that waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them.

For all of these reasons, even as U.S. forces continue to depart the country, the war in Afghanistan isn’t over yet, and by many measures it’s not going well.

But there are stories of hope, if you know where to look. One of the brightest is so small it’s invisible to many; to find it, you have to drive for the better part of an hour along rutted roads from the center of Kabul, to a Hazara slum in a desert on the city’s outskirts. It’s just a school. But it is, in many ways, exactly what the Americans and their Afghan allies have been fighting for more than a decade to protect. And it’s exactly what Afghanistan stands to lose now.

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When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, with a parade of foreign armies behind it, a group of refugees was waiting to take advantage. They were Afghans, though at the time of the invasion they were not in Afghanistan, not yet. They were Hazaras, and they were next door in Pakistan, where thousands of members of their ethnic group had fled during more than a century of persecution in their home country, committed most recently by the Taliban regime that America was about to overthrow.

Because they were minorities in a country dominated by other ethnic groups, because of their Shia beliefs in a country dominated by Sunnis, and because of the pervasive origin myth that has them descending from Mongol invaders of the 13th century, the Hazaras occupied the bottom rungs of society even before the Taliban swept to power. In the late 19th century, the country’s ruler Abdur Rahman—known as “the Iron Amir” for his ruthlessness—launched a war against Hazaras and oversaw their enslavement. A militia the Americans later supported took part in one of the worst crimes of Afghanistan’s civil war of the 1990s, massacring as many as 2,500 Hazaras and injuring and raping thousands more in 1993. Then the civil war ended with the Taliban’s takeover in 1996, and things only got worse for Hazaras. One governor reportedly issued a fatwa saying, “Hazaras are not Muslim. Killing them is not a sin,” and Taliban fighters evidently took those guidelines to heart. More massacres followed. The Hazaras have been denied access to power, property, or even education in their own country.

So it’s unsurprising that among those waiting for the Americans were some Hazara refugee kids huddled under a few UNHCR tarps in Pakistan, learning to read. The young man instructing them was Aziz Royesh, whom they referred to, simply, as the Teacher. The group could barely be called a school, but Aziz had given it a name that spoke to his hopes for it, a single Farsi word that meant many things: enlightenment, spiritual awareness, the kind of understanding that comes from experience. Marefat. The three syllables held what a person could provide herself, regardless of where she was, or what had happened to her parents during the civil war.

Right after the Americans came at the end of 2001 and, for the time being at least, cleared the land of the Taliban, the Teacher decided to bring his school from the refugee camps of Pakistan home to Afghanistan. He disassembled it and gave it piece by piece to the students, who carried it across the border one book, one chair, at a time, making their way through the Khyber Pass with an idea and their school on their heads. They went into Afghanistan, out to a desert slum of Kabul, where land was cheap. Then they put the school back together and changed the whole story of their people.

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By the time I came across Marefat in 2007—when elsewhere in the country an insurgency was ratcheting up—the school had grown beyond even what Aziz had imagined. Back then I was a freelance writer with a day job, working at the American University of Afghanistan. My boss, an Afghan-born Hazara and naturalized American, knew of the school, and went out there every week to teach English. One day he was sick, or stuck somewhere else in the city—I don’t remember exactly what he was doing that day, but he asked me to go in his place. I found I wasn’t very good at teaching English, but I learned more from the 10 or 15 kids Aziz selected to have “class” with me than I had at any other time, any other place else in the country. The next week I went back. And the week after. I started following Aziz around, trying to understand how he’d willed this place into existence, and built it up into what I saw before me.

It had grown slowly at first, then much faster. In the early years after the Americans came, it was a few dozen kids, none beyond a fourth-grade reading level, but no longer gathered under a tarp—first they were in a two-room apartment in the middle of the desert, then a new building, made of mud brick the students had mixed themselves and arranged around a courtyard.

Then they built a second story, even though no one knew whether the first could support the weight. The students marched up the uneven steps to class, without knowing how stable the foundation was on which they stood. Little earthquakes happened all the time, back then.

Aziz Royesh (Jeffrey E. Stern)

Then it was not just a school; it was a forward operating base from which Aziz nudged his community toward his own progressive way of thinking. He met with his students’ parents, who were often illiterate, so they could gain from their children’s schooling. The kids published bulletins with news from the school; they put out a magazine with poetry and editorials; and Aziz helped them organize political demonstrations. When then-interim President Hamid Karzai made his first visit to the desert after the fall of the Taliban, Marefat students lined up on either side of the street, waving Afghan flags and photos of him. And when the country had its first post-Taliban elections, the students organized on the challenger’s behalf, establishing the school as not just an educational and cultural force, but a political one as well.

One of the things I found most astounding about this whole enterprise was that despite his nickname, Aziz had no formal training as a teacher. He had no formal training as anything really, because in 1979 the Soviets invaded, and Aziz had to leave the country before finishing fifth grade. When he first returned it was as a holy warrior, and he was never given the chance to return to school, swept up like so many others by the wave of violence that had started rolling across the country.

So as a teacher, he was improvising. He built a curriculum based on (what he thought was) the concept of “humanism,” which to him meant that value was within people, rather than passed down by some deity or leader. He predicted resistance, so he hid it within a Trojan horse of religion, selecting the ideas from the Quran that best fed the mindset he wanted for his students. He would point to the verse about man’s creation—“When I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, bow before him in homage”—to argue that the human being is the bearer of God’s soul, that the human being is entitled to dignity and freedom of choice.

His trick was using reverence for a holy book to teach irreverence in general. Given the battles and massacres he had lived through—some barely—he wanted students incapable of participating in such things. If they believed that humans had value because they were humans, not because of money or religion or family name, it would be harder for them to kill. They would be less easily swayed by the war cries of powerful men. He didn’t want students who could recite passages of the Quran. He wanted students who—the next time a tribal leader, or a cleric, or a warlord, said: “Fight”—asked: “Why?”

Aziz was also adamant that Marefat be coeducational. Boys and girls in the “New Afghanistan,” as he began to call this country the foreign forces were ushering in, should be comfortable with one another. Boys at Marefat wouldn’t view girls as strange things to fear or punish; girls wouldn’t think of boys as overseers. No one would kneel. Literally: When parents pressured Aziz to build a prayer room, he held firm. “This is a school,” he would tell them, “not a mosque.” The students could pray if they wanted, but not here. Here, God was in the individual; the muscle that softened when you knelt before God was the one that could make you stand up and challenge a cleric. Or even a teacher: Aziz instituted a student parliament, so that every month, students gathered to appraise their teachers’ performance in public meetings. No one got to exert status, unchallenged, over anyone else.

Class at Marefat (Jeffrey E. Stern)

The contrast between what the school looked like—barren concrete walls and floors—and the energy in the classrooms was striking. I’ve seen students there debate whether racism in Afghanistan is worse than in countries they will never see, but whose histories they seem to understand as if they’ve lived it. I saw a girl say in class: “Racism is worse here because other countries made it worse,” speaking of the long history of foreign powers picking favorites among the ethnic groups in Afghanistan—Turkey supporting Uzbeks, Pakistan supporting Pashtuns, other groups with their other regional backers.

Another girl disagreed: “Imagine Afghanistan was an island, and no one could reach it. You don’t think there would still be racism? Of course there would still be racism.”

“It’s natural for people,” another said, “to want to be better than other people.” They criticized their country for its segregated cities, for its corruption, for its weak democracy. They were thinking critically. They were thinking for themselves. They were thinking just like Aziz wanted them to think.

* * *

That was more than two years ago, during a more hopeful time. The school has changed since then. As U.S. forces have left, the economy has fallen down around Marefat. Foreign organizations that once brought a steady flow of funding and jobs into the country have followed foreign forces out; wealthy Afghans continue to take their money (and their families) elsewhere; fewer people have good jobs. More and more Marefat students can’t afford even the $300-a-year tuition, and the school’s anonymous charity box has dried up.

At the same time, kids have started disappearing from class, fleeing with their families from the horrendous violence that’s begun again against Hazaras. A year ago, gunmen stopped two buses in the southern province of Zabul, separated out the Hazaras, and took them hostage; similar kidnappings targeted Hazaras throughout the year. Last July, Hazaras manning a security checkpoint west of the capital were overrun by Taliban fighters; 30 were killed, and their bodies mutilated. Late last year seven Hazaras civilians, including a young girl, were beheaded with razor wire. There are many other examples.

All of them make it hard for a student to focus on her studies. Hazaras like Aziz cooperated with the Americans in exchange for protection; that makes them look like traitors to insurgents. And it leaves them exposed as that protection disappears.

Yet for now, people like Aziz are trying to hold up their end of the bargain. The Americans, who may or may not be considering another five years of small-scale counterterrorism operations in the country, aren’t offering enough to hold up theirs.


This article has been adapted from Jeffrey E. Stern’s new book, The Last Thousand: One School's Promise in a Nation at War.