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School's mission is to be a girl magnet

ATTOCK, Pakistan – Walking through the Ersari Elementary School in this town 90 minutes north of Islamabad, we were struck by how dedicated the students were to their studies. 

In cramped classrooms across two small buildings, children ranging in ages 5 to 16 diligently followed their lessons, each one of the estimated 300 students in a clean, pressed uniform.

Adrienne Mong/ NBC News

Student retention is a problem at the Ersari Elementary School because many parents want their children to begin working as soon as they reach 15 or 16.

And despite the distraction of having our NBC cameraman, Faisal Tariq, and I slipping in and out of rooms with our cameras, they listened closely to their teachers, reciting after them phrases in English, Urdu or Dari.

The students all come from Afghan refugee families who live in Attock, Pakistan.  In fact, the student body is a microcosm of Afghanistan: the children are Pashtun, Hazara, Turkoman, Uzbek and Persian.

For 15 years, the Afghan community has been sending its children to Ersari Elementary School, which was set up in 1995 by Barakat, an NGO based in Boston.  http://barakatworld.org/ 

An American carpet manufacturer, Chris Walter, and his Afghan business partner, Habibullah Karimi, founded the organization, which runs schools in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

At the school in Pakistan, which is staffed by local employees, the students learn English, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, arithmetic, science, Islamic studies and social studies.

“We wanted to address the needs of the substantial Afghan refugee population in Pakistan,” said Lyla Hardesty, Barakat’s interim executive director. Hardesty was touring the NGO’s three schools in Pakistan to assess their progress --and what she saw on her first visit to the country impressed her.

“The teachers and the principals at the schools really know the community. They know all their students and they know the parents,” she said.

Pakistan is educating some Afghan refugee children. It is an education that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to get. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.

Trouble retaining students
This connection has proved invaluable, building trust between the schools and the often distrustful refugee population. 
“In 1994, we had 22 students and each of those students was hard-won,” said Hardesty. Today, Barakat counts between 1,200 to 1,500 students in three schools in Pakistan.

Even so, Barakat’s teams of education experts still face an enormous cultural stumbling block in recruiting and retaining students from the Afghan refugee community in Attock.

The community is conservative and very traditional, hence its reluctance to allow daughters to attend school in the first place. And it’s also incredibly impoverished.

“They’re still reluctant to send – especially their girls – to school [once] they’re over the age 15,” said Sumera Sahar, Barakat’s country director in Pakistan. That’s because many of the families want to send their children out to work. 

“So you can see in our classrooms, the overcrowded classrooms [are] in the lower grades, and gradually when you move to the senior classes, the enrollment of both boys and girls is very [much] less.”

The numbers bear out that challenge. Since Ersari opened its doors 15 years ago, only 15 girls have gone on to college. 

‘Bringing them to school is my first success’
“Education is very important,” said Abdul Rehman, an Afghan who helped to start up Ersari and now serves as the school supervisor. “The children who receive an education here, they get good jobs.”

Rehman, a Turkoman who fled his home in Jowzjan, northern Afghanistan, 27 years ago, seems to be the exception to the rule. His daughter is attending medical school and is one of three female graduates from Ersari who are studying to become doctors.
The boys have a better track record: roughly 50 percent of them finish their schooling at Ersari. 

“It’s very important for me and for my future,” said Mahmood Anwar, a 14-year-old also from Jowzjan. He said he dreams about becoming an engineer.

The challenge of keeping kids in school also means Ersari can’t afford a much-needed relocation. “We need more resources,” said Shehnaz Begum, the school’s principal. “The building we have here is too small.”

Indeed, students, especially the younger ones, were crammed into tiny classes with little elbow room. But in order to find a bigger yet affordable space, Ersari’s faculty would have to move the school outside the center of town.  “If we move out of the city, we’ll be too far for the parents, and they won’t send [the children] to school,” said Begum.

So Begum and the teachers figure it’s better to try to educate as many of the children as possible, even if it means cramped conditions.

“Bringing them to school is my first success,” said Sahar. “They are in classrooms.  I consider this as our success, our achievement.”