3 Things You Need to Know about the Afghan Institute of Learning

afghaninstituteoflearningThe Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) aims to create a brighter future for Afghanistan through a focus on education. In 1995, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi founded AIL to address what she perceived as a systemic problem. She observed that Afghans in need were not able to access basic education and health services and were subsequently less able to support themselves, a situation that impacted Afghan society as a whole. Furthermore, Dr. Yacoobi believed that the only way to address this problem was to adopt a holistic approach. As a result, AIL is built firmly on grassroots principles, and its work is guided by the belief that major societal change occurs at the community level by transforming lives. To date, more than 14 million Afghans have benefitted from AIL’s offerings. Here’s what you need to know about this visionary organization:

 

1. It offers a wide range of programs and services.

When AIL was founded, it focused primarily on basic education and health initiatives. However, AIL’s scope of offerings has grown considerably over the years, and the organization now provides a wide variety of programs and services across a number of different areas. Following are some examples of AIL’s projects:

Learning Centers—AIL’s unique Learning Center model is the cornerstone of its educational endeavors. Learning Centers are schools or other educational facilities that typically serve Afghanistan’s rural communities or urban neighborhoods that are underserved. They offer a wide range of classes and educational opportunities, ranging from university-level classes and literacy courses to workshops focused on crafts such as calligraphy and carpet-weaving. A community demand-driven project, Learning Centers are established specifically at the request of individual communities. Communities that want a Learning Center collaborate closely with AIL to plan, fund, and operate them. The ultimate goal is that each Learning Center will eventually become self-sufficient. Since 1996, AIL has opened or supported over 340 Learning Centers.

Teacher training—One of the challenges that has hampered the progress of Afghanistan’s educational system has been a lack of qualified, trained teachers. AIL works to fill this gap through intensive, small-group teacher training workshops. Subjects covered include the pedagogical basics of teaching, the creation of a good classroom environment, the development of curricula and lesson materials, and testing and evaluation.

Cultural programs—Preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and reviving its cultural sector are important priorities for many organizations, including AIL. Since 2011, AIL has been working with local government officials in Herat to develop and implement a series of cultural projects and programs. They include the establishment of a library and research center at the Gawhar Shad Musalla Complex, a historic mausoleum, and a workshop series on traditional Afghan arts and crafts where master craftsmen teach skills such as miniature painting and tile-making at the recently restored Herat Citadel.

Legal services—In 2015, AIL established a Legal Clinic Project in Herat to provide indigent Afghans with legal support. Located near Herat’s courts and staffed by five experienced lawyers, the Legal Clinic Project helps people with legal difficulties who lack sufficient financial resources to access legal representation. Its mission is guided by five core values.

 

afghanistan education

 

2. Its mission is guided by five core values.

AIL founder Dr. Sakena Yacoobi firmly believes that the people her organization serves are the ones who know best what their own needs are, and that trust is the key to building relationships that lead to sustainable change. Consequently, she has placed these five core values at the heart of AIL’s work and mission:

Listening—According to Dr. Yacoobi, the most important thing that an organization can do to serve people in need is to listen. Only by listening is it possible to learn what is needed to improve a particular situation.

Community support—The full support of each community member is essential in developing programs that lead to lasting change. True transformation occurs when communities are part of the solution rather than simply recipients of charity.

Leadership—AIL is all about helping each person to achieve their goals by providing them with the tools and resources they need for success. In doing so, AIL demonstrates what it means to be a leader.

Evaluation and reflection—Assessing what has worked and what has not for new programs and initiatives is a vital component of AIL’s work. Building on successes and learning from losses helps communities to move closer toward their goals.

Innovation—While successful projects bring joy and fulfillment, AIL believes that innovation never ends. There is always something new to try or a new idea that provides inspiration.

 

3. Its founder has received widespread recognition.

AIL’s founder, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, has received widespread international recognition. Through her tireless work with AIL, Dr. Yacoobi has earned recognition from leading institutions around the world. Among her many honors are the Opus Prize, the WISE Prize for Education, the Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education, and the Sunhak Peace Prize. In addition, she has received six honorary doctorates from various institutions.

This Amazing Carpet Puts Afghan Craftsmanship in the Spotlight

Visitors to Washington, DC between March 2016 and October 2017 had the opportunity to experience a rare and special showcase of traditional Afghan craftsmanship. During this time, the Freer-Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution hosted a unique exhibit entitled “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.”

This truly special event marked one of the first times that Western audiences were able to get a glimpse of Afghanistan’s newly-revitalized arts and crafts scene. This sector has been steadily growing in recent years as a result of strong local and international support, and the hard work and dedication of Afghanistan’s many talented artisans.

The Smithsonian exhibit presented a stunning array of beautiful works across five artistic disciplines, from exquisite pieces of jewelry to boldly carved wooden panels. However, perhaps the most visually arresting component in the collection was the Afghan History Carpet.

Featuring 25 different colors twisting and winding in intricate patterns across a surface area of 17.5 square meters (nearly 190 square feet), the Afghan History Carpet is more than just a rug. As its name implies, it’s the story of Afghan carpet-weaving captured in textile form. Here’s what you need to know about this amazing work of art.

rug

Image courtesy Carl Montgomery | Flickr

 

It tells a story that’s thousands of years old.

The Afghan art of carpet-weaving is a practice as ancient as it is complex. For thousands of years, different tribes across the country have made intricate rugs by hand. Craftspeople follow an intensive, multi-step process, including raising and shearing sheep, preparing dyes from plants that only grow in or near Afghanistan, dyeing the wool, and finally, weaving the patterned carpets over a period of many months (or even years in some cases).

This process remained relatively unchanged until just a few decades ago. At that time, ongoing conflict and occupation decimated many traditional arts and crafts practices in Afghanistan, including carpet-weaving.

 

It uses a wide range of traditional and historic patterns.

One of the things that makes the Afghan History Carpet so special is that it incorporates an array of different traditional design motifs. Historically, each carpet-producing village or tribe in Afghanistan had its own distinctive way of constructing carpets and its own unique patterns.

The Afghan History Carpet captures these individual identities and traces the evolution of carpet-weaving in the country by incorporating 25 of these motifs. These include the central medallion of the Beshir tribe, the cross motif of the Ersari, and the Turkmen gul (another medallion-like design element).

But the design of the Afghan History Carpet is far from purely traditional. Instead, the rug is formed in a contemporary, loosely-striped background pattern that holds the design together while allowing the different design elements to shift in and out of the foreground. The result is a one-of-a-kind carpet that pays homage to Afghanistan’s rich history of carpet-making while looking toward the future simultaneously.

 

It was conceived by one of the world’s most exciting carpet designers.

The designer of the Afghan History Carpet is the artist Erbil Tezcan. This Turkish national and American resident is the founder and owner of the New Jersey-based rug design company Wool and Silk Carpets.

Tezcan was approached to be part of the Turquoise Mountain showcase at the Smithsonian by Tommy Wide, the organization’s director of exhibitions. At this point, Tezcan had already been working with Afghan carpet-makers for several years.

His work was strongly inspired by historical journeys along the Silk Road and the natural exchanges of ideas and designs that took place as a result. For the Turquoise Mountain showcase, Tezcan was tasked with an enormous mission: to create something truly special that told a story of Afghanistan. The result was the Afghan History Carpet.

 

It was made entirely in Afghanistan.

rug

Image courtesy A.Davey | Flickr

Today, many Afghan carpets are partially made in Afghanistan, but finished outside the country. For Erbil Tezcan and the other stakeholders involved in putting together the Turquoise Mountain exhibit, it was vital that the rugs on display, including the Afghan History Carpet, should be entirely made in Afghanistan.

After many research trips to the country, Tezcan developed the design for the Afghan History Carpet. The rug was then painstakingly created by a team of weavers in Dawlatabad over a period of several months. Finally, the rug was sent to Mazar-e-Sharif to be washed in September 2015. It was then shipped to the US for the Smithsonian exhibition.

 

It’s a stunning example of the high-quality work that Afghan artisans are producing today.

One of the main goals of the Turquoise Mountain showcase was to allow people outside the country to see a different side of contemporary Afghanistan. The story of Afghanistan today is not solely about conflict and poverty. It is about beauty, creativity, craftsmanship, and heritage.

By grouping together some of the most spectacular work from Afghan artisans, including the Afghan History Carpet, the Turquoise Mountain exhibit was an important step forward in building global interest in Afghanistan’s renewed cultural scene.

Featured Image courtesy hewy | Flickr

Spotlight on the SMILE Project from Concern Worldwide

concernworldwideA bare and rocky hillside in Afghanistan’s remote northeast is possibly the last place you would expect to see a thriving forest of fruit trees. But thanks to the support of the global charity Concern Worldwide and the efforts of a dedicated community, this is exactly what you’ll find in Kozur, a small village in the Rustaq district, close to the Tajikistan border. Read on to learn more about the unique project that is helping transform the lives of thousands of rural Afghans.

 

The challenge

The environment in which Kozur village is situated is harsh and hostile. The village sits in a flood plain and has repeatedly suffered losses of homes, land, and animals to frequent flash floods. Heavy snowfall is frequently a problem in the winter, as is lack of rainfall in the summer; when these environmental conditions are combined with the naturally poor soil fertility in the region, the result is an environment that makes it very difficult to grow good crops or raise healthy livestock. In addition, Kozur, like many other communities in the Rustaq district, was decimated by the 1998 earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 4,500 people.

As a result of all these factors, a cycle of poverty has taken hold in Kozur and has proved very difficult to break. The life of Hakim, a 60-year-old local volunteer with Concern Worldwide (whose name has been changed for security purposes), reveals the struggles that many Kozur villagers have had to contend with: with a wife and four children to support, Hakim spent many years working away from home, often as a laborer in the Darqad district’s rice fields, where he was paid in rice or sometimes cash. Although he has land in Kozur, he did not have enough income or agricultural knowledge to grow anything other than onions and potatoes. Often, he and his family would have to choose between selling the produce or eating it: they would go hungry if they sold the produce, but if they ate it, they would not have the money for firewood and other basic staples to survive the winter.

According to Hakim, what made all the difference to him and his family was the strong sense of community spirit in Kozur. During lean periods, neighbors would help each other as best they could with gifts of food or cash, particularly when there were families with children to be supported. And it is precisely these community values of generosity and cooperation that are now helping transform Kozur’s fortunes through Concern Worldwide’s SMILE project.

 

The project

Afghanistan children

Image courtesy Todd Huffman | Flickr

Funded by the European Union and implemented by Concern Worldwide and community volunteers like Hakim, the SMILE project—Sustainable Management for Improved Livelihoods and Environment—is aligned with some of Concern’s top priorities, including reducing poverty by increasing access to food and improving livelihoods by providing individuals and communities with the tools and training they need to change their own lives.

The main focus of the SMILE project has been the creation and maintenance of a community forest of almond, apricot, pistachio, and mulberry trees. Like Hakim, many villagers did not previously know how to utilize their land to get the most value from it; Concern’s solution was to provide the village with the training and tools needed to grow and market higher-value crops. To launch the SMILE project, Concern provided technical guidance, training sessions, saplings, alfalfa seeds, and cement, and constructed a number of check dams to protect the newly planted forest (later in the project, the Concern team also installed an extra reservoir to improve irrigation).

In their turn, the villagers prepared the land, planted the saplings, and excavated and helped build the reservoir and water pipelines. On an ongoing basis, they maintain the forest through regular pruning and inspections for disease and pests. Volunteers like Hakim, who have completed additional training in forest management techniques, act as stewards and keepers of the forest.

 

The outcomes

The Kozur community forest is a true community project in the best sense of the term. Everyone in the village works together to pick and prepare the produce during harvest time, and all profits from the forest go straight back to the community (rather than to individuals) for improvement projects like water systems and pumps. Alongside these community benefits, villagers are able to use the new skills and tools they have acquired through the project to enhance their own personal livelihoods. Hakim, for example, has transformed his former plots of onions and potatoes into a fruit tree nursery that provides him with saplings that he can sell at the market: the money he makes has allowed him to build a house and provide for his family’s educational and medical needs. And just as his neighbors helped him when times were difficult, Hakim now helps his neighbors by providing them with fruit tree cuttings, donating saplings to local schools and mosques, and conducting community training sessions.