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Tue. September 25, 2018
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Afghanistan: Averting the Loss of another Generation
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By Ahmad Shuja A majority of Afghanistan's population is under 25 - that's millions of individuals, young women and men, with the energy and potential to get an education, learn skills and lead Afghanistan into a more stable future. Many 18-year-olds voted for the first time in the August elections, becoming part of the first-ever generation in Afghanistan who, unlike their parents, will be growing up as democracy dawns in their country. But if the promises of democracy are not accompanied with a good education and life opportunities, Afghanistan might lose yet another generation. Under the current circumstances, even some of the most basic needs of a student - education in a secure environment, skill building opportunities and career prospects - are largely unmet. With the Taliban burning schools and threatening students, security remains a serious issue, especially for girls who are just beginning to go to school in substantial numbers. About half of the students who take university entrance exams cannot get in because of cut-throat competition for the limited capacity in the public university system. With 40% unemployment and half the population in poverty, many students cannot afford any of the numerous private universities. But the young understand just how valuable an education is. Some individuals, like a friend of mine, take a perilous journey to find a classroom and opportunities. He first went to Iran, then traveled to Turkey, boated his way to Greece, hitched a ride on the trailer of a cargo truck to Italy and, finally, ended up in France. He stopped in each country and worked illegally to earn enough for the next leg of his two-year journey. He is now learning French, working to earn a living, and hoping to continue his university education. He was luckier than 100 young men last year who, hoping for a similar promise, were crammed into the trailer of a truck to be smuggled across Turkey and died when their truck crashed into another vehicle. For the skilled young people who do not, or cannot, travel for education, some of the best career opportunities include working on short or medium-term projects with foreign aid organizations, or interpreting for the international forces, often in combat zones. One of my acquaintances, who had graduated from high school in Pakistan, was Afghanistan-bound and anxious to start a job and save money for further studies. Somewhere along the way, the Taliban stopped passenger car and kidnapped him along with several other travelers. His mutilated body turned up several weeks later. Despite these heart-wrenching issues, my other friends are resilient and optimistic, if somewhat disillusioned at their prospects. They see the first glimpses of democracy and enjoy many freedoms they couldn't even fathom in years past due to civil war and Taliban rule. They're also realizing they now have a chance to learn, grow, and excel like never before in their lives. These young men and women are eager to contribute to society and be active global citizens. Many of them just need a chance. Another friend taught English as a second language during his middle and high school years. After graduation, he was accepted for a scholarship to India. But he didn't get his scholarship because, he believes, some corrupt officials gave it to a student with connections and money. But Najib decided to move on, determined to find another way to continue his education. These stories are not isolated cases. Their struggle to seek education and opportunities is common among a growing number of young people. Even though the youth in Afghanistan dream more than can be realized under the current circumstances, they offer Afghanistan's best hope for a secure, prosperous future. They don't have a hand in the country's turbulent history unlike some in the older generations. With Afghanistan's past so beset with violence and ethnic and religious tensions, untarnished, open minds are critical for reconciliation and national unity. Therefore, the issues and needs of the youth must then be taken seriously and included in the larger national debate. But with so many other pressing priorities and so few resources, doing so is difficult if not outright impossible for Afghanistan. Among Afghanistan's international partners, Turkey's work is exemplary: It is educating some of Afghanistan's best and brightest with the several branches of its acclaimed Afghan-Turk high schools across the country. There is nothing more valuable to the next generation of Afghanistan's artists, scientists, thinkers and leaders than helping them find the education and training to become competitive and self-reliant. With a renewed commitment to education, skill building programs and study abroad opportunities, the international community can make a difference in Afghanistan's future and the stability of the region and the world. The Taliban, after all, were a product of madrassahs that mingled lessons in extremism with the religious education they offered. If educating the youth in hate and violence can produce foot soldiers for trans-border terrorism, equipping them with education and skills should do the opposite. A young person with better options will not choose violence as a career or take dangerous transcontinental journeys to inundate refugee camps in Europe or elsewhere. As discussions about Afghanistan's future continue in America and other nations active in Afghanistan, it is important to remember that the youth, if armed with books and pens, can be Afghanistan's best hope. This is how the international community can leave a meaningful and lasting impact. There are millions of young men and women with great potential, big dreams and strong determinations to succeed. They just need a chance, and they should not be denied one - for the sake of our collective futures. Ahmad Shuja is an international merit scholar from Afghanistan. He has written for FOX News, Copley Newspapers and several Afghan and Pakistani dailies.

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