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Afghans in Kabul Head Back to School - 2001-12-27

The row of one-story buildings tucked away in a cul-de-sac near downtown Kabul looks nearly uninhabitable. Like so many buildings in Kabul, the crumbling bricks and missing windows serve as perfect metaphors for the poverty and neglect the city and its people have suffered in the past.

But open any of the doors to the buildings and visitors are greeted with startling sounds of a society that appears determined to move ahead, regardless of the obstacles.

Eighteen year-old Shaima is sitting on a bench inside a small, cold, damp room that serves as a classroom for over 30 students. On this day, she is one of five women, taking an advanced English course at the privately-run Nazir Zalmai Science and Language Institute.

The school, with some 2,000 students in total, is the largest English language and mathematics school in Kabul. It was also the first school in the city to introduce classes with males and females learning together, after the fundamentalist Taleban was toppled in mid-November. The one-hour classes are held five days a week. A $2 monthly charge per student covers fees for textbooks and teachers' salaries.

When the Taleban left, Shaima - and many other women in Kabul forced by the Taleban to quit attending school five years ago - immediately began enrolling in various English courses being offered around Kabul. No longer barred from pursuing an education, Shaima says she wants to improve her English as quickly as possible so that she can interview for jobs with international aid agencies.

"We study right now because there is no person to make trouble for us," she says. "We are very happy because we are free now and no one bothers us here."

Shaima says she is excited about the overwhelming international support for the new interim government. She believes this government can convince western countries to bring their businesses to Kabul and help establish a thriving economy.

Her teacher, Masoud Sayeed Abdul, adds that many Afghan men and women are starting to believe that the war-torn country cannot rebuild and prosper without learning the international language of business: English. "In Kabul City, people do not like any other languages other than English," he says. "Many people, every small boy or girl, take a course in English and it is very popular in our society."

Across town, another teacher is teaching a course that is gaining in popularity: computer programming.

In a city that lacks such basic services as hot running water and telephones, there is nevertheless an attempt being made to catch up to western nations in computer literacy.

At the Afghan Computer Institute, some 120 recent graduates of advanced English courses are taking typing and learning about basic computer operating systems like Microsoft "Windows" program. There are only 20 computers, old IBM machines brought in from Pakistan, to accommodate the students.

But the institute's director, Ahmed Zia Yusefsai, says the classes offer Afghans with higher education a chance to be employed by international companies and earn better salaries. "At the moment, they are trying to find good positions for earning money to support their families," he says. "So, they feel it is very important to learn and computerize their lives."

Computer programming schools like the Afghan Computer Institute did offer courses under the Taleban. But few people attended classes and certainly no women were allowed to take the course.

Now, seven of the 120 students are women and many students as young as 13 are signing up for the next class that starts in January. Mr. Yusefsai says if Kabul stays peaceful and reconstruction begins in earnest, he does not see why the country cannot have its first Internet café open in the capital in the coming months.