It was an emotional sight for Shahabuddin, principal of a private school in Pakistan’s Bacha Maina village at the Torkham border, when the Afghan students at his school presented a salute to Pakistan’s national flag and then sang the national anthem when they were allowed to rejoin their school after a ban of nearly five months.

As many as 350 Afghan students, studying in three private schools in Torkham, were restricted from attending their classes after the Pakistan government shut down its border crossing with Afghanistan in February following a series of terrorist attacks in various parts of this country.

Though the Torkham border was reopened on March 22 after hectic negotiations between Pakistan and Afghanistan officials, the fate of these Afghan students hung in the balance as the authorities refused to allow them to resume their education in their Pakistani schools due to security concerns. At least nine of them missed their Matriculation examinations.

Shahabuddin, the young principal of Oxford School, said that while some of his Afghan students would call him from across the border almost every day, others would regularly come up to the border crossing point to inquire if there was any chance of being allowed across. They preferred Pakistani schools instead of educational institutions in their home province of Nangarhar, Afghanistan, due to the low standard of education there.

Lady Luck finally smiled in July when the Pakistan government announced that the students would be registered and allowed to rejoin their schools. They had to deposit a nominal amount of Rs 500 as a registration fee along with their father’s national identity card and school credentials to the office of the National Database and Registration Authority at Torkham.

For 15-year-old Ameerullah, a resident of Lalpura district in Afghanistan, hearing about the registration process was a dream come true. “I hadn’t lost heart and continued studying in the evening at home after assisting my elder brother as a munshi (record keeper) at his auto-parts shop near the Torkham border during the day,” he told me when I visited the school at Bacha Maina.

Afhgan students of two schools in Tokhram, wearing uniforms of as many colours outside the immigration office on their way back home. Photo credit: Ibrahim Shinwari

Ameerullah’s family lived on the Pakistan side of Torkham for over three decades; he was born here and later got admission in the private school. His father passed away a few years ago while his family was forced to go back to Afghanistan when the local political administration in assistance with security forces evicted all Afghan families from Torkham some three years ago. Ameerullah and his 13-year-old cousin, Sheraj, continued their studies in their Pakistani school, crossing the Torkham border on a daily basis. His elder brother helped finance his education; Ameerullah wants to become a doctor.

Dividing line

Hazrat Noor, a Class 7 Afghan student at the same school, said that he too was extremely happy for getting permission to rejoin his school. He added that there was a huge difference between the educational standards and curriculum of Afghan and Pakistani schools.

“These five months were very painful,” he said. “We are thankful to the government of Pakistan for granting us permission to resume our education in our schools. It will help me accomplish my dream of becoming a doctor,” he said, adding that Urdu was one of his favourite subjects.

The number of Afghan students in schools on the Pakistan side of the border has, however, shown a decline in recent years as Pakistan has forcibly evicted Afghan families from their homes in different parts of Khyber Agency over the past four or five years. Officials believe that some suspect Afghans living near the border on the Pakistan side were facilitators for militant groups.

Oxford School principal Shahabuddin told Dawn that over 60% of the total strength of his students were Afghan children prior to the clean-up operation against Afghans illegally living in border areas near Torkham. “The number has now shrunk to a mere 120 out of the total 850 after the government announced its registration policy for both Afghan students and the local clearing agents for their frequent cross border movement,” Shahabuddin said, adding that he too was required to furnish data of his Afghan students to the Nadra office.

Shahabuddin said he had never had problems with Afghan students while holding the morning assembly where all the students were required to sing the Pakistan national anthem and present a salute to the national flag. “All of them have been cooperative and law-abiding from the very beginning and have never raised any objection to the curriculum of textbooks, where they are also required to study the subject of Pakistan Studies.” Afghan students Abid of Class 2, Qazi Ahmad of Class 4 and Liaquat Ali, also of Class 4, said they had extremely friendly and cordial relations with their local classmates. They added, though, that they felt looked down upon and deeply hurt when local students called them majara (refugee). “Though said in a friendly tone and not meant to offend, such name-calling is a source of sadness for us,” they remarked.

This article first appeared on Dawn.