Monday, January 30, 2017

Food for School

Marilyn and Zari
Girls are vulnerable to being married at a young age when families cannot afford to buy food and children do not go to school. For $60 a month an entire family can be fed. Food4School provides needy Afghan families with money for food in exchange for sending their children to school. One of the conditions for receiving the funds is that the girls as well as the boys remain in school. Marilyn Mosley Gordainer, the founder, shares the story behind Food4School.

It has been my life mission and work to start schools. The most long lasting of all the schools I’ve started is the Laurel Springs School. It began in 1991, with 72 students, and it was the first time that there was an online home-schooling option in the US. There was a need for alternative education that was personalized and allowed children to express their feelings and become great citizens in the future. There weren’t many schools in the US that offered that opportunity for children.

In 1994, following a massive earthquake in Los Angeles, many libraries and schools were closed. Students were interrupted in completing their critical thinking and research assignments. They needed to have the right resources to support their endeavors, and with the libraries closed, it was difficult to access information.  We decided to search online for information. We found 50,000 links giving information justabout the topic of Romania. We were excited and thought, “Online education -- what a great idea!” We had no idea that this was the beginning of a new wave in education – we were just trying to respondto a need. We made it into the news media, and a lot of people started talking about what we had pioneered – online education.Today, Laurel Springs enrolls about 4,900 children a year. We have established ourselves as the primary education program for children who want to find their inner strengths, learn creatively, and learn at their own pace. 

We wanted students to have an educational program that would help them explore their powers and dreams. The school has done very well, and it has constantly explored and created different learning environments for children.

My daughter, Ramaa Mosley, is a filmmaker. She did a documentary for a group called Girl Rising, where they told the stories of nine girls seeking an education. She filmed a piece on a girl from Afghanistan who was married at the age of eleven and had a baby at twelve. While Ramaa was editing the film, it was too hard for me to watch it. I realised that the solution was to educate these girls. I spoke to Ramaa, and she connected me with her writer, Zarghuna (Zari) Kargar, who was in New York City for the premiere of the film. I told Zari that I wanted to help but that that reaching girls in Afghanistan was beyond my experience. She told me that as long as we found a way to feed a family, they wouldn’t marry off their daughters. The familieswere simply not able to afford a meal. Zari suggested that we could give a family on a stipend in exchange for educating their daughters and not marrying them off. We had two BBC reporters helping us, who continue tothis very day. They helped us find families in dire need who would agree to send their children to school. We soon came to learn that the people of greatest need were the widows whose husbands had been killed in the war. Through her work, Zari knew quite a lot of women who were struggling to survive.

This became a great grass-roots program. In the beginning, we delivered food to the families because the women were not allowed to go to the market. As they became more confident, they began going to the market. We always gave the money to the women to empower them.The men are often unwell or addicted to drugs – but when these women receive the money, they become the ones in charge of the family, and they themselves go to the market. They change and become more confident, and their husbands respect them. It has been a very successful program throughout, and all the children in the families we work with are in school. There have been no drop-outs, and also no early marriages.
In our work so far, there have been two forms of resistance. 

In the beginning there were some fathers who refused to let their daughters participate in the program. There was one girl whose brother strapped a bomb to here that was meant to be detonated in the market place. The girl went to the police who promised to take care of her, but they sent her back home to her family. Zari intervened, but three months later, the girl had disappeared. There was no way to find out where she was, and no trace of her. Her brother was with the Taliban, so she may have been married off. We felt terrible – we did all that we could from a distance. The only way is to deal with such challenges is by staying focused on the families we help.  That keeps us going. We watch the children grow – it’s also a beautiful thing to see them gain weight and get healthier – and we send them notes of encouragement. The need is so tremendous, and we’ve had to stay focused.
Zeba, studying with F4S' colleague from BBC 
Most families that we work with are in Kabul, so we can make it a point to see them each month. But there are some outside of Kabul in areas where the Taliban are stronger. Working with families there is tougher. It is a huge learning experience to find such levels of inequality and girls being hurt in such extreme ways. We must make it relevant to their culture, and so we empower our colleagues who work in Afghanistan. We send the families messages and photos and let them know that we are thinking of them.
When I look at the journey so far, there are some very empowering stories of success. For instance, there was a lovely young mother who was twenty-six, and her husband had been killed in war. Her family wanted her to marry one of her husband’s brothers, but she didn’t – and it’s fortunate they didn’t drive her out of the house. But she lived in a secluded and provincial environment. She wore a burkha and was very shy. We began bringing her food a few times. Once, she took off her burkha when we visited. The next time, she waited for us and greeted us outside the house. The time after that, she accompanied our team to the market. Then, she began going to the market herself. Recently, she’s been making a few trips to the bank by herself. There is such a difference now, and the children are much happier, too. One donor offered her more money, but she refused, saying that someone else deserved to benefit from it. 

Saara and her little one, from Mazhar
In another family, there were two young girls, orphans. One was 17 and the other 7. We gave them a houseand food and helpedthem to go to school. Now they’ve rented out a part of their house so they can afford an education and save money. They feel like they have a chance to really grow, and they feel much safer. In another distant province,there was a family where the parents were deaf. The daughters risked their lives and travelled to Kabul to reach us. That they made this dangerous journey itself proved how badly they wanted to do this. They started their own school, and now the girls at their school meet every day. They did it despite how dangerous it was. I can’t imagine how it must have been for the parents. 
Saara's kids now.
Looking ahead, I want to continue expanding the program. One way to do this is to put more staff on the ground. We now have a waiting list of families. We would also love for people to write letters of support, send a donation to and tell their friends about us.  We could make such a big difference, and the solidarity truly matters. We want to let our girls know that other girls care about them.