Abuzar Royesh, a junior majoring in International Relations, is a co-founder of the Bridges Academy, an organization which received a nomination for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for working to promote literacy and education among at-risk groups in Afghanistan. Royesh, who is from Afghanistan himself, spoke with the Daily about his involvement with the project.
Daily: What is the Bridges Academy and how did it get started?
Royesh: In 2009, I met this woman who was the chief executive of a non-profit in Minnesota when I was an exchange student there, and she was working with some displaced people back in Afghanistan, in Kabul. In 2010, when I returned back home, we began a project with [an internally displaced (IDP) community] near Kabul. We founded the Bridges Academy, which focuses on literacy for these kids who have been deprived of education. The project started in 2010 and is going on until now, although there have been different phases to the program.
Can you describe these different phases?
Let me provide some context first. These IDP kids are from a southern province in Afghanistan and migrated to Kabul and now they live in a slum area. Most of these kids are the same age as I am or older — in their late teens and early 20s –– but they have not had any education or literacy. These kids have gone to religious schools but they can’t really read or write, because all they have been taught to do is recite verses of Quran. Also, these kids are very extremist — because of the culture they were brought up in, their surroundings and the experiences that they’ve had.
The first time I walked into their refugee camp, I was shocked. I lived 30 minutes away from them and had no idea who these kids were and had not heard of this kind of a community right outside Kabul. I was from a different ethnic group than they were, and when I walked into the camp I could feel the hostility. So [my partner and I] thought about how we could do something to change this. That’s why we thought of the Bridges Academy, because we thought education was the only way to lift these kids out of poverty and to broaden their world views and to introduce them to all these people and opportunities outside their camp.
So that was the original phase of our project: We started an education literacy program for these kids. We also had lots of other programs for the kids. For example, we took them to meet politicians and influential people within the community. We took them to meet both men and women because we wanted to show them that even women could do something and they were capable of doing something much more than they had thought. I remember my interactions with these guys in the beginning and all they thought was that women should stay inside houses and that they should not have access to education, and if they work outside the home, it’s a shame for the family and the community. So, we had all these programs to change their worldview and toward other people who live with them.
They acquired the basic literacy skills after a while, but more important than that was the education they received to open their minds to these other things that happened around them. In order to address their fear of the foreigners and the hatred they had toward Americans, we organized video conferences with schools in Minnesota and all over the country so these kids from the IDP camp could connect with these American kids.
For the second phase, we started working with [juvenile rehabilitation centers (JRCs)].They are for youth below the age of 18 who have been imprisoned because of theft, because of killing, because of being captured, because they were about to commit a suicide bombing mission. They have very extremist beliefs. In this next phase of the program, which started in 2013, we implemented a similar project that we did [with] the IDP kids in Kabul. We also hired some of those IDP kids that we were working with as mentors for these other kids. We felt that the kids from the IDPs and the JRCs came from similar backgrounds and had a valuable insight to offer to these other kids. I came from a very privileged background, and I could never tell them to be like me, to change. But these kids who we had been working with in the camps, they came from the same exact background, so we thought that their words would have a lot of impact.
We initially started working with one JRC and then spread it across the country. I must admit, the impact of this project has been enormous, more than we had even initially thought. It’s because these kids now have been empowered to believe that they are able to dream big and think outside the tiny box they’re allowed to think in because of the influence of the fanatical elements within the community.
The Bridges Academy has received a lot of international recognition. Has this affected the program at all?
The problem with trying to get funding was that people think that these luxurious, big flashy projects were the way to go about [improving conditions in Afghanistan]. Previously, we had contacted international organizations, but there wasn’t a lot of focus on our type of project because everybody was focused on military operations and everyone thought of doing big name projects, but not educating the people who are the power base for these terrorist groups. But then, this year we received the Nobel nomination. There was definitely a boost. But, to be honest, as I talked with my partner, we both agreed we are not looking forward to making this another flashy, big project in Afghanistan. That’s why, although the Nobel nomination is great news for me and for my partner, we realize that there are a lot of risks.
Before, we had a very low profile while working with these kids who are a security threat, and we don’t want to receive too much [exposure], because we might lose our power bases, which are the people who come from the ground. At the same time, we haven’t been open to receiving all sorts of funding because usually when donor agencies give you funds, they want to steer you in a certain direction. So, with this Nobel nomination, although it showed the potential for the project, there are also downsides that we are worried about.
Where do you see the future of the project going?
It hasn’t been a very easy project, given how volatile the situation is back home in Afghanistan. Especially given the corruption in the Afghan government, and given the fact that all these different organizations are competing with each other to gain reputation and name without really doing anything, and the environment of inefficiency in Afghanistan. The project will be very difficult moving forward. What we are hoping to do is expand this project to all the at-risk parts of Afghanistan so we can create a network of kids who teach other kids and talk about their experiences and talk about how they can relinquish their extremist thinking, their patriarchal thinking. I do see there is a great potential, because we have talked to these kids from JRCs, along with the kids from the IDP camps, and they are going to come with us to other juvenile rehabilitation centers in Afghanistan to work. Our goal is [to] reach as many of those kids as we can, hopefully to expand to thousands and ten thousands and hundreds of thousands. That’s how we can combat terrorism and extremism in Afghanistan.
Do you think there is an opportunity for foreign students to get involved in this project as it moves forward?
Definitely. The project was co-founded, and most of the work has been done by my partner, who lives in Minnesota and is an American. She has another project in conjunction with ours, where she works with high school kids and teaches them a curriculum about Afghan history and culture and connects them to people in Afghanistan to create ties. So, we could definitely use a lot of help in the United States with this project, because it’s a lot safer and more risk-free. As far as the situation in Afghanistan is concerned, there is always, obviously, the security risk. Hopefully, when we expand the program and when we work with the government to ensure that the people who are working with us will not be at risk, then I would definitely see there would be a huge opportunity for other people, especially from Tufts, to get involved.