2018 EDUCATION AWARD
Founder, Afghanistan Demain
At the age of seven, Ehsan Mehrangais was living on the streets of Kabul. A vagrant child with no place to call home for the next three years, he was rescued by Father Serge de Beurecueil, a well-known French priest, who gave Ehsan and dozens of other street children a home during the Soviet-Afghan war. Father Serge was persecuted and accused of being a spy and informant, charged with using the children in his care as a cover up, which led to Ehsan’s arrest when he was 16 years old. Tortured and blackmailed by the Communist Afghan Police, he was told to spy on Father Serge to avoid being thrown in jail, or even killed. Eshan refused. Instead, he took a small stipend from the priest and a letter for Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud—the soon-to-be leader of the resistance against the Soviets and eventually, the Taliban—and fled to the mountains. Months later, he met French journalist Stéphane Thioller who organized his departure to France in 1984 to be reunited with Father Serge.
In the fall of 2001, Ehsan returned to Kabul to complete a documentary series on Commander Massoud, who was assassinated by the Taliban on September 9 just two days before the attacks on September 11. In the weeks following 9/11, Ehsan watched the fall of the Taliban and the rise of his country in a short era of hope and enthusiasm. He wanted nothing more than to perpetuate the legacy of Father Serge, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Fighting on behalf of street children displaced by armed conflict and contributing to the reconstruction of his country, Ehsan was determined to foster a new generation of students who would perpetuate an era of peace-building, social responsibility and tolerance.
Father Serge, his adopted father, passed away in 2005, but not before Ehsan founded Afghanistan Demain four years earlier in November 2001 and made him honorary president.
Afghanistan Demain is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that provides education and rehabilitation to disadvantaged street children in Kabul regardless of their gender or religion, defending the fundamental principles of child protection as well as the rights of girls and women. In the years after the Taliban rule, the Afghan state was extremely tenuous and educational centers were practically non-existent. Schools in Afghanistan had been forcefully shut down for more than seven years, and there were no trained teachers available—Ehsan’s teachers had to train themselves with the help of foreign advisers.
Today, each of the educational centers in three of the poorest neighborhoods of the capital (Tchelsetoun, Demasang and Yaka-Tût) welcome 120 girls and boys ages eight to 16 every day. 51% of their student population are girls—an incredible feat given the gender inequality in Afghanistan as it relates to access to education. Programs are on a daily cycle of three rotations of 40 students each from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., allowing children to attend classes without leaving their odd jobs—something that often prevents children from attending school because of the need to contribute financially to their family. Children are taught using the same books for arithmetic, history, geography and science that are used in the public school system, and they are provided with hot meals, a health monitoring program, and access to recreational activities. Each center is staffed by a director, six teachers, two educators, a social worker and a cook.
The primary goal of Afghanistan Demain is to help bring children up to speed in school after years of being left behind. Their delays are often significant, and it can take up to three years to get them caught up to their peers. Once they are caught up, children are required to pass a reintegration exam to attend public school so they can continue their education. They are continually supervised by a “mobile” teacher, who insures the continuity of their progression outside of Afghanistan Demain.
Over the course of the last 17 years, Ehsan has impacted more than 6,000 street children in Kabul and helped to provide more than 1,000 teenagers with professional qualifications through trainings. Afghanistan Demain’s rate of child reintegration into the public-school system is a staggering 90%.
Father Serge’s act of kindness was one that changed Ehsan’s life forever and one that would eventually spark his quest to do the same for thousands of other children.