DELHI, INDIA – Sana Marwa Nawabi, 13, unzips a brown leather suitcase and carefully takes out a multicolored bag. With her small hands, Sana lovingly caresses the bag, handwoven by her mother.
Sana removes a book with curled edges and holds it in her lap. She fixes her gaze on its cover for a moment, looks away with a sigh, and reverently returns the book to the bag.
Sana treasures the books in the bag – her school textbooks from class three, the last she attended in Afghanistan.
“I keep these books as reminders, which remind me of my dream every moment,” says Sana, who hopes to become a cardiologist so she can treat people like her father, who died of a heart attack.
In May 2011, Sana’s mother, Naseema Nawabi, brought Sana and her four brothers and two sisters to India to protect Sana from her uncle, who was threatening to abduct Sana and force her to marry his 30-year-old son.
Sana was only 9 years old atthe time. Nawabi had rejected the marriage proposal because she wanted Sana to continue her education and marry when she was older.
The uncle made the marriage proposal in April 2011, seven months after Sana’s father died. Fearing for her daughter’s safety, Nawabi made plans to secretly flee their home in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.
Nawabi and her children have lived as refugees in India ever since. Home is a small rented house in Bhogal, an area of South Delhi that’s popular with Afghan refugees because of its low rents and the availability of Afghan products.
Nawabi and her two older sons work as tailors; Nawabi also does household chores for neighbors. Together they earn 5,000 rupees ($80) to 6,000 rupees ($96) a month, she says. The family also receives a monthly stipend of 7,800 rupees ($125) from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.
India was a natural place to build the family’s new life, says Nawabi, who has long been fascinated by the diversity of cultures and religions in her host country.
“We used to watch Bollywood films and Indian serials in Afghanistan,” she says. “I always wanted to visit India.”
Nawabi also believed India was a country where her daughters could study without harassment or fear. She knew they would not be forced into early marriages.
Sana is now in class seven at Kamla Nehru Government Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in Bhogal.
Tucking her hair into a headscarf, Sana puts away the mementos of an earlier life, textbooks written in Dari – one of the two official languages of Afghanistan – and starts doing her daily homework with textbooks written in Hindi and English.
Nawabi is proud of her children’s commitment to their studies.
“If they study properly in Delhi, they can become anything they want to,” she says. “It would have never been possible in Afghanistan.”
Three-fourths of the Afghan children who are not in school are girls, according to UNICEF. Afghan families that seek refuge in India discover that the country’s publicly funded primary and secondary education system is a boon for their daughters and sons alike.
However, lacking money and long-term visas, these families cannot yet hope to send their children to university.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks on targets in the United States, a U.S.-led military coalition invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban-led government that was believed to have supported the armed group responsible for the attacks. A protracted military conflict has compelled Afghans to flee their country ever since.
One of every five refugees in the world is Afghan, according to the UNHCR. As of the end of 2013, more than 2.5 million Afghan refugees were living in 86 countries.
India is host to more than 10,000 Afghan refugees and more than 1,300 asylum seekers – refugees whose applications are being evaluated, according to the UNHCR India office. Among them are 1,300 girls and 1,500 boys under 17.
Afghans continue settling in India. More than 1,900 came in 2013, and nearly 1,600 arrived the following year, says Shuchita Mehta, public information assistant with UNHCR India.
Under Indian law, all children from ages 6 to 14 living in the nation must attend school, whether private or publicly funded. The law applies to refugees as well as Indian children.
For many families, the law has made educational opportunity a bonus of the quest for safety.
“Had I been in Afghanistan, I would have never thought of educating my daughters much due to the conservative culture of marrying off daughters at an early age,” says a 36-year-old father of five.
The man, who requests anonymity out of fear of reprisal, worked in his home country as a translator for an international organization. He brought his family to India in 2012 after he received death threats.
In Afghanistan, girls are married when their elders decide, says the man; they can’t choose to continue their education instead of entering an arranged marriage.
In more liberal India, his daughters can study freely and work, just like his sons, he says; no one will harm them for studying or pressure them to marry.
The family now lives in Wazirabad village in North Delhi. The man’s four daughters and one son, ages 4 to 18, all attend a nearby school.
“We have left everything back in Afghanistan,” he says. “I want my daughters to take full advantage of the open environment for education of girls in Delhi.”
In Afghanistan, about 2.3 million school-age children were not attending school at the end of 2013, and approximately 75 percent of those children were girls, according to UNICEF.
In India, just over 80 percent of Afghan refugee children are enrolled in schools and vocational training programs, says Ravi Hemadri, director of the Development and Justice Initiative, a Delhi-based nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights, environmental protection, gender equality and good governance.
Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Only about 31 percent of the adult population – those over 15 – are literate, according to UNESCO. Only 17 percent of girls and women are literate.
By comparison, the female literacy rate in India was 65 percent in 2011, the last year in which a national census was conducted.
Still, education is not a primary reason that Afghans seek asylum in India, according to research by the Development and Justice Initiative.
Instead, Afghans tend to prefer India over other neighboring countries because they are familiar with its culture and languages, the visa process is easy, and Afghanistan and India have good diplomatic relations, Hemadri says. Further, they are drawn to the low cost of living and the opportunity to learn English.
While they come primarily for other reasons, Afghan families are quick to see the education of their children as an opportunity to rebuild their lives, Hemadri says.
“Afghan refugees find India a safe place as compared to Afghanistan because they do not see any conflict here and find a diversity of religions and cultures in India,” he says. “They also easily fit in without any ethnic discrimination.”
In 2013, Hemadri was part of a research team that examined the status of 217 Afghan refugee households in Delhi.
Refugee schoolchildren dearly want to continue their education, according to the team’s report, “Urban Profiling of Refugee Situations in Delhi,” published by Joint IDP Profiling Service.
“During our survey, Afghan youth expressed very strong motivation to enter college, considering it decisive for their future,” Hemadri says. “They do not want to do menial jobs, but want to end up becoming professionals.”
However, postsecondary studies remain out of reach of most refugee children, Hemadri says.
“If they want to go for higher studies and get admissions in any Indian university, they have to provide proper documentation – like all the certificates, residential proofs – and complete other specific formalities as foreigners and pay in dollars without any relaxation,” he says.
While costs vary according to university and subject area, most government universities charge Indian students 5,000 Indian rupees ($80) to 7,000 rupees ($112) per six-month semester for an Indian resident.
Not all Afghan refugee parents are concerned about educating their daughters.
Jameela Omeidi, her husband and five children came to Delhi in January 2014.
“I came to Delhi just to live a peaceful life,” says Omeidi, 45.
She has four daughters, ranging in from 15 to 23. She sent her four daughters – who now range in age from 15 to 23 – to a school in Kabul for a few years but asked them to drop out when health problems prevented her from accompanying them on their 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) daily journey to school.
Omeidi’s 13-year-old son, Mustafa Rasooli, attends a local government school, Omeidi says. But she does not plan to send her daughters to school in Delhi.
Omeidi hopes she will receive good marriage proposals for her daughters.
“Education of girls is not a priority for us,” she says.
Hemadri and his colleagues at the initiative have unsuccessfully lobbied the Ministry of Home Affairs and various educational institutes to make special provisions for refugee children, he says.
The initiative wants the government to issue refugees visas that are valid for six months to a year so Afghan students can access higher education, Hemadri says. Currently, refugees receive renewable three-month visas.
A student’s university admission can be canceled if a short-term visa is not renewed in time.
The government is developing a long-term visa policy for UNHCR-registered refugees, says Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia, additional director general in charge of media and communications for the Ministry of Home Affairs.
To Sana, education is vital.
“An uneducated girl is a blind human being,” she says. “Problems are everywhere, but if I can get an education without any fear, nothing else matters.”
Originally appeared in Global Press Journal