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Lessons Of Hope From Afghan Schoolchildren, Six Years Later

Tanweer School is a private K-12 school in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2015. <a href="https://apps.npr.org/lookatthis/posts/afghan-teens/">See the visual interactive.</a>
Tanweer School is a private K-12 school in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2015. <a href="https://apps.npr.org/lookatthis/posts/afghan-teens/">See the visual interactive.</a>

Editor's Note: NPR photojournalist David Gilkey and journalist Zabihullah "Zabi" Tamanna were killed in 2016 while on assignment in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. In 2015, they reported on this visual narrative.

In the spring of 2015, NPR sent a team to embed with Afghan forces to witness the start of a new era.

A few months prior, the Afghan military regained control over the country after the U.S. and NATO forces officially ended their combat missions.

Rebecca Hersher was there as a producer, with reporter Tom Bowman, photojournalist David Gilkey, and Afghan interpreter Zabihullah "Zabi" Tamanna.

The girls here had already gone further in their education than most of their mothers ever did. They all say they feel a duty to use their knowledge to bring peace to Afghanistan.
David Gilkey / NPR
The girls here had already gone further in their education than most of their mothers ever did. They all say they feel a duty to use their knowledge to bring peace to Afghanistan.

"So here we were in Kabul," Hersher says, "and it's this really weird time in Afghanistan where, in theory, the Afghan government and military are in charge, in a way they haven't been for a really long time. But the war is definitely still going."

After three tough weeks embedded with Afghan forces, Bowman returned as planned to the U.S., but Hersher and Gilkey decided to stay in Kabul a bit longer to look for a different, more positive perspective to mark the country's transition. So they set out to interview the cheeriest group they could think of: children.

"It felt, honestly, like it had been like a tough few weeks in terms of hope," Hersher says. "And what better way to find that hope than speak to some kids?

The first thing NPR reporter Rebecca Hersher noticed during her two days at the school was a picture you never would have seen under the Taliban: girls walking to school. Most of them walked to school in groups. <a href="https://apps.npr.org/lookatthis/posts/afghan-teens/">See the visual interactive.</a>
David Gilkey / NPR
The first thing NPR reporter Rebecca Hersher noticed during her two days at the school was a picture you never would have seen under the Taliban: girls walking to school. Most of them walked to school in groups. <a href="https://apps.npr.org/lookatthis/posts/afghan-teens/">See the visual interactive.</a>
Muhammad Akmal Jalali (left) wanted to be a doctor. He and his best friend, Muhammad Mustafa Sediqi, were 17 and high school juniors. Jalali was class president.
David GIlkey / NPR
Muhammad Akmal Jalali (left) wanted to be a doctor. He and his best friend, Muhammad Mustafa Sediqi, were 17 and high school juniors. Jalali was class president.

Tamanna found Tanweer School in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Kabul. The headmaster welcomed the team, and Gilkey set up cameras.

Some of the teens spoke English and Tamanna interpreted for the younger kids. The children talked about their dreams. Many of them said they wanted to be leaders for a peaceful Afghanistan, whatever their careers may be. Most of the girls, even as teens, already had more education than their mothers did.

The result was an immersive multimedia essay, entitled "Teenage Dreams," which published on NPR.com later in 2015.

Hadia hopes to personally lead a peaceful Afghanistan in the future. "I want to become president," she tells me.
David Gilkey / NPR
Hadia hopes to personally lead a peaceful Afghanistan in the future. "I want to become president," she tells me.
The older boys were leaders in the school. They helped the younger kids find their classrooms, and they kept the schoolyard under control during recess. Like the girls, they believed they have a duty to bring peace to Afghanistan.
David Gilkey / NPR
The older boys were leaders in the school. They helped the younger kids find their classrooms, and they kept the schoolyard under control during recess. Like the girls, they believed they have a duty to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Watching the project now, in 2021 — with U.S. forces recently gone, the Taliban ruling the country, with citizens and special immigrant visa holders desperately try to evacuate, and as bombs kill and maim dozens of people — it's a bittersweet time capsule.

"It's very hard to look at this project now and feel hopeful about where these kids' lives are headed in Afghanistan," Hersher says. It's been six years, so the kids are now teens and young adults. "There is no peaceful Afghanistan, there is no democratic Afghanistan," Hersher says. "And the country's collapsing around them."

There's another layer of sadness to viewing the project now, that's not immediately apparent. Tamanna and Gilkey were killed the following year while on assignment in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

The younger children studied in coed classes. <a href="https://apps.npr.org/lookatthis/posts/afghan-teens/">See the visual interactive.</a>
David Gilkey / NPR
The younger children studied in coed classes. <a href="https://apps.npr.org/lookatthis/posts/afghan-teens/">See the visual interactive.</a>

You can see Tamanna in the "Teenage Dreams" video, wearing a blue shirt and directing the kids where to stand and where to look. And the beautiful visuals are quintessential Gilkey. "When I look at it from a personal place," Hersher says, "what I see is the two of them doing really excellent work. And then a bunch of kids giving their honest selves to a bunch of strangers."

And yet, there might still be a glimmer of hope to glean from watching the project now. "This is a new moment for the Taliban," Hersher points out. "The population they are going to try to exert control over is very different."

Somaya wants to be a brain surgeon. Yet according to UNICEF, more than half of girls in Afghanistan are married before they're 19. Most don't continue their schooling after marriage.
David Gilkey / NPR
Somaya wants to be a brain surgeon. Yet according to UNICEF, more than half of girls in Afghanistan are married before they're 19. Most don't continue their schooling after marriage.
Each morning, all 600 students at Tanweer School lined up in the courtyard. The high school students led everyone in a morning meeting. They prayed together for peace and sing the Afghan national anthem.
David Gilkey / NPR
Each morning, all 600 students at Tanweer School lined up in the courtyard. The high school students led everyone in a morning meeting. They prayed together for peace and sing the Afghan national anthem.

In particular, the women. The girls who were teens in 2015 are now well-educated adults, says Hersher and "who knows what they will be able to do with that."

And it wasn't as if the Afghanistan of 2015 was in a peaceful state; the country felt bleak back then too, Hersher says. And yet, the kids had dreams and plans for successful, peaceful, and happy lives.

"It does make you wonder, there's such upheaval at this moment. But in two months or five months, what will it look like inside schoolyards?" says Hersher. "Will there be other kids who are expressing hope for their futures, despite everything?"

See more photos and videos in this visual interactive on Afghan schools.

Melody Rowell is a writer and podcast producer living in Kansas City, Mo. You can follow her on Twitter @MelodyRowell.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.