Afghan coach helps refugee youth return to school in Iran

TEHRAN – Rozma Ghafouri, a 29-year-old sports coach, draws on her own to bring back young refugees and undocumented Afghans aged 11 to 15, unemployed and in school.

“Sport is the best way I have found to help children in vulnerable situations open up. After each practice, I talk to them about anything and everything until they feel comfortable telling me about the issues they face at home, ”says Rozma.

“I used to see Afghan children working instead of playing. They wore used work clothes instead of being in uniform. They weren’t smiling, ”Rozma remembers. “Thanks to sports activities, we manage to make many of these children forget their challenges. “

Rozma and her family fled Afghanistan 23 years ago. After working as a laborer for much of her childhood, she founded the Youth Initiative Fund in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz in 2015 to help children at risk.

With the support of UNHCR and its counterpart in the Iranian government, the Bureau for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Immigrants (BAFIA), the project now helps some 400 children a year, many of whom are out-of-school girls, by integrating them to sports and social activities, enrollment in literacy and numeracy classes and counseling with their families. Seeing the impact the project has had on the lives of Afghan children in Shiraz, UNHCR and BAFIA are in the process of duplicating it in other provinces of Iran.

Every day, Youth Initiative volunteers – including Afghans and Iranians – go door to door in Shiraz neighborhoods to talk to parents of children who have never been to school or had to drop out. . Rozma and the team establish a relationship with the parents and ask for permission for their children to come and play sports every week.

As parents see the positive change that Rozma-led sports activities have on their children, they become more willing to listen to his calls to let them go to school.

“It’s hard to try to convince parents who fear putting food on the table the most that their children should be allowed to be just kids and go to school,” she says. recalling the countless times she had doors slammed in her face. .

While boys and girls often have to work to support their families, girls face the added challenge of cultural norms that deem it unnecessary for girls to be educated. Some members of the Afghan community are also forced to marry early.

For her dedication to helping young Afghans in Iran, Rozma was chosen as the Asia Regional Laureate of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Prize, a prestigious annual award that honors those who have gone to great lengths to help the displaced. by force or stateless.

The Nansen Prize for Refugees is named in honor of Norwegian explorer, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, who was appointed by the League of Nations in 1921 It aims to highlight its values ​​of perseverance and commitment. in the face of adversity.

This year’s winner will be announced on October 1 and the award will be presented by UNHCR in a virtual ceremony on October 5.

Rozma was almost six years old when the Taliban invaded her hometown in the northeastern Afghan province of Kapisa and she fled the country with her parents and four siblings. In Iran, she was safe, but during her early years in exile the family barely had enough to live on, let alone cover school fees.


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