As the Islamic Republic of Iran incorporates all Afghan children into its education system, UNHCR helps the Ministry of Education respond to the demand for more schools across the country.
Unbeknown to many and often overshadowed by other refugee crises around the globe, the Islamic Republic of Iran lays claim to a long history of hosting refugees. Representing one of the worlds most protracted refugee situations and accommodating close to one million Afghan refugees and 1.5-2 million undocumented Afghans, Iran currently stands as the fourth largest refugee-hosting country.
Engrained in Iranian culture and societal values is a reverence for education; a service the government has historically extended to refugee children during their stay in the Islamic Republic.
In an effort to further enhance access to education to all school-age Afghan children in Iran – even the large undocumented population - Iran’s Supreme Leader released a breakthrough announcement in 2015.
The official decree states that even undocumented children should study in primary and secondary education alongside Iranian students. As a result of this announcement, more than 420,000 foreign students currently study in Iranian schools, of which over 46,000 are undocumented.
While this decree was a leap forward in ensuring that Afghan children in Iran receive schooling, such a large number of new students registering in the national curriculum has applied enormous pressure on Iran’s Ministry of Education, who is grappling to find sufficient places for so many new schoolchildren.
In May 2016 education became more affordable for refugee children in Iran: the government removed tuition fees specific to foreign national students for primary and secondary education, saving families approximately 70-90 USD per student per year.
In view of supporting the Government of Iran to meet these rising demands for schools, in partnership with the Ministry of Education, UNHCR contributed towards the construction of 16 new schools across 9 provinces in Iran. The new schools were built over 2016-2017 to offer safe educational spaces in communities where many refugees reside.
One of the 16 newly constructed schools was built in Saveh Settlement, some 150km from Tehran. It is the largest of the 21 government-run refugee settlements in Iran and is home to close to 5,941 Afghan refugees, many of them from the Pashtun community.
Based on a widely-held belief common amongst the more conservative Pashtun communities that girls need not be educated, unfortunately many young Pashtun girls do not attend school beyond second or third grade.
However, thanks to the construction of the new school and joint UNHCR and BAFIA efforts to engage Afghans in awareness-raising and behaviour change within their community, gradually families began to consider the benefits of continuing their young girls’ education.
Abdolmatin is one of Saveh’s most influential community leaders, and is also a member of the settlement’s refugee council. Although traditionally Pashtun, he has acted as a flag-bearer in continuing to send, Nazi, his 10 year old daughter, to school.
Key figures in the refugee community such as refugee council members have been targeted by UNHCR and the Government of Iran to act as pioneers in sending their daughters to school, encouraging other parents to follow the same practice.
Gradually Abdolmatin has begun to appreciate the value of education for his entire family, and is now adamant that the future of his daughters would be compromised if they were illiterate and pulled out of their studies.
Other fellow community-men have followed suit, and are recognising the hope and opportunities that arise from ensuring all their children receive an education. As a result, the enrolment rate of girl students in Saveh Settlement has increased by 17% over the past scholastic year.
Previously withdrawn from school and kept at home for three years, Nazi has now just completed her first school grade. Inspired by her teacher and new abilities to write the names of all her family, she is set on spreading the joy and ambitions that her new school in Saveh settlement gives her.
“I want to become a teacher in the future, and teach girls like me so they can write”. With the support of her father, UNHCR and the Ministry of Education behind her, the future is bright.