Life in Afghanistan for a Teacher and Her Students

Zahal Turkmani, Northern Arizona University

My sister Nargis Turkmani was born and raised in Afghanistan. She has two boys and three girls and has been married for over 23 years. Nargis’s story is simple: Every day she works to make a better life for herself and her children.

Nargis has witnessed both the good days and the bad days in Afghanistan. She remembers the good times she had with her friends and siblings when she was a teenager attending Sooria High School: “Walking to school was safe and shopping at the market was fun. We dressed however we wanted to until the war began.”

The invasion of the Soviet army in 1979 was one of the first wars that broke Afghanistan into small pieces. Despite the war-torn environment, Nargis graduated from high school and attended Kabul University for two years. As the war continued, a lot of families fled Afghanistan and migrated to Iran, Pakistan, and India. Nargis’s father fled to Pakistan. Before leaving, he arranged a marriage for Nargis to his friend’s son and left her in Afghanistan as a newlywed. With eight other children to support, her father considered the marriage to be the safest choice for Nargis; young girls could get raped and killed if they didn’t have a strong support system.

Today, Afghanistan is still broken. Although there isn’t a war, there is also no peace. The Taliban frequently sends suicide bombers to terrorize Kabul. Any individual born in Afghanistan has witnessed the brutality of war. Nargis has witnessed many such incidents. There are constant bomb threats in the city and at the school where she teaches.

Recently, Nargis witnessed a suicide bomb attack at an education center in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, which left many injured and 34 dead. She was particularly disturbed by this event because she had been planning on enrolling her eldest son at that center, and says there is now no safe option for furthering his education. With a shaky voice, she told me: “The students were taking their university exams and the attack happened at that moment; those were all innocent children trying to make a better future for themselves. I will send you the students’ pictures that died during the bomb attack.”

Hearing Nargis’s sad voice affected me deeply because I understand her pain. When I think about school bombings in Afghanistan, I also consider the school shootings in the United States. The images of young victims are so hard to view. It makes one feel like children are not safe anywhere, whether they are in Afghanistan, the United States, or so many other places around the world where violence touches the lives of young people.

Nargis teaches 4th-6th-grade language arts at Abdul Rahim Shaheed school in Dasht-e-Barchi. She explains that her students often miss school because they are afraid to leave their homes. Many of her students have lost family members to bombings. I was very curious about the emotional support available to children in Afghanistan, particularly with regard to the frequent suicide bombs. Nargis explained, “I try my best to explain the topic of death and show support to students who have lost a family member.” When I asked her whether students received in-school counseling services, she almost chuckled and said, “We don’t have that in our schools, everybody deals with their own problems.”


Nargis Turkmani celebrating International Teachers Day with her students.

When I visited Afghanistan in 2016, I could see that schools are very basic in Kabul city; they have limited school supplies and no counseling services or individualized education programs (IEPs) for students in need. The school supplies include: a blackboard, chalk, attendance folder for the teacher, and a book, a notebook, and a pencil for the student.

With limited supplies and families’ concern about safety, I wondered how Nargis motivates them to attend school. She explained, “Often, I talk to the students in a group about things we are thankful for. I also tell them about students in Japan who didn’t stop getting their education during WWII, continuing their studies underground.” Her teaching style emphasizes being strong and becoming better individuals.

It broke my heart hearing about what my sister Nargis and her students go through every day. Hearing my sister’s story, I want to show support for her and her students, but there is only a little I can do. Nargis is very fearless and powerful; she is standing strong to support her family, and also her students.

Author Bio: Zahal Turkmani was born in Afghanistan, raised internationally, and currently resides in metro Phoenix, Arizona. She is a senior at Northern Arizona University majoring in Elementary and Special Education and aspires to a career as a 3rd-grade teacher.

photography credits

banner: wararat_photos/
story: courtesy of author