Born into war in Herat, Afghanistan, by the age of 15 Tariq Habibyar was teaching young girls English and literacy courses in secret while living under the extremist Taliban.
The educator philanthropist and founder of the Aida Children’s Fund spoke at Ko Awatea on March 7th about his passion for education.
Mr Habibyar credits his parents with inspiring him to understand the importance of universal education and making a difference in the lives of the oppressed. “To my family, education was the number one thing,” he said.
When the Taliban took over girls were prevented from going to school. Education turned into radical religious brainwashing. It was an attempt to dehumanise children and isolate Afghanistan from the rest of the world.
Contrary to popular perception, Afghanistan had a history of developing democracy and respect for women. Until 1978, the country had educated women working in skilled professions. Many families wanted to continue educating their daughters.
Despite the danger, Mr Habibyar’s father encouraged him to secretly educate girls. “Should we just abide by the status quo, or should we challenge it?” Mr Habibyar asked. “My father used to say to me, ‘You have to move and do something.’”
Mr Habibyar remembers feeling scared but excited by the difference he was making the first time he taught girls. His first students, daughters of an illiterate barber, were thirsty for education. “Straight after this teaching session I developed a passion for education and a reason for living,” Mr Habibyar said.
He believes that education is the key to promoting peace in war-torn countries.
“There are millions of children in countries like Afghanistan and Syria who have the capacity, talent and ability to create peace. I believe that education can change the lives of those children the way it changed mine. That’s why I believe in education as a sustainable way to promote peace in those countries. We need to invest more in the education of those children. The more educated people are, the more they have the ability to rebuild their countries,” Mr Habibyar said.
Mr Habibyar lives in New Zealand and is a permanent resident. Continuing his commitment to education in his home country, he founded the Aida Children’s Fund to work towards a more informed, caring and safer world. His ambition is to provide 20 million books to children in war-torn countries.
Mr Habibyar published his first book called Rubies in the Dust, which tells the stories of people who grew up in Afghanistan during the war. Proceeds from sales of the book in the developed world fund the translation of children’s books into the local languages of countries in conflict. The translated books are sent to schools in these countries.
“There are many examples of education shaping great leaders. If leaders such as Nelson Mandela hadn’t read books, they probably wouldn’t have grown up to be the people they became. Books can have a great impact.”