OTTAWA | February 12, 2010

Canadians give Afghans an online education

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Imagine contributing to the reconstruction of Afghanistan from your computer at home.

Today, that’s possible.

Students attend class at the Afghan-Canadian Community Center in Kandahar.

A Canadian organization in Ottawa is using the Internet to promote employment-oriented education in countries devastated by war, poverty and disease.

The Canadian International Learning Foundation – commonly known as CanILF – pairs up with schools in less fortunate countries to provide funding and educational support.

“Very few organizations in Canada will give people the opportunity to participate actively in international development,” says CanILF president Ryan Aldred. “We’re giving Canadians the opportunity to get involved.”

CanILF was founded in 2009 and is entirely volunteer-based.

It provides funding for scholarships, school supplies, online courses, and an e-mail mentorship program.

“Our volunteers are involved in everything that we do,” Aldred says.  “They help plan projects, they mentor people, mostly part-time, from their own home.”

The charity’s first and most successful project is the Afghan School Project.

In October 2006, Aldred and fellow Ottawa resident Andrea Caverly were inspired by an article by Mitch Potter in the Toronto Star, entitled “Behind the burqa”.

In it, Afghan schoolteacher Ehsan Ullah spoke about the struggle of educating women in Afghanistan.

“Very few organizations in Canada will give people the opportunity to participate actively in international development. We’re giving Canadians the opportunity to get involved.”

Aldred and Caverly contacted Ullah to help. From Ottawa, they helped Ullah found a new school to “provide a safe and secure place for women to receive an education.”

The school opened in January 2007 in Kandahar. They called it the Afghan-Canadian Community Center, known as the ACCC.

Shortly thereafter, Aldred and Caverly founded the Afghan School Project to continue assisting the school, and in January 2009, they established CanILF in hopes of helping more schools in other needy countries.

“There’s a lot these schools want to do, but they don’t have the time, money or expertise,” Aldred says. “We, as Canadians, can assist with that.”

CanILF receives funding for the ACCC through general donations, the sponsorship of students through their Adopt-a-Student program, and government grants from the Canadian International Development Agency.

It costs roughly $9,000 a month to run the ACCC.

Creating opportunities

The charity is currently run by roughly 40 volunteers and provides courses in business management, Internet technology, English and health care.

Amanda Hartholt and Ryan Aldred meet with other volunteers at an Ottawa pub to discuss the Afghan School Project.

It’s based on the notion that education leads to employment. Once employed, Afghans support themselves, their families and are consequently participating in the reconstruction of their country.

To date, approximately 500 students from the ACCC have found jobs or received a promotion.

An important aspect of the Afghan School Project is a peer-to-peer pen pal program, where professionals in Canada are paired with aspiring professionals in Afghanistan to provide career guidance.

According to volunteer Amanda Hartholt, the students at the ACCC are grateful and often send thank-you notes to the charity.

“They feel really empowered, they want to take their education and help their community,” she says. “They want to help the development in Afghanistan.”

When Aldred and Caverly teamed up with Ullah, there were 100 female students at the school. Eventually, the demand for male education grew in the community, and the ACCC began running night courses for men for a small tuition fee. Tuition remains free for women.

Although the project began as an effort to facilitate women’s education, Aldred says CanILF refrains from any gender-specific missions.

There are currently more than 1,000 students at the ACCC, the majority female.

Help from social networking

Aldred says his team doesn’t have the resources to visit Afghanistan and see the school, but the Internet bridges the overseas gap between the two nations.

“We have excellent communication with the school. We’re lucky that way,” he says, adding that he’d love to visit Afghanistan one day.

Hartholt says some volunteers use social networking sites like Facebook and instant messaging services to interact with the students.

“Through the internet, watching videos, you really feel as though you get to know [the students] and understand their situations. Not everyone realizes how much you can do from your home.”

“Through the Internet, watching videos, you really feel as though you get to know them, and understand their situations,” says Hartholt. “Not everyone realizes how much you can do from your home.”

When dealing with women’s education in Afghanistan, safety is their number one concern, Aldred says.

“The best way to ensure the safety of the school is to have the support of the community,” he says. “We do everything possible to make sure the community is informed and involved in the school, and that way, it’s not a Canadian school, it’s an Afghan school.”

Recently, CanILF began a second project with a school in Uganda – the Kabira Adult Attention and School of Orphans – and formed the Uganda Literacy and Education Program.

In 2010, Aldred says CanILF hopes to start partnerships with schools in Liberia, Bolivia and Yemen.

Education in Kandahar

The population of Afghanistan has one of the world's lowest levels of education.

It is estimated that half of Afghan children do not go to school.

Illiteracy is a major development challenge throughout the country, including in Kandahar, where only 26 per cent of men and five per cent of women are literate.

This low rate is a barrier to employment, other economic opportunities, resources, and services such as health care.

Source: The Government of Canada

The Taliban's influence

Before the Taliban rose to power, Afghan women were educated and held meaningful positions in all levels of society and government.

But this freedom was stripped away.

Under the Taliban, women could not go to school or work, so their financial resources dwindled and literacy rates fell.

Today work opportunities are increasing. However, women in Afghanistan are still among the most disadvantaged in the world.

They continue to be exposed to violence, poverty and deprived of basic rights to property, education and literacy.

In the face of these harsh inequalities, women still represent 27 per cent of Afghan parliamentarians, more than 2.1 million girls are enrolled in school, and more than 290,000 women have accessed banking services across the country.

Teaching women to read, write, and count is a priority for Canada.

Source: The Government of Canada and The Alliance for International Women's Rights

Read more about Canada's support for Afghan women.

Virtual volunteering

Many people would like to help advance women's rights in the world, but they lack the time or funds to travel to another country.

At the same time, many local women's rights organizations need volunteer assistance but do not have the funding or capacity to bring international volunteers to their offices.

Nothing can take the place of direct, person-to-person contact, but with the widespread availability of Internet access, women around the world are able to connect with people in North America.

E-mail tutoring is just one possibility.

Organizations in developing countries are also using instant messaging and video conferencing to make use of international volunteers.

Source: The Alliance for International Women's Rights