I live and work in a heavily fortified United Nations compound in the heart of Kabul, which my colleagues affectionately call Guantanamo on account of the protective blast walls and ribbons of razor wire that shield us from the outside world. My schedule is set by the moon rather than any alarm clock and I am woken before dawn by the call to prayer that resonates from our neighbourhood mosque.
My first task is to prepare a flask of strong coffee, which I deliver to the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers positioned behind layers of sandbags at their firing station on the roof of our complex. It's ice-cold in Kabul at this time of year. I watch as the Gurkhas heat their weapons using the steam that rises from the flask, and only then begin to sip their coffee.
Wherever in the world I have worked, I have invested my own time and resources in running weekend classes for local children who show academic promise, and who could benefit from an unstructured learning environment that values independent thinking over mind-numbing memorisation. I now have 42 girls and boys from all walks of life who appear at the UN gates every Friday at 9am for their lessons.
I supervise the rigid security procedures and look on as our guards search each student for concealed weapons or explosives. The Taliban has been known to use children as young as 9 as suicide bombers, so we need to be vigilant.
During my first two years in Kabul, I arranged for the classes to be held in our bunker because its thick walls insulated us from the sound of the Apache helicopters that regularly criss-cross the sky. But electricity is now unreliable in this city and the windowless bunker is instantly plunged into darkness whenever we lose power. As a result, the class has moved into my office, with the first arrivals taking the premium seats near the wood-burning stove that provides our only heat.
Some of my students are from middle-class families and have proper winter clothing, but many are from the poorest parts of society and wrap themselves in items so worn that the Salvation Army would throw them away rather than accept them as donations. A framed image of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon hangs just to the left of the whiteboard, and the photos of my 16-year-old daughter inevitably attract the interest of some of the older boys.
I was educated at one of Canada's leading private schools, by teachers who had been imported from England a generation earlier. My teaching style reflects the lessons I learned from these schoolmasters, who instilled in me a passion for literature, history and natural science. My students read the poetry of Maya Angelou and Walt Whitman, and study the great Islamic scientists and mathematicians. It's like Dead Poets Society, but with a ragtag group of kids whose entire lives have been defined by war.
My friends among the international community in Kabul are accustomed to giving lectures to my students. In particular, I try to recruit powerful women who can encourage the girls to resist the pressure to marry early and inspire the bravest to consider going to university.
You can find courage in the most unlikely places, even among a gang of Afghan children struggling with their English grammar on a bitterly cold January morning. I am honoured to serve as their mentor and friend.
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