At 16 years old, Parisa is the oldest child in sixth grade at Vahdat Primary in Iran, but her love for learning means she is not fazed by the age gap between her and her fellow students.

“I love school so much,” she says. “My favourite subject is mathematics … I love multiplication and division, they are really easy.”

However, Parisa’s path to school has not been an easy one. A decade ago her family fled Afghanistan after the Taliban terrorised their neighbourhood in Herat.

“If you went out to the bazaar, there was no guarantee you would return,” says Parisa’s father Besmellah, 67. The extremists also threatened to kidnap any girls who dared to go to school.

“Then they started planting landmines in schoolyards. We had no choice but to come to Iran.” 

Over the course of 40 years of invasions, civil war, power struggles and religious strife, approximately three million Afghans have sought refuge in Iran. Parisa and her six siblings found safety in Iran but during her first years in exile she couldn’t go to school.

The family barely had enough to live on, let alone cover school costs. Parisa’s brother dropped out of school at age 15 and started working. With this extra money, Parisa was able to set foot in a classroom for the first time, at the age of 11.

At first, she found herself in an unofficial school, where lessons were organised in two shifts to accommodate as many children as possible. With no qualified teachers and no proper curriculum, the students only learned the basics.

At 16 years old, Parisa is the oldest child in sixth grade at Vahdat Primary in Iran. © UNHCR/H. Dehghanian

As an undocumented refugee, at the time this was Parisa’s only option. But in 2015, Iran started allowing all Afghan children – regardless of legal status – to attend state schools.

When Vahdat Primary opened with funding from the Government of Iran, UNHCR and the European Union, Parisa got her first taste of a formal education.

Today, some 480,000 Afghan children in Iran benefit from this inclusive education policy, including 130,000 undocumented Afghans like Parisa. At Vahdat Primary, 140 young Afghans attend school alongside 160 Iranian students.

Sadly the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to derail Parisa’s education once more. As Iran continues to feel the health and economic effects of the virus, both refugees and host communities are finding it harder to make ends meet. Many of those who rely largely on informal work have lost their jobs.

“I haven’t been able to work for the past three months,” says Besmellah, who is a day labourer.

“Parisa is supposed to start the seventh grade this year but I cannot afford it.”

Parisa's father, Besmellah, hasn't been able to work for three months but says he will do everything to ensure his daughters are able to continue their education. © UNHCR/H. Dehghanian

In a report, titled “Coming Together for Refugee Education”, UNHCR warns the twin scourges of COVID-19 and attacks on schools threaten to set back refugee education for decades.

Based on UNHCR data, the Malala Fund has estimated that as a result of the coronavirus half of all refugee girls in secondary school will not return when classrooms reopen.

While refugees are exempt from school fees in Iran, other costs associated with education, including learning materials, are still a burden. Despite the odds, Parisa has lost none of her enthusiasm for her education.

“My sister and I followed our lessons on the television, but we had to borrow my older sister’s smartphone to do our exams,” she says.

“Sometimes our classes would clash, so one of us would have to miss a lesson. It was difficult, but I encouraged my sister to persevere. Thankfully, we both got good grades.”

Besmellah says he will do everything to ensure his daughters are able to continue their education.

“My wife and I feel disabled by our lack of education. We don’t want the same to happen to our children.”

Despite the odds, Parisa has lost none of her enthusiasm for her education. © UNHCR/H. Dehghanian

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