It is the last place where you’d expect to find a school that teaches about civic rights — and has links to Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center.

But after driving an hour from central Kabul, over potholed roads jammed with trucks, cars, motorbikes and carts, and then maneuvering along a narrow, rutted dirt track and through wheel-deep puddles of water, we reached the Marefat school.

The two-story, pale-green, concrete building is built around a courtyard, with a balcony opening onto second-story classrooms. The school, which runs from the primary grades through high school, is the brainchild of Aziz Royesh, a largely self-taught, indefatigable, 39-year-old Afghan.

Royesh spent his youth fighting the Soviet occupation. But he was determined to expose a post-war generation to a different way of thinking about the world, and to unfamiliar concepts such as human rights, democracy and nonviolent struggle in lieu of war.

Royesh, a compact man with a large smile and a neat, black beard, set up his first schools in the Afghan refugee camps of Pakistan. Six years ago, he moved to Kabul and started the Marefat school in a poor neighborhood populated by Hazaras, members of a minority ethnic group of Mongol descent who are Shiite Muslims in a majority-Sunni country. Not surprisingly, the Hazaras have often been subject to persecution.

The determined Royesh got local people to donate land and began the school in a bombed-out building. Gradually, locals in the neighborhood — which had no school — contributed bricks, iron and labor; new classrooms went up every year. “They understood that we were helping them change the destiny of their kids,” Royesh said.

Most surprising is the philosophy that Royesh seeks to instill in students by requiring a special civic-education course from grades 5 through 9. “Humanism is the name of the course,” he told me in a cramped office. “We teach about humanism in the Renaissance, in Islamic teaching, and about human rights and democracy and citizens’ rights.”

You may be wondering by now about the Philly-Kabul connection. The original link was made via a young Philadelphian, Jeffrey Stern, who met Royesh during a two-year stint in Afghanistan as a freelance journalist and teacher. Stern returned to Philly to work with the Constitution Center on a program promoting constitutional principles in emerging democracies through education.

In the program’s first project, high school students from Marefat will pair with students of Philadelphia’s largely minority Constitution High School, which focuses on civic education. The students will exchange ideas and photos that portray how they, as minority students, define their role as citizens in their respective countries. The photos will appear in a joint exhibition at the Constitution Center and the National Museum of Afghanistan.

This week, the Constitution Center received a $105,000 grant from the American Association of Museums to support the program. The money will enable the Marefat students to buy cameras and computers and set up an Internet link to connect with their Philadelphia counterparts. Constitution Center president Linda Johnson said the students’ photos will enrich the experience of the center’s visitors.

I met several Marefat students and was impressed with their grasp of the concept of civic rights in a country where few have them. The boys were solemn, in shirts and ties, while the girls wore light-blue tunics, baggy pants, and white head scarfs — looking like young nuns until they burst into giggles. (Royesh wanted his school to be coed; the Ministry of Education insisted on separating the sexes, but there are some joint programs).

Parvin, a 14-year-old girl attending Marefat whose parents were war refugees in Iran, said firmly in English, “All girls should go to school. My father works three jobs, my big sister teaches, my mother’s father wouldn’t let her go to university, but I will go and be an engineer.” Masouda, another 14-year-old girl, said, “I want to know about the situation of girls and women in America, and to tell them the situation of girls here has changed.” And Bismillah, a 16-year-old boy, told me, “We are minorities. We need a freely elected government so people can control their own fate. People have to share.”

It will be fascinating to see how the Kabul and Philly students share experiences via words and photos. The reciprocal exhibits are scheduled for next spring.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is: [email protected]

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