Afghan girls gaze at the camera outside their classroom in a refugee camp in Islamabad. The newly established STAR school will provide primary education to the children in the camp which is estimated to have some 1500 children without access to primary education.

Pakistan has hosted one of the world’s most protracted refugee populations for around 40 years. Currently, it is home to some 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees while it is estimated it is also home to a million undocumented Afghan migrants. At its peak, the country hosted almost 5 million Afghan
refugees in different parts of the country which varied over time, depending on the level of stability, employment, and social services in Afghanistan. Traditionally, the country has been a preferred destination for refugees and migrants looking for more stable economic circumstances, decent healthcare, education, and access to other social services.

Alight has a dedicated track record of serving refugees and economic migrants for almost two decades in education, healthcare, protection, and skill development. Our commitment to bettering their lives is inherently rooted in the recognition of their humanity. In our work, we have realized their stories are heavily intertwined with the dreams and hopes their host communities have. Refugees and migrants are human after all. They aspire to have access to higher living standards including healthcare services, education, and safety and security just like everyone else.

Rahima is enroled in grade two in Alight’s non-formal school. After school, she works as a housemaid to support her family.

This is what a hopeful family of eleven, among them energetic 14-year-old Rahima, dreamed of once they left Afghanistan for better economic opportunities in Pakistan’s bustling Quetta city, a favored destination for refugees and migrants. Once in Quetta, many come face to face with the reality of participating only in marginal activities such as daily wage jobs and domestic work. But for those fleeing crime and violence, even that alone is a blessing.

For Rahima and her family, leaving Afghanistan in search of better economic opportunities in Quetta was becoming an undeniable need. Rahima had been denied access to education in her country of origin much to her distress, but hoped things would be different in her host country. But once in Quetta, there were different hurdles to cross. Although she could enrol into any of the local government schools, her parents still needed to provide adequate documentation of their legal status in the country to register her. At 14, Rahima was the eldest of the nine children. Her mother was unemployed and her father, previously engaged as a daily wage laborer, had to stop working because of a mental disability. Rahima had little choice but to work as a housemaid to make the family’s ends meet.

Undocumented migrants and refugees have limited access to social institutions, and while they have temporary legal status in Pakistan, they are still unable to enrol into government or private schools, enter into the formal workforce, open a bank account or purchase mobile SIM cards. Acquiring documentation can be a lengthy and emotionally taxing process, with NADRA, the UN Refugee Agency, and CAR working heavily in recent years to ease and increase access to registration.

Yasmin supports her mother in tailoring and managing the household in the morning. She goes to school in the evening and is optimistic about her future. Yasmin’s mother was initially reluctant to send her to school, but the local village education committee were able to persuade her.

For another 14-year-old Afghan migrant, Yasmin, bleak economic circumstances and social constraints were a hurdle in making dreams of going to school a reality. Education is a critical element in protecting children from labour and exploitation, and encouraging families’ economic independence, but in many communities, due to poverty and societal norms, it is undervalued, discouraged, or outright prohibited. Yasmin’s father died when she was six years old, resigning her to join her mother in caring for eight siblings and managing the household. At 14, Yasmin had never even entered a school. With a daily household income of PKR 500, or $3, Yasmin’s family skirts the abject international poverty line.

In late 2019, both children were enroled in our non-formal schools established in Quetta with the support of local Village Education Committees. Our community-centered schools provide primary education to out-of-school children. We do not require that Afghan refugees or migrants first provide registration documentation before enrolling, in line with the organisation’s commitment to provide education to all children, irrespective of their background, gender, or otherwise ability to produce registration documentation – a lengthy process that often interrupts children’s schooling. Alight has established 223 schools throughout the country, with the support of local education bodies, partners, and donors.

Pakistan’s unwavering generosity has opened doors to better education, healthcare, and employment opportunities countless for countless. But with limited access to education and livelihood opportunities and often without guarantee of durable solutions, young refugees and migrants will face uncertain futures. With support, however, these youth can steer their lives with dignity and independence – and beat the odds. Empowering them with inter-linked interventions in areas of education, skills training and livelihood support is key to resilient and self-sufficient communities.

Helping marginalised and underserved people hold on to their hopes and dreams, we at Alight believe that people deserve every opportunity to find connection and joy despite the situations they find themselves in. We are driven to spark opportunity, support and rebuild communities that need help, enter and return children to education, and champion people to build meaningful and joy-filled lives.

Afghans in Quetta by The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit:
Inclusion of Afghan refugees in the national education systems of Iran and Pakistan by Nicole Hervé: