Two Afghan students sit at their desks

Sixteen-year-old Afghan refugee Parisa (left) attends class in Isfahan, Iran. © UNHCR/Mohammad Hossein Dehghanian

An exemplary policy in Iran lets Afghan children attend public school, whether they are registered refugees, passport holders or even undocumented.

As the bell rings to announce the start of the day, a group of girls run through the gates of Vahdat Primary School in the old Persian city of Esfahan in Iran. Their packed bags bouncing on their backs, the students skid to a stop in front of the main building and huddle in line for the morning assembly.


At the back of the line, Parisa, 16, is the oldest student in her sixth-grade class; the other girls are on average 12 years old. She is impatient for class to begin.

“I love school so much,” she says, clutching her books to her chest. “My favourite subject is maths, because maths is everywhere in the world. I love multiplication and division – they are really easy.”

Parisa and her family fled Afghanistan 10 years ago, after the Taliban terrorized their neighbourhood in Herat and threatened to kidnap girls who went to school.

“I love school so much . My favourite subject is maths.”

Over the past 40 years, around three million Afghans have sought safety in Iran; nearly one million are registered as refugees, while some 1.5 to 2 million remained undocumented. An additional 450,000 Afghan passport holders live in Iran to work or complete their studies.

“If you went to the bazaar, there was no guarantee you would come back,” recalls Besmellah, Parisa’s 67-year old father. “Then they started planting mines in schoolyards. We had no other choice but to come here.”

In Iran, Parisa and her six siblings were safe, 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 fees.

To contribute to the family’s household expenses, Parisa’s brother dropped out of school at age 15 and started working alongside their father as a construction worker. With this extra bit of money, Parisa was able to set foot in a classroom for the first time, at the age of 11. She found herself in a makeshift school held in a cramped two-room building. Lessons were organized in two shifts in order to accommodate as many children as possible. With no qualified teachers and no proper curriculum, the students only learned the basics.

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Parisa, 16 (right), and her sister Parimah, 14, are undocumented Afghans attending school in Esfahan, Iran. © UNHCR/Mohammad Hossein Dehghanian

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Students at Vahdat Primary School try to contain their giggles for a group photo before their teacher comes to class. © UNHCR/Mohammad Hossein Dehghanian

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Afghan refugee Halime (centre) prepares breakfast for two of her sons and her daughters Parisa, 16, and Parimah, 14, at home in Esfahan, central Iran. © UNHCR/Mohammad Hossein Dehghanian

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Afghan refugee Besmellah drives his daughters Parisa, 16, and Parimah, 14, to school, 10 kilometres from their home home in Esfahan, Iran. © UNHCR/Mohammad Hossein Dehghanian

It was not ideal, but while registered refugees in Iran could go to formal schools, Afghans like Parisa who fled conflict but were unable to acquire refugee status could only attend these types of informal, self-run learning centres.

Their fortunes improved in 2015, when Iran passed a law allowing all Afghan children – regardless of their status as refugees, undocumented or passport-holders – to attend public schools. Thanks to the Government of Iran and UNHCR, Parisa got her first taste of a proper education with the opening of Vahdat Primary. Her fellow schoolmates include 140 other Afghan children and 160 Iranians from the local host community, all studying side by side.

Some 480,000 Afghan children in Iran are benefitting from these inclusive education policies this school year, of whom 130,000 are undocumented Afghans like Parisa. In 2019 alone, 60,000 new Afghan students found a place in school in Iran.

“I’m so happy that I can study side by side with Iranian students. People no longer say, ‘Oh, you’re an ‘Afghan’,” she says.

Parisa dreams of returning to Afghanistan to share her love of studying with children there. “If I become a teacher, I’ll be very happy,” she says. “I want to teach children in my hometown in Afghanistan, because they can’t really study much.”

But she knows her future is uncertain. “Sometimes I think … what if I won’t be able to go to school, because of our financial situation?” she says, the thought of not being able to continue her studies bringing tears to her eyes.

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

Refugees are exempt from school fees in Iran, but other costs associated with education, including school supplies, still weigh heavy on the family’s budget.

Amid economic challenges due to sanctions, the needs of vulnerable people – among them refugees as well as Iranians – are increasing. In just one year, the price of basic goods and services has skyrocketed, making it harder for families to afford food items, rent payments and transportation.

UNHCR is concerned that any further deterioration in Iran’s economy could weaken the ability of the Government, UNHCR and partners to continue providing education to Afghan children.

In order to maintain such opportunities in Iran, and emulate them in other host countries, UNHCR is calling on donors and partners to commit to supporting such exemplary humanitarian efforts at the first Global Refugee Forum, to be held on 17-18 December in Geneva, Switzerland.

“As long as I can work, I will do everything for my daughters to be able to go to school – but it is getting harder and harder,” says Besmellah, whose only wish is to see his children succeed. “My wife and I feel disabled by our lack of education. We don’t want the same to happen to them.”

Originally published on UNHCR on 10 December 2019

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