CBC In Depth
A school of joy and hope
CBC News Online | February 23, 2004

Reporter: Peter Mansbridge

All this week, we've been talking about the work these soldiers are doing in Kabul, but they're not the only Canadians making a difference here. Far from it. A Canadian family's project has brought joy and hope in to dozens of lives. It's a sound so strange in war-torn Kabul, you can't help but be drawn to it.

Inside, a place of innocence in this city of so much sadness, the brainchild of Roshan Thomas, an optometrist from B.C. who decided education was the best way to help the people of Afghanistan. At her Sparks Academy, the only school for five- and six-year-olds in the country, she takes Kabul's best and brightest, many growing up in terrible poverty, and teaches them how to be children.

Thomas says that before enrolling, many of the children had no idea even how to play. Among the students here are the children of Kabul's war widows. The city is known as the widows' capital of the world, the result of decades of war.

While visiting the mother of one of her prospective students, Thomas found another sad fact of Kabul life. When widows leave home to spend the day trying to make a living, their children are often locked up and left alone. So she opened a small residence where widows and their children can live. The women are taught embroidery in hopes that they'll be able to work at home.

The young girl who led Thomas to the widows was unresponsive when Thomas first met her, probably because the child had little contact with the outside world. Thanks to the attention of Thomas and her home, she's now doing much better.

And Roshan Thomas is with us now. We just watched you singing and playing with the children.

Roshan Thomas: Yes.

Peter Mansbridge: Describe the feeling that you have during a time like that.

Roshan Thomas: It's amazing because when we started this, it was difficult for them to have any fun. They just wouldn't have any fun that normal children in another country would have because they've suffered such tragedy in their young lives. So to get them to sing or play was something we had to really work at. So it was wonderful to see them spontaneously singing "Bingo."

Peter Mansbridge: Sadly, they're not alone in this city or this country. There are many, many like them.

Roshan Thomas: Right.

Peter Mansbridge: It must be agonizing to make the decision of who you let in.

Roshan Thomas: That's one of the hardest things I've had to do.

Peter Mansbridge: How do you that?

Roshan Thomas: It's very difficult at this young age, so we have to assess them. What we look for with the assessment is whether they are comfortable with being in the classroom, comfortable with being with each other, if they're curious in picking up a book or a toy, and that's how the assessment is actually done.

Peter Mansbridge: You know, there are so many needs in this country. How did you settle on education?

Roshan Thomas: Well, education is the foundation of any society, and with our experiences in working in refugee camps in Pakistan, our children quickly realized education was what was needed to get them out of this cycle of perpetual poverty.

Peter Mansbridge: A lot of widows here, obviously.

Roshan Thomas: Yes, yes.

Peter Mansbridge: Give us a sense of their life.

Roshan Thomas: Well, one widow that I've become very close to is 24 years old. She's got two young children. Both her parents were killed by the Taliban about three years ago and, after that, her husband and his cousin were also killed by the Taliban, and she came here looking for a job.

She herself is in a desperate situation. She's illiterate, so the only job she could get was a cleaning lady's work, and she was working from 7 in the morning till 4, and she had no choice but to lock up her five-year-old and three-year-old in one little room in a mud house all day, seven days a week. So that sort of compelled me to do something about that, and with my family's guidance, we started a little widows' support program where we have three widows and two other families living in a house where we're giving them training in embroidery and we're hoping to find a market for that in Canada.

Peter Mansbridge: Well, you know, you're obviously a Canadian who's made a real difference. Why should Canadians care about something like this?

Roshan Thomas: Well, I think it's inherent in us, in Canadians, and I think people here recognize that, you know. They have a great deal of respect for Canada, and we have a history of peacekeeping.

Peter Mansbridge: Well, it's been a pleasure meeting you.

Roshan Thomas: Pleasure meeting you too, Peter.

Peter Mansbridge: OK, thanks.


THE NATIONAL IN KABUL: On patrol in Kabul Interview: Hamid Karzai Interview: Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier (Officer Commanding ISAF) Afghan Radio Camp Warehouse Christopher Alexander (Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan) A school of joy and hope Photo Gallery Behind the Scenes
INQUIRY: Farmers in Kenya Angels Uganda AIDS aid Right To Play Somalia: Brave new airwaves Hope in Bolivia Bosnia: Prijedor Homecoming Egyptian Odyssey
HOW TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE: How to make a difference FAQ: Getting involved FAQ: Safety and security
COLUMNS: Aly-Khan Rajani (CARE Canada) Nicolas Palanque (CARE Canada) Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese (Save the Mothers International) Monique Russell (HRI-NetCorps Intern San Jos�)

Don Murray: A success story

From CBC Vancouver Omid-e-Afghanistan - Sparks Academy - the "Hope of Afghanistan"

Indepth: Afghanistan

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CUSO tracks volunteers from:

  • AFS Interculture Canada
  • Canadian Crossroads International.
  • Canada World Youth.
  • Centre for International Studies and Cooperation
  • Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO).
  • CUSO.
  • Oxfam Qu�bec.
  • SUCO - Solidarit� Union Coop�ration
  • VSO Voluntary Services Overseas Canada
  • World University Service of Canada (WUSC).

    CUSO Statement

    Collectively, our organizations send or receive more than 3,000 volunteers each year and remain in touch with more than 60,000 returned volunteers. These figures include significant numbers of volunteers from the South, but by and large they represent Canadians so concerned about the disparity between life here and life in poorer countries that they are willing to give up weeks, months or even years of their time to improve the world. Through our network of members and volunteers, we reach into almost every community in Canada, coast to coast to coast. Ours is a real, concrete presence for Canada around the world, often the only Canadian presence outside of capitals, or even in some entire countries.

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