KABUL -- Scores of children descend from a creaky, old bus and pour through the doors of the Kabul Blind School, the only school exclusively for blind children in Afghanistan.
Afghans suffering from blindness or other disabilities often face rejection in society, as evidenced by the blind who are forced to beg on the streets of the capital to make a living. But here young students are given a chance to learn job skills to prepare themselves for success in the uncertain future that awaits many upon graduation.
Some 120 children are currently enrolled in the modest school, beginning as early as first grade. There they spend a half-day learning basic lessons in math, science, literature, and other subjects using tactile methods.
The other half of the day is dedicated to vocational training aimed at preparing blind students for future employment. The students choose their own path by taking art lessons, training on blind-friendly computer applications, or learning crafts such as knitting and broom-making.
If it were not for the school, which has both male and female students, most of its students would be on the streets, says Eric Rajah, the co-founder of A Better World, an international development group based in Canada that partly funds the blind school.
The Afghan government estimates that some 400,000, or 2 percent, of Afghanistan's population of 30 million suffers from blindness, many of them from operable cataracts. But only a fraction is able to access medical facilities and basic education services.
"There are many Afghan children who have stepped on land mines playing in their backyards who have lost their eyesight. The majority of those are marginalized, especially girls who don’t have other opportunities," Rajah says.
"They're facing a very challenging situation. There is no real future for these kids unless someone gives them something, [including] work and education."
Lacking So Much
Arash, an energetic, chatty boy, is in the sixth grade at the school. The 14-year-old, who was blinded after being hit by shrapnel from an exploding bomb, says the school has given hope to its blind students. Whereas some were living on the streets, they now can receive a free education, food, and sometimes urgent medical assistance.
PHOTO GALLERY: The Kabul Blind School
Yet despite the inroads made by the school -- which opened in 1977 but fell into disrepair until it was reopened in 2004 -- there is much to be done. Arash says there are only a few classrooms and that the school suffers from a lack of sufficient equipment.
"They should try and run schools for the blind [in Afghanistan] in the same way as those in other countries, where they have trained teachers, advanced equipment, and education materials," Arash says. "It would be great if they could get some of those things here."
Rajah, whose organization began its involvement with the school in 2004, admits the school suffers from many shortcomings. But he says the school, which is partly funded by the Afghan Education Ministry and relies heavily on donations, is doing what it can with the limited resources at its disposal.
"The biggest challenge the school is currently facing is the lack of trained teachers to educate the blind. Secondly, it is a lack of essential equipment and materials. The third is lack of infrastructure. [We need] a better bathroom. We finally put power in the school only last year," Rajah explains.
"And although the students have vocational programs, their products are not marketed so they cannot sell them."
Offering Musical Education
Nevertheless Rajah, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian, says the prospects for the school are looking up.
The school recently entered into a partnership with Afghanistan's Institute of Music in Kabul. Under the partnership the institute, with the help of the Education Ministry, plans to create a music program, donate instruments, and build facilities at the school.
Music education can do more than just provide future job opportunities, says institute director Ahmad Sarmast. He says it can help in the healing process of the students, most of whom have been deeply traumatized by their impairment.
"Music can contribute in many ways to the development of the blind school in Kabul. We can find good talent at an early stage at the school and teach them music," Sarmast says.
"Music is one of the easiest vocations that the blind can learn and make a living from. Music can also contribute to the healing process as well as giving students an opportunity in life."
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report