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Caucasus: Afghan Woman, Georgian Teenager Win Humanitarian Award

Along with food, shelter, and medicine, refugee relief groups are increasingly recognizing education as a key element in rehabilitating war-ravaged societies. An annual award bestowed on behalf of refugee relief efforts this year focused on education initiatives made under emergency conditions in Afghanistan and Georgia.

New York, 5 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A refugee advocacy group has awarded an ethnic Hazara woman in Afghanistan and a Georgian teenager from Abkhazia for promoting education under difficult conditions.

The Woman's Commission For Refugee Women and Children honored Sima Samar, a doctor in Afghanistan, and Irakli Sabekia, a 16-year-old Georgian from Sukhumi, at a ceremony in New York yesterday (Monday). The commission was founded 12 years ago under the auspices of the International Rescue Committee to protect the rights of women and children in refugee situations. This year, it chose education as the theme for its annual "Voices of Courage" award, and found its honorees in some of the world's most intractable conflict areas.

Samar runs an organization named Shuhada from the Pakistan side of the Afghanistan border. It runs hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan. It also runs schools for boys and girls in Taliban-ruled central Afghanistan -- an area known as the Hazarajat -- where the predominant population is ethnic Hazara.

Despite what she says is constant pressure from Taliban officials to end schooling for girls, she has persevered with help from local Hazara elders who value education. After founding her first schools in 1989, Samar's organization now runs 50 schools for more than 20,000 students in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in an interview with RFE/RL, Samar said her organization is struggling to survive on about $60,000 per year. Shuhada gets some money from international donors, she says, and also through sales of handicrafts like carpets and blankets.

In many schools, she says, there is one textbook for every three students:

"The people are in very bad condition. If they have [a child] who has a notebook, the father draws a line that he can use half the page on one day and half of the page on the other day because they are not in a position to buy stationery and notebooks for their children. But still they are very interested to come and continue their education."

Samar says she has seen some of the Shuhada students advance to universities in Kabul and other cities. A number of them have become nurses in hospitals and clinics throughout the country.

But she says war and drought this year have caused a drop in enrollment. United Nations humanitarian officials say Afghanistan is the scene of the world's worst displacement of people at the moment and this has affected the ethnic Hazara region as well.

More than one million Afghans are said to be facing famine this year, making food supplies the focus of aid efforts. But Samar says education aid is an overlooked area of refugee relief. In a country with endemic conflict like Afghanistan, she says, education can play a crucial role in helping to create a climate for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

"We cannot wait until everything is peaceful and then start education. We have lost 20 years."

For Irakli Sabekia, the challenges are coping with the effects of a frozen conflict between Georgia and its breakaway state of Abkhazia. Sabekia has spent half of his 16 years as a displaced person in a center in Tbilisi.

He says young people among the 200,000 people displaced in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict have a particularly bleak outlook on life. But he says he was inspired to help his peers after taking part in a youth development program organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Academy of Educational Development.

The Women's Commission For Refugee Women and Children, in honoring him yesterday, says Sabekia is one of the most active youth leaders in Georgia. His activities include setting up a library for a kindergarten for internally displaced children, coordinating a clothing drive, and organizing an exhibition of displaced children's art.

He told RFE/RL in an interview that he is particularly proud of his role as a teacher at a weekend school for displaced children, where he teaches classes in conflict resolution and self-help: "Youth in Georgia, they don't believe in themselves and they don't believe that their actions will lead to changes in their hard lives, and this [international] program made us believe in ourselves. And I want to spread this light and this experience to others, other children of Georgia, and that's why I created the weekend school."

Sabekia says that with the help of international programs he has also taken part in a dialogue between Georgian and Abkhaz youth. Both sides met recently at a university in Virginia, he says, to share their experiences on both sides of a stalled conflict, and to try to move beyond the hopelessness that has afflicted the previous generation.