Dispatch

The School in a Basement That’s Changing Lives

Afghan refugees in New Delhi can now pursue an education in their mother tongue.

Afghan refugee women and children learn computer skills in India.
Afghan refugee women and children learn computer skills in India.
Afghan refugee women and children learn computer skills inside the classroom of Anjam Knowledge House in New Delhi’s Bhogal neighborhood on Aug. 24. Mohammad Shams Photos for Foreign Policy
By , an independent journalist based out of New Delhi, and , an independent multimedia journalist based out of New Delhi.

NEW DELHI—In a bustling market in New Delhi’s Bhogal neighborhood, an unmarked door behind a vegetable stall opens to narrow stairs leading to a basement. From its only small window on a hot and humid August afternoon, Afghan women and children peek out at vendors, rickshaw pullers, and pedestrians. They are students of Anjam Knowledge House, a community school by and for Afghan refugees in New Delhi.

In the waiting room outside the single classroom, Afghan children share their dreams. One wants to become a doctor; another, a teacher. Other students aspire to be engineers and pilots. “My favorite subject is science. I want to become a doctor so that I can cure people,” said 10-year-old Fatima.

The oblong hall in which classes take place serves a wide variety of students. Twenty-one of them, women in their 30s and 40s as well as children as young as 8 years old, watch as Ahmad Khan Anjam, an Afghan in his late 20s, teaches them how to use several features of a computer. Some of the students have their own laptops; others watch a TV screen installed on the wall. “Companies hire people who know how to operate computers,” said Farida Khairkhuan, a 46-year-old Afghan woman. “I hope to learn it and find a good job somewhere.”

NEW DELHI—In a bustling market in New Delhi’s Bhogal neighborhood, an unmarked door behind a vegetable stall opens to narrow stairs leading to a basement. From its only small window on a hot and humid August afternoon, Afghan women and children peek out at vendors, rickshaw pullers, and pedestrians. They are students of Anjam Knowledge House, a community school by and for Afghan refugees in New Delhi.

In the waiting room outside the single classroom, Afghan children share their dreams. One wants to become a doctor; another, a teacher. Other students aspire to be engineers and pilots. “My favorite subject is science. I want to become a doctor so that I can cure people,” said 10-year-old Fatima.

The oblong hall in which classes take place serves a wide variety of students. Twenty-one of them, women in their 30s and 40s as well as children as young as 8 years old, watch as Ahmad Khan Anjam, an Afghan in his late 20s, teaches them how to use several features of a computer. Some of the students have their own laptops; others watch a TV screen installed on the wall. “Companies hire people who know how to operate computers,” said Farida Khairkhuan, a 46-year-old Afghan woman. “I hope to learn it and find a good job somewhere.”


After the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021, thousands of Afghans—mostly minorities, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, as well as those who were part of the government or their families or who had been critical of the Taliban—were left worried for their lives. In the first few weeks after the takeover, around 1,000 Afghan nationals arrived in New Delhi to seek asylum. The numbers swelled in the weeks that followed after the Indian government introduced a new category of emergency visas for Afghan nationals.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), India hosts more than 15,000 refugees from Afghanistan. There are many more who are not registered with the agency.

India has been home to Afghan refugees and nationals since the Soviet war in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most Afghans in New Delhi run small businesses, shops, and eateries to earn a living. Many are concentrated in South Delhi, where housing tends to be cheaper. With meager incomes, most of them find it difficult to afford education for their children.

On top of this, all refugees in India face a fundamental problem: Since India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, they are deprived of the rights ensured by the United Nations. The UNHCR’s office in New Delhi grants refugee status to citizens from strife-torn nations and issues identification cards, but although these might help individuals find jobs or gain admission to educational institutions, the UNHCR’s identification cards are not widely recognized by Indian authorities.

Worse still for Afghan refugees, who are almost all Muslim, is India’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Introduced in 2019, this law rules out the possibility of citizenship for Afghan Muslim refugees. Only non-Muslim Afghan refugees can therefore apply.

Ahmad Khan Anjam at Anjam Knowledge House, a school for Afghan refugees in New Delhi, India.
Ahmad Khan Anjam at Anjam Knowledge House, a school for Afghan refugees in New Delhi, India.

Ahmad Khan Anjam, the owner of Anjam Knowledge House, poses for a picture in his office, which doubles as a classroom, in New Delhi on Aug. 24.

Moreover, since the Taliban seized control of Kabul in August 2021, the Indian government has prioritized evacuating Afghan Sikhs and Hindus. Many experts say the government’s move has political undertones, appealing to the Hindu nationalist politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and to Sikh voters, who make up an important strategic voting bloc.

Because of these compounding problems—the lack of government recognition for refugees and the country’s official discrimination against Muslim refugees—many Afghan refugees struggle with basic tasks, like obtaining a SIM card. To gain admission to colleges and schools or find a job can also be difficult.

Anjam, the teacher, faced these problems firsthand when he moved to India from Afghanistan in 2017 to avoid violence. “I used to run a tutoring business in Afghanistan. But due to frequent bombings and violence, the number of students dwindled over the years,” Anjam said. “Women were afraid to attend the classes, and I felt my life was in danger all the time.”

“Women were afraid to attend the classes, and I felt my life was in danger all the time.”

He started Anjam Knowledge House, which teaches all classes in Pashto, that same year he arrived in India from Kabul. “I found out there were many problems here concerning Afghan children,” he said. “They were not good at the English language. And because of the language barrier, they could not understand much in the government schools.”

It is an ongoing challenge to keep the school running without any funding and assistance from the government or any other institution. (There are only tuition fees for those who can afford them.) To pay the rent for the schoolroom as well as his other bills, Anjam said he works double shifts at a restaurant.

Students learn English, math, Arabic, Persian, and computer skills. The school opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m., with kids attending for three to four hours daily. The Anjam Knowledge House’s four teachers instructed 600 students before the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with a small influx of new students after the fall of Kabul, that number is now down to 350 students. During the pandemic, some parents were hesitant to send their children to school because of COVID-19; others slipped into the workforce, never to return to education.


Students and a teacher at a school for Afghan refugees in New Delhi.
Students and a teacher at a school for Afghan refugees in New Delhi.

Students take a math lesson at Anjam Knowledge House in New Delhi on Aug. 24.

Twelve-year-old Rahmatullah Sultani has not witnessed the violence in Afghanistan firsthand, but he has heard from his parents about how they fled their home and took refuge in India. He was an infant when his parents moved from Herat province because “there were bombings always and they were scared for their lives.”

Sultani learns English and computer skills at Anjam Knowledge House and said he wants to move to the United States to become a doctor. He is also enrolled at a government-run school but said he finds it difficult to learn there since much of the teaching is conducted in Hindi. (Government schools teach in a mix of Hindi and English, whereas private schools typically conduct lessons in English only.) “Here they teach us in our mother tongue, and the teachers are good,” Sultani said.

Anjam has devised the syllabi for all the classes carefully. The idea behind the lessons is to prepare students for jobs. “Almost all the students at my school learn English, computer, and other subjects so that they can find a good job somewhere in the West,” Anjam said. “My students learn to speak fluent English within six months and are well versed with computers.”

“I have some independence here; there was none in Afghanistan.”

On Aug. 24, when FP visited Anjam Knowledge House, the temperature outside was 93 degrees Fahrenheit and the classroom, without air conditioning, was stifling. The dimly lit corridor doubled as the kitchen of an eatery. Steel glasses, plates, and a pan laid unwashed in the sink as the water from the tap dribbled. In the corner, a pan laid empty on a gas stove. Later that day, the gas cylinder leaked and the entire Anjam Knowledge House was filled with its pungent odor, forcing children to flee the classroom for outside air. Twenty-one-year-old Nilofar Joya Raziqi, who teaches mathematics, said, “These things happen often, but we have no other choice.”

Raziqi said she suffers from asthma, and it gets difficult for her sometimes to teach in a closed basement without much ventilation. “I tell my students how important it is to study with seriousness and achieve their dreams,” she said. “Even in these challenging circumstances, we teach them with dedication and out of goodwill.”

Raziqi was 14 years old when she moved to India with her parents. “People don’t leave their country unless their home is not home anymore,” she said. “We started from scratch and now have adapted to the Indian way of life, learned Hindi, and adjusted to this society. The good thing is we don’t get insulted and beaten for not wearing a veil here. I have some independence here; there was none in Afghanistan.”

A teacher at a school for Afghan refugees in New Delhi, India.
A teacher at a school for Afghan refugees in New Delhi, India.

Kayenat, who teaches English, works at her desk during a class at Anjam Knowledge House in New Delhi on Aug. 24.

Across the hall, Khairkhuan said she was a teacher at a school in Kabul before she fled her home in 2016. “There were bombings often, and women were not allowed to work and go out without a veil,” she said.

Now, she works as a tailor to raise her four kids and came to the Anjam Knowledge House on Aug. 24 with two of them in tow, ages 8 and 12. As she took notes in her computer class, her kids fiddled with her mobile phone.

“I want to improve my English and learn how to use a computer so that I can move to some Western country for a better future,” she said.

Before sundown, as the basement was vacated for the evening, 14-year-old Ghafoor, who runs errands in the Anjam Knowledge House and looks after children when teachers are not present, rearranged the chairs and turned off the lights in the classroom. He said he is enthusiastic about drones and planes. He wants to build one someday. He is also passionate about cameras and wants to start video blogging. This Afghan makeshift school may help Ghafoor realize some of his dreams.

Qadri Inzamam is an independent journalist based out of New Delhi. Twitter: @Qadri_Inzamam

Haziq Qadri is an independent multimedia journalist based out of New Delhi. Twitter: @haziq_qadri

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.