May 23, 2024


Super Art is Almost

Opinion: A photography project in my native Afghanistan led me to open a school for children we can’t forget

Raofi is a graduate student at the New York School of Visual Arts. She lives in Rancho Bernardo. Follow the children on Instagram at

My family was forced to leave Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s invasion. My father was a prominent man. He was the mayor of our town and had worked hard for the betterment of the Afghan people. He was forced to leave everything behind to save his family from the Soviet Union’s bombs. He brought us to the United States in search of peace, but life as a refugee was tremendously hard. As a child, I saw my family struggle. To this day, these hardships drive me to help others, especially children and women. I use my master’s degree in education and my passion for documentary photography for the betterment of marginalized and refugee children.

In 2018, I created a photography project for children in San Diego. I observed the impact it was making, so I made the decision to take my project to Afghanistan to empower and heal children affected by the ongoing conflict. I arrived as a volunteer in the outskirts of Kabul, wanting to make a difference. Quickly, I saw hopeless war-stricken children working daily collecting garbage to burn for heat to help their families. Once I gave them cameras, I saw that taking photos brought them joy and gave them hope.

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I met a lot of little girls orphaned and internally displaced children due to the ongoing fight between the U.S. military, the Afghan army and the Taliban. The majority of Afghan people I encountered supported the U.S. mission in Afghanistan seeking security and sustainability. The result of the U.S. troops’ involvement had impacted Afghanistan in progressive methods, which included the advancement of reforming civil society, training Afghan troops and promoting humanitarian projects including women’s rights. Yet security and stability are still volatile. Despite economic injection into the country as a whole, a large divide has been created between wealth and severe poverty due to corruption. In addition, friendly fire by the U.S. military on innocent civilians disheartened the Afghan people.

I met so many displaced children like 12-year-old Buzgul. She approached life full of love and laughter. I left Afghanistan after a year and constantly talked about those girls here in the U.S. in the hope that someone would hear me, so I could do more for them. I recently returned to Afghanistan; I went looking for Buzgul only to find an empty mud house. She was gone. I was told she was sold as a child bride. This made me incredibly sad. I was determined even more to help the other girls just like her. I have recently connected with two sisters named Shabna and Razia, ages 12 and 13, who also touched my heart. They work in rough conditions to help their sick dad and illiterate mother. I taught them English and photography. They are curious and quickly learned to express themselves through the art of a lens. All they wanted was a school, and they begged me to start one for them, and thus began my push for a school for these children.

The initial financial support for my program came through my own means, although I did manage to get some donations from supporters. Each time I came back to the U.S, I could not stop thinking about the children. It was hard for me to ignore their pain and suffering. I wished I could bring them all home with me to the U.S., but that’s not possible. Instead, through my photography, I knew I could help give them a voice and tell their stories. So I am turning this project into my thesis for the New York School of Visual Arts.

In 2021, I converted an old, discarded shipping container into a classroom in Afghanistan, hired two teachers and began operating a small school. On the first day, there were lots of children and not enough space. The children were tearful, and their parents were pleading. They were desperate to go to school. I am currently working on building a school for more than 80 children. I believe that education is the key to ending poverty and suffering, and will help change their lives.

Back here at home, the American news media projects the notion that in Afghanistan, Americans are hated, but that is far from the truth. The Afghans I interact with appreciate the help of the U.S. very much. Afghans in the village where we have the school are extremely afraid that the withdrawal of U.S soldiers will lead to the Taliban taking over. Even though the troops are leaving, it’s important we don’t forget these families who will be left behind, alone and fending for themselves. I do not want the world to forget children like Shabna and Razia and the others who just want education and a better life.

Afghanistan through the lens