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From Shoeshiner To Student: Radio Mashaal Report Paves Way For An Unlikely Education

Palwasha, who once spent her days shining shoes in the busy streets of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, now attends school thanks to the patronage of former Taliban officials.
(Kabul, Afghanistan) Sitting in a classroom, Palwasha, a bright eyed 12-year-old girl from Hadi Farm Camp in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, has substituted a textbook for a shoe shine brush, all thanks to a report by RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.

Four months ago, Palwasha’s day consisted of shining shoes on the streets of Jalalabad in order to support her family. When a Radio Mashaal correspondent interviewed Palwasha, he couldn't imagine how his report on her difficult life as a child laborer would open up new educational opportunities for her, and likely better prospects for her family.

Immediately after the story was broadcast, it gained the attention of Afghan Foundation, an NGO based in Kabul which contacted Radio Mashaal to locate Palwasha and her family.

In a surprising twist, Afghan Foundation is headed by Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Afghan ambassador under the Taliban regime in Islamabad prior to the 2001 U.S-led invasion. Zaeef was detained in Guantanamo Bay until 2005 and gained prominence after he published his autobiography, "My Life with the Taliban." In July 2010, the United Nations removed Zaeef from its list of terrorists.

But Zaeef was not the only unlikely benefactor. Zaeef co-founded Afghan Foundation with Former Taliban Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. A former international spokesman for the Taliban, and a relatively moderate leader, Muttawakil was disowned by the Taliban in 2003.

Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to go to school or work after the age of eight, which is why the emergence of reformist leaders such as Zaeef and Muttawakil -- whose organization is now funding the education for young girls such as Palwasha -- is out of the ordinary.

“I have thrown away the brush and shoe polish”

Palwasha happily recounts the story of how Radio Mashaal changed her life after it reported her daily struggles to make a living.
Before she was able to attend school, Palwasha shined shoes and sold bread to bring money home to her family.
Before she was able to attend school, Palwasha shined shoes and sold bread to bring money home to her family.

“My name is Palwasha. I was shining shoes but then one day Radio Mashaal interviewed me and an NGO in Kabul heard this report. They asked you [Radio Mashaal] for my mobile phone number and called us in August to come to Kabul,” she tells a Radio Mashaal reporter.

Palwasha’s mother, who agreed to receive monthly financial aid from the NGO on the condition of Palwasha’s enrollment in school, described their harsh life before Radio Mashaal reported on their situation. Palwasha’s father died a year ago, leaving the family in difficult circumstances and forcing Palwasha, the eldest among three siblings, to start shining shoes and selling bread to keep the family afloat.

Now, as Palwasha says, instead of wandering the crowded city streets of Jalalabad for a day of shining shoes, she walks the path to school and has finally "thrown away the brush and shoe polish."

Radio Mashaal was launched in January 2010 in order to provide reliable reporting in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

-- Deana Kjuka