Interview with Peter Schwittek

Ofarin Organization between the Taliban’s takeover and scant financial funding

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© Uli Reinhardt / Zeitenspiegel Reportagen

Peter Schwittek is the founder of the Ofarin organization which has been educating Afghan children using mosques for more than two decades. After the rise of the Taliban, Ofarin’s activities have been facing difficulties. Peter tells us more.

Zineb & Ehsan: After the takeover of Kabul and the government by the Taliban last August, 50% of educational centers have been closed down; as a foreign NGO what are your current restrictions?

Peter Schwittek: Actually, our whole activities are on hold at the moment; we have no formal agreement with the Taliban. We are in the middle of negotiations with the Ministry of Religious Affairs to reach an agreement.

Zineb & Ehsan: Are there any specific restrictions for girls?

Peter Schwittek: Yes, we have problems regarding those girls who have reached the age of puberty. The Taliban declared that only girls under the age of 8 can enter our schools. Now we are bargaining with them to resolve this issue.

Difficult negotiations with the Taliban

Zineb & Ehsan: How are your negotiations with the Taliban going?

Schwittek: We have requested protection of our staff members. The Ministry for Religious Affairs says, “you can stay in the country and continue your job without any problems!”, but as the negotiations are going on, soldiers are chasing former cooperators with foreign agencies. This is contradictory. We asked the person in charge to stop prosecuting our staff who had been working with foreign countries, but the problem has not been solved. This is a problem among the Taliban themselves because they cannot decide what to do.

Zineb & Ehsan: Do you hear different voices among the Taliban?

Schwittek: Yes, we hear contradictory voices. We need to wait and see how the Haqqani Network will develop in Afghanistan. 

Zineb & Ehsan: You mean the radical wing of the Taliban which formed around the former Jalaluddin Haqqani and is part of the inner circle of the Taliban government?

Schwittek: Yes exactly; at the moment a lot of Westerners including journalists can move freely in the country even better than before, as part of the Taliban government is protecting them. I myself might go back to Afghanistan soon to stabilize our agency affairs. Even my colleagues in Afghanistan don’t know who will take power in Afghanistan.

Power dynamics are still shifting

Zineb & Ehsan: As the Afghan banking system is on the brink of collapse, how is Ofarin dealing with this problem?

Schwittek: We still have problems with money transfers. However, the situation of the banks in Afghanistan is changing week by week and seems to be improving for organizations like us. Currently we have informal transactions with some financial agencies. We send money to Turkey and then it is paid out in Kabul, but actually even the banks in Turkey are in difficulty. 

Zineb & Ehsan: Your NGO was financed by Christian organizations; however, your schooling program is held inside the mosques. Why are they interested in supporting your project?

Schwittek: In the past, we used to be supported by German charitable associations and even from a big church institution that sponsored us for a long time during the Taliban's era. I think both the German and Afghan sides have no problem with that. Each side has its own beliefs. It’s human-based relationships that we should develop. I always advise people who have contacts with Muslims to avoid inter-religious communications and instead try to build confidence and friendships. If you get into religious issues, you are going to be in trouble immediately. 

Talking about religion remains a taboo

Zineb & Ehsan: Do you think you have a responsibility towards your staff and, if yes, what have you done regarding their safety?

Schwittek: During the recent withdrawal, we tried to rescue our staff by sending a list to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Germany but the ministry did not issue the necessary documents for an evacuation. Some of the staff had serious problems, especially in the first weeks after the takeover by the Taliban. Armed men wanted to kidnap one of our men and surrender him to the Taliban. Our office manager was warned by phone that armed persons were in the street and wanted to find him. I think it can only be solved through diplomatic channels. At the international level, Afghanistan urgently needs help and maybe some conditions can be put on them and cooperation can be started. Because at the moment we still pay our staff's salaries, however there is a banking problem. 

Zineb & Ehsan: In spite of the risky and difficult situation, you have provided education to many children; What is the key to this success?

Schwittek: At Ofarin we proceeded with the same method we apply in our schools here in Germany. The difference was noticeable between Ofarin’s curriculum and the governmental schooling system. Schools in Afghanistan were unable to carry on with their duties, so I think Ofarin’s schools had very good results. When the war finished in Afghanistan, nothing was done to improve the learning system; a lot of money was given by the international community to the public services, schools, army and administration without any help or instructions on how to do the job, therefore progress was not satisfactory. 

Zineb & Ehsan: Why do you think that your schooling method is better than public education in Afghanistan? 

Schwittek: I think the methods used in Afghan public schools are inefficient. I don’t think the education method is easy for kids to understand. When a girl who is a student in 11th grade cannot solve very simple mathematical tasks; this means there is a problem. Education needs patience and planning, but in the Afghan administration these rules are not respected. We respect these rules in our schools in a very peaceful atmosphere. Some teachers in public schools are not patient and sometimes they use violence. Also, there is a problem of capacity in Afghan public education. We see seventy children in one class, in the very first classes of schools, and it’s impossible to handle. 

Zineb & Ehsan: Considering the fact that there are some written Islamic sources which can incite readers to radical actions; is it likely for these kids who have received education to be dragged into radical Islam in the future?

Schwittek: The government may want these kids or persons to read certain books but that person gets other kinds of books from a neighbor or family. So if you can read, you can read very different things. We don’t have any control over this and I don’t think it’s our right to rule the future of the people. We want to empower them and we want to have a good climate between teachers and the people. 

"I hope thinks will improve and change for the better!"

Zineb & Ehsan: What is the importance of education for Afghan mothers?

Schwittek: Afghan ladies have to bear too many duties on a daily basis, they are overloaded by archaic housework such as: cooking, washing, taking care of a high number of children, and these tasks prevent them from learning and getting the minimum amount of knowledge. As a result, children know very little when they come to school due to their mothers’ illiteracy. Despite that, their brains are very open and they are willing to learn new things. I have worked in this program for 20 years and I can say that the problems derive from the administration and governors. I hope things will improve and change for the better, especially for Afghan women.

About the involved

Peter Schwittek

1940 geboren in Berlin, 1960 Abitur in Wiesbaden, 1962 Studium der Mathematik in Bonn, 1970 Diplom-Mathematiker, 1973 – 1977 Dozent für Mathematik im Partnerschaftsteam der Universität Bonn an der Universität Kabul, 1977 – 1986 Assistent in der Fakultät für Mathematik der Universität Würzburg, 1980 Promotion zum Dr. rer. nat. Seit 1980 Engagement in verschiedenen Hilfsorganisationen, die sich für die Bevölkerung in Afghanistan einsetzten, seit 1984 Reisen nach Afghanistan und Unterstützung von Unterrichtsprogrammen sowie medizinischen Programmen dort. 1998 bis 2000 Leiter der Hilfsorganisation COFAA, die von mehreren nationalen Caritasverbänden finanziert wurde. 1988 Gründung eines Programmes der elementaren Schulbildung. Seit 2001 wird dieses Programm von der NGO OFARIN e.V. weitergeführt und -entwickelt.

About the CrossCulture Programm (CCP)

The CrossCulture Programm enables professionals, volunteers and organisations to look beyond their own cultural horizons. Every year, around 120 fellows gain professional experience during their CCP Fellowships in host organisations in Germany or one of the more than 45 partner countries. CCP Synergy promotes cooperation between organisations from Germany and the partner countries to enable long-term networking. 

The Author

 Zineb Bettayeb
Zineb Bettayeb
IT Specialist
Zineb Bettayeb, is an Algerian IT Specialist and a former cultural journalist with over 13 years of work experience. She graduated with a master's degree from the University of Algiers and had obtained many certificates in different fields. Being engaged…