Azizullah only attended school until the age of 10, when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced him to flee to Pakistan. Unable to continue his formal education in exile, he used his spare time after work for self-study. Upon returning to Afghanistan at the age of 16 he established a school – and five more in the next three years, making dangerous journeys into Pakistan to procure teaching supplies. Fleeing the Taliban in 1994, he established the Marefat (meaning ‘insight and knowledge’) School for Afghan Refugees in Pakistan, which moved back to Kabul when the Taliban regime fell in 2001.
Azizullah became a teacher to instil hope and aspiration in Afghan youths who were struggling with poverty, life in refugee camps and the legacies of war. Although he initially intended to teach only basic literacy, he then realised that it was essential to provide an education that could overcome the culture of violence, hatred and pessimism in the region. In order to help build a new nation, he saw a need to rebuild the Afghan education system with a focus on civic education and female empowerment.
Based on his own extensive acquaintance with both Western and Islamic traditions of thought and literature, Azizullah has authored various civic education textbooks. Classes at his school pursue a broad interdisciplinary education and students work collaboratively in small groups. Lessons are supplemented by a range of student-run clubs that teach students communication, collaboration and leadership.
In 2009 several female students from Marefat school launched a protest against the new Shia Family Law because it violated women’s rights and legalised marital rape. This action led to a call for Azizullah’s execution and an attempt to burn down the school, requiring the Ministry of the Interior to protect it with its Special Police Unit. When the school reopened three days later, more than 95% of the students, accompanied by their parents, attended school, demonstrating the support of the community for the school.
In 2014 Marefat High School had 4000 students, 44% of which were girls. Of its 450 graduates, 148 pursued their studies in high schools and universities abroad in that year. The school is registered as a tax-exempt, nonprofit educational institution and provides financial aid to over 400 of its students each year.
If awarded the Prize, Azizullah would use the funds to renovate and expand his school. He also aims to launch a professional teacher training academy so that Marefat’s model of education can be applied throughout the country.