Cambridge, Mass., resident does her part to educate globally

Matt Dunning

Seven thousand miles separate Cambridge resident Arti Pandey from her home country of India.

It’s a daunting distance, but Pandey said it pales in comparison to the theoretical chasm between children in southwestern Asia and a meaningful education.

It’s that abstract stretch between thousands of children in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and a decent education that Pandey hopes to shrink, through her work with Barakat Inc.

Later this week, Pandey plans to spend a month touring four of the seven Barakat schools in India and Afghanistan. And she’ll be blogging about her adventures at

“Everyone should have the kind of schooling that lets them earn a livelihood,” Pandey said.

Pandey, who recently earned her doctorate in education from Boston University, has been working with Barakat for more than a year, helping to coordinate operations at the foundation’s seven overseas elementary and middle schools.

“The work is extremely interesting,” said Pandey, 31. “The challenge is no one has really come up with a successful, replicable model or curriculum or system for schools that will allow children who are coming from generations of poverty, in many cases the first members of their families to attend school at all, to succeed.”

Based in Cambridge, Barakat began working in 2000 to provide educational opportunities for children and adults in South and Central Asia. Co-founded by Habibullah Karimi and Christopher Walter, Barakat is funded primarily by profits from Walter’s private business, Yayla Tribal Rugs. According to the Barakat Web site, Karimi oversees rug production in six Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, and Walter’s shop imports the rugs, turning all profits over to the Barakat concern.

To date, the foundation has established seven elementary and secondary schools — three in Pakistan, two in Afghanistan and two in India — and 22 literacy programs for girls and women who cannot attend formal school in Afghanistan. Most of the schools begin at the nursery level, and all but one offer classes through the seventh grade.

As a program director for the foundation, Pandey said it would be her job to compile detailed assessments of the schools in India and Afghanistan, both in terms of infrastructure and curriculum, which she and the rest of Barakat directors and staff will use to map out the schools’ immediate future. She’ll also be taking stock of the foundations existing programs, and looking into opportunities for Barakat’s budding environmental programs.

“We’re at a point where we want to make improvements, and improve the quality of our education,” Pandey said.

In India, Pandey said one of the biggest challenges Barakat has encountered is the sheer number of children who need an education. Of course, the foundation can’t educate everyone it would like to, and its resources are such that they can only take on two siblings per family. Pandey said there’s also the caste system in India to consider, which makes it difficult for children coming from poor families to afford to attend even elementary school.

“I’d like to see if we can come up with a model of schooling that allows children who are so disadvantaged to succeed, to become literate, and to somehow help them in a very practical way to that they are earning their livelihoods beyond poverty and beyond literacy,” Pandey said. “We can do more.”

In Afghanistan, the prospect of educating young people bears an entirely different — and often more dangerous — set of challenges. Though the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan was broken in December 2001, its shadow still hangs heavy and low over Barakat’s efforts to educate, Pandey said. And it’s particularly true when it comes to women and girls.

The Taliban outlawed education for women in the 1990s, and more than six years later, Pandey said Barakat’s attempts to educate young and old women in Afghanistan have been met with Taliban opposition on more than one occasion. Only six weeks ago, a government official helping Barakat coordinate their efforts in the Faryab Province was shot to death by men Pandey is convinced were working for the Taliban.

“As it is, we’ve been extremely careful,” Pandey said. “We’re extremely low-profile in Afghanistan, so we’ve not been targeted so far. I don’t know what we’ll do when we go back to Afghanistan, but we’ll have to be even more careful.”

At last count, Pandey said there are approximately 2,100 students enrolled in the seven schools, 875 of which are girls. Another 700 women, she said, were enrolled in empowerment and literacy courses. Slowly but surely, progress is being made, despite radical opposition, population issues and political boundaries.

“I’m sure there are easier places in the world to work in,” Pandey said. “We don’t have too much of the mentality of ‘them and us.’ It’s not a distinction we make, really.”

Cambridge Chronicle