When I met Ehsan Ullah Ehsan, he had just received another "night letter," a death threat from the Taliban. A few days before, on his own doorstep, a neighhbour had been shot and killed by the Taliban for the crime of working for a government electricity agency. A few days after we met, six girls had acid sprayed in their faces as they walked to school.
I met Ehsan in a rambling old house behind high whitewashed walls down a dusty Kandahar City backstreet, a place Ehsan has transformed into a sanctuary of civility, learning and literature for Kandahari women. It’s roughly equal parts college, vocational school, computer lab, library, and free internet cafe. Since 2007, owing to Ehsan’s many Canadian friends and patrons, it’s been called the Canada Afghanistan Community Centre.
The centre is partly the result of Ehsan’s email-and-telephone friendship with Ryan Aldred, a Canadian Forces reservist and devoted philanthropist who has made Ehsan’s vision his own. The Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan organization pitched in, as did the Cadmus Foundation and others. The Canadian International Development Agency is helping, and now and then Ehsan gets some welcome donations of used computers and supplies from the Canadian-run Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar.
Ehsan is 38, the father of five young children, and one of 13 brothers and sisters from the village of Shagoy, in Zabul province, where his family had built a successful dried fruit business from its apricot trees and grape vineyards. It was all there for Ehsan’s taking. But he walked away from it to devote his life to what he calls the cause of civilization. “Enlightenment, you know? All that beauty.”
Ehsan opened his first school for Afghan refugees when he was 25 years old. He went on to open a network of schools in the Pakistani borderlands, in Helmand, Kunduz, and Chaman. In 2002, he decided to open a school here in Kandahar, the very heart of Taliban despotism, “because I thought there was an opportunity to serve.” From that school, the ACCC blossomed. A few months before I met Ehsan, 250 women had graduated from the ACCC with certificates in business, English, computer skills, and other fields.
Why does he risk his life for this?
“I want to make a change,” Ehsan said. “I value freedom. I value civilization. And I would like to have that. But for that I have to work. If I try and if a few more try, then our country, our own country, will be similarly at once free and beautiful and peaceful and modern and as civilized as any nation.
“If we have the same kind of country, it will come within us and by us, with the help, of course, of the international community. This can come from a kind of unity, a kind of relationship, through different kinds of connections. But I start to weep when I see people here, bad people. They don’t like what is good. . .”
And at this point in our conversation, Ehsan really did weep.
“Oh, I don’t know. It is very bad . . . there are people who are helpful to us, but here there are people who take it as a threat, and they don’t do anything for humanity, they don’t bring any prosperity, they don’t bring any development, they don’t bring any happiness. They bring blood, they bring sadness, they bring depression, they bring misery, and they still consider themselves superior over those human beings who help the people of God, when God has said, ‘help each other.’
“We must live in coexistence. We must live together. Today you are here, tomorrow you are in Canada and you are speaking to me from there, and writing an email. I do live in a village. I depend on you and you depend on me, as a human being.”