Alone in the Middle of Everyone

The first time I met Saleha and Mojgan, I was enchanted and troubled. It is rare to meet young Afghan women traveling alone, without a male protector as is the custom in the Afghan culture. These two girls, ages 21 and 16 respectively, spoke some English, although it was hard to gauge how much because they were too shy to say much to me. Although now sharing the tiny cramped room of their brother, already a student at Roshan Learning Center in Jakarta, Indonesia, they had traveled here from Afghanistan alone and they remain essentially alone.

They are lovely young women, and after more efforts to draw them out, I could tell they were also passionate. They are leaking at the seams with grief and quiet anger and a combination of despair laced with hope. They came here because their widowed mother could no longer support them in addition to their younger brother. Their mother had received financial help from the girls’ uncle, who suddenly passed away, leaving them not only heartbroken but also broke.

And so Saleha and Mojgan made the perilous journey to Indonesia to join their other brother Zafar, in the hopes that he could support them. As an asylum seeker, Zafar is not legally allowed to work here and has no financial sponsor. Just 20-years old, he works under the table at a local non-profit as an “office boy” to scrape by enough money for food and rent. Needless to say, he has nothing to offer the girls financially, nor does he have much to offer them socially, as he is also a student at Roshan.

Despite our best efforts, Saleha and Mojgan may not be able to enroll at the learning center for quite some time. (Roshan has a waiting list, due to the lack of other educational opportunities for refugees in Jakarta, especially educational programs with native English- and Indonesian-speaking teachers. We stopped the waiting list at 85, which is more than the 75 we currently serve–the most we can fit in our four classrooms.) The girls, who enjoy sewing and biology, are unable to pursue their interests here in Jakarta, so instead they sleep, eat and above all else wait.

As Saleha and Mojgan wait, they make batches of bread out of cheap flour, which they eat and eat, and then they sleep some more. They miss their mother constantly and aside from each other are lonely — an affliction with short and long-term health implications. Social isolation is more dangerous to one’s health than obesity; it increases heart disease, depression and the chances of premature death by 14 percent. It’s a critical and growing public health concern in countries where therapies are an option, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, the University of Utah, and elsewhere.

Creating caring communities has long been at the core of high-quality early childhood programs in particular, as developmental specialists repeatedly show that young children are rarely able to absorb new cognitive content when they are emotionally out of sorts. Indeed, lack of positive social experiences early in life can have lifelong effects: “The absence of positive social interactions in childhood is linked to negative consequences later in life, such as withdrawal, loneliness, depression, and feelings of anxiety…grade retention, school dropout, and mental health and behavior problems,” wrote Michaelene Ostrosky and Hedda Maedan in an NAEYC article in 2010.

Loneliness is an especially critical problem among refugees who are displaced from their communities and family support–unable to go home, yet also unable to integrate due to their transitional circumstances. This a population without access to therapy and with few opportunities to create supportive, caring communities or integrate into the society around them, wherever it may be. A British organization called The Forum published research on refugees’ experiences citing that 58 percent of refugees living not in Jakarta but in London named isolation and loneliness as their single biggest challenge.

At Roshan Learning Center, we are doing our best to make that transitional circumstance as transformational as possible. While teaching language and academics is at the core of what we do, we strongly feel that a space for community — shared common ground for those in-between their homelands and where their next home might be — is equally crucial. That’s one of the lessons we have absorbed through our daily classes at Roshan. Through our community of learning, we have created a community of belonging and a shared dialogue beyond just the English and math lessons in class.