War in Afghanistan

Afghan students inspire Lingnan academic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 November, 2008, 12:00am

A profound teaching experience in a Kabul university has prompted a local professor to set up a scholarship for Afghan students to study in Hong Kong.

Peter Baehr, Lingnan University's chair professor of social theory and head of the sociology and social policy department, spent five weeks teaching political science courses in the American University of Afghanistan last summer.

'I supported the American ousting of the Taliban,' he said. 'It made sense for me to go to Kabul and try to make some contribution, however small, as an academic.'

Modelled after US-supported universities in the Middle East like the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo, the institution in Kabul was set up two years ago and is the only private, non-profit university without any sectarian affiliations in the war-ravaged country.

The university has around 400 students, of whom a third are female. Professor Baehr said the students had overcome extraordinary difficulties to pursue higher learning.

'The situation has grown worse since I left in late July,' he said.

'The violence has increased as the Taliban has become more powerful. Though I did not witness any violence during my stay there and the university has not yet been attacked, armed guards patrol the campus.

'My students were all Afghans. Some of them were refugees in Iran or Pakistan who came back only after the Taliban were defeated in December in 2001. The university provides educational opportunities for a lost generation who were displaced from their own country because of war.'

Recalling the traumatic experience of one of his students who was injured on his way to school, Professor Baehr said he was impressed by the students' stoicism and fortitude.

'A student of mine who is in his early 30s was injured in a Taliban attack in Kabul. A roadside bomb exploded and threw him out of his car. He told me that this had only made him more determined to go back to university and continue his studies,' he said.

The new scholarship is intended to give Afghan students a broader perspective of the world.

The cost of their studies will be paid by Liu Lit Mo Overseas Student Scholarship, which gives subsidies worth HK$110,000 a year to overseas students taking a degree programme at Lingnan.

William Lee Keng-mun, Lingnan's associate vice-president for academic affairs, said one or two Afghan students would be awarded the scholarship.

'I will fly to Kabul with Professor Baehr early next year to pick the students,' he said.

'They can choose to study whatever major on offer at Lingnan.'

Professor Baehr said the scholarship would provide them with new experiences.

'I will look for students who are open, critical and adaptable,' he said.

Due to their Islamic upbringing and the heavy historical baggage carried by their country, Professor Baehr said the students he came across held strong views about the world.

'They are bright and smart, but dogmatic. For instance, students hold strong views about Israel, views that are often based on little or distorted information,' Professor Baehr said. 'Like Lingnan, the American University of Afghanistan is a liberal arts college which encourages questioning ... I was there not to convince the students of anything ... I saw my job as providing students with facts and perspectives which do not fit neatly into their pre-conceived ideas.'