Reader’s story: ‘My daughters and I are safe in Sweden, but I still think of Afghanistan’

Watching from afar as the Taliban retook Afghanistan brought back terrible memories, writes one of The Local's readers.

Reader's story: 'My daughters and I are safe in Sweden, but I still think of Afghanistan'
A social worker address Afghan women gathered at a hall in Kabul on August 2nd. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

One day some 20 years ago I woke up with a gut-wrenching pain in my stomach. A big knot would build up in my belly and whirl up towards my throat and before it resolved another one would follow.

I silently moaned in pain. Every time a scream would build up, I would suppress it adding to the already congested throat of mine. My eyes were fixed on the door waiting for my husband to come home, so he could take me to the hospital. I was 19 years old! I was scared! I was pregnant!

My name is Shekiba Khan and in the Taliban’s Afghanistan I had ceased to exist.

The Taliban during their five-year-long occupation of my city, Kabul, had a long list of rules dictating how people lived their lives.

Playing music, listening to music and possessing music was banned and harshly punishable by law.

Speaking your mind was considering a rebellious act and was punishable by death. The education system was tailored to glorify their own brand of radicalism, promoting the killing of non-believers, and indoctrination of children from the age of six was a harsh reality. In textbooks, illustrations of bananas and pears were replaced by guns and grenades.

Every Friday people were forced to gather in the city’s football stadium to watch the chopping of hands or public executions. These rules and a thousand other barbaric in nature were only for men, women simply were not allowed to exist.

As a woman I was not allowed to go out without a male companion, even if it was to give birth to a baby. In between my painful contractions I would look at my belly and pity the destiny the daughter I was giving birth to was going to have in this hell.

My husband came. I gave birth and we named her Bahar, which in Persian means “the spring”, in the hope that her birth would bring a new sun into our dark lives.

I brought Bahar to Sweden where she would not have to endure what I had had.

In Sweden I am often asked to describe how my life and my daughters’ lives have changed. It is an unfair question. It is not as if we are comparing apples and oranges.

In Sweden, Bahar once doomed to a miserable life simply because she was a girl, has flourished into an intelligent firebrand feminist. She is in her second year of medical faculty with ambitions of becoming a Thorax Surgeon.

I have acquired myself an education from scratch all the way to becoming a pre-school teacher. Marjan my youngest daughter, born in Sweden and now at the age of 13, is writing a book on the impacts of our changing environment, whereas the only wish back under the Taliban’s Afghanistan I had was to be as free as the stray cats and dogs of our alley who I often sneaked a peek at from the corner of our window and envied their freedom.

Life in Sweden is safe and comfortable. I am a contributing member of society with full rights. In fact, for the first time in my life I voted to choose the government of Sweden in the last election. It was a sensational feeling to see how my vote could form the future of a nation. I felt human.

I don’t know how my children feel, but I am not happy nevertheless. I am not happy because the scares of my past are still very visible in every fibre of my being.

I always have flashbacks and nightmares of ending up again in the hell I escaped from. Every freedom act I commit here feels as if it is the last act I am performing. My nightmare turned real last week. After 20 years the Taliban came back to my city, and I had the same pain in my stomach. A big knot built up in my belly and whirled up towards my throat and before it resolved another one followed. This time only more intense and only more painful.

There is a knot in my stomach for all the other girls who still envy cats and dogs and bird who are free but as of Sunday they are not any more.

Shekiba is a mother-of-three living in Stockholm, Sweden, and she is a preschool teacher. 

Member comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, what a wonderful and brave mother and woman you are. I am so sad and for these girls and women in Afghanistan.

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What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Most foreign parents in Sweden told The Local's survey they take advantage of the country's school choice system and send their children to international schools, or to private or non-profit free schools. Here's what they think of the quality of teaching.

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Our survey was not scientific, but out of the 157 people who responded before we closed it, 65 (41 percent) sent their child or children to a standard municipally-run school which did not offer an international programme as part of their teaching. More than a third (34 percent) sent their child to an international school offering the International Baccalaureate diploma (which could be municipal, private, or non-profit).

Almost a quarter (39 respondents, 24.4 percent) sent their children to a profit-making free school. And almost a fifth (29 respondents, 18 percent) sent their child or children to a free school run by a non-profit organisation.

The survey was carried out as part of The Local’s investigation into schools in Sweden. We’ve previously published interviews with foreign teachers at the IES (Internationella Engelska Skolan, International English School) free school chain herehere, and here, and are now looking into other schools as well.

Since the “free school reform” in 1992, private and non-profit companies have been able to run schools in Sweden, with the state paying them for each pupil educated. 

The system has come under growing criticism over the past ten years.

This has partly been due to a decline in the performance of Swedish pupils compared to those of other countries in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The system of school choice has been blamed for increasing segregation. 

In the run-up to September’s election, schools are likely to be one of the big issues. 

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson looks set to campaign on a pledge to ban free schools – dismissed as marknadsskolan, “schools driven by market forces” – from siphoning off profits. 

“The school system we have in Sweden today, which is unique in the world and no other country has chosen to imitate, is a system which essentially drives increased segregation,” she said in an interview in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper at the end of last month. 

“Researchers are pretty much unanimous about that. Pupils with the worst prospects are collected together in one school and those with better prospects in another.”  

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of the centre-left Social Democrat party. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Swedish schools too slow 

The most common complaint from parents who answered the survey was that the pace of education at municipality-run schools was too slow, and the level of academic demands placed on their children too low. 

“[It’s] very slow-paced,” complained a US mother living in Uppsala. [The] education is several years behind grade level in the US.” 

Mangla Sekhri, an Indian mother and IT director based in Stockholm, said she had pulled her children out of the local municipality school after a year and moved them to a school run by the IES chain.

“[I] just couldn’t continue due to [the] slow pace there. It was very slow, but now at IES things are much better-paced.” 


“The only thing which bothers me is lower expectations on the kids, compared to Poland where we come from,” said a Polish respondent. 

“She’s ahead of the other children because she’d already finished two years of school in Guernsey. They don’t give her learning materials of a high enough level without us asking them to,” complained a father from the British Isles. 

Better integration at municipal schools 

For those who had chosen to send their children to a standard, municipality-run school, the big attraction was better integration, both in Sweden and in their local neighbourhood. 

“Their peers and friends at the school are generally their neighbours as well, [so it’s] easy to hang out with school friends,” said an American living on Sweden’s northwest coast, whose four children all went through the local municipal school. 

“My now eight-year-old daughter learned Swedish within months. One year on, she’s completely fluent. She has also made many Swedish friends and has playdates several days a week,” said a British father living in Gävle. 

“If you are an immigrant and planning to settle down in Sweden then municipal schools are good options for your child to learn Swedish quickly,” agreed a dad from Bangladesh, living in Malmö. 

More flexibility and better discipline at private schools

Many of those who had chosen to send their children to a privately-run free school seemed to prize the additional flexibility and better discipline they offered. 

“My child was already three years ahead academically and was very bored in lessons (had already learned everything in maths and science in the UK), so IES let him attend higher years group classes in these subjects,” reported an English respondent living in the middle of Sweden. 

“Free schools have stricter discipline and they focus more on studies,” said a mother from Sri Lanka whose child went to a school run by the Kunskapskolan chain. 

“I like the discipline and all the support that teachers give to the students,” said a mother whose child goes to a school run by IES. 

A parent whose child went to a school run by the AcadeMedia chain, said they were drawn by the additional subjects, such as music and theatre, on offer. 

Better possibilities to study internationally and move schools if posted elsewhere

Those who chose to send their children to schools running the International Baccalaureate programme did so either because they liked the programme’s more demanding curriculum or because they were only on a short or medium-term posting to Sweden and wanted to make it easier for their children to shift their education to a new country. 

One parent, whose child went to the British International School of Stockholm, cited the “ease of transferring to a new school when moving to a new country”, and “exposure to different cultures and points of view” as advantages. 

“I love the IB. It’s one of the best but also most challenging educational systems in the world and this is widely recognised,” said one parent, whose child goes to the international school run by the Bladins Foundation in Malmö.

“Here in Malmö, the big risk is that there are no options for the final years outside the one school. If your child doesn’t achieve the academic standard required, then you are screwed.” 

Who was happiest with their choice of school? 

There was little variation in parent satisfaction between those who sent their children to a municipal, private or international school. 

The parents who sent their children to standard municipal schools rated their school on average at 7.7 out of 10. Those who sent their children to a privately run free school rated their school at 8.2, while those who sent their children to a school run by a non-profit organisation rated their children’s school the highest at 8.6. 

Those whose children went to a school running the International Baccalaureate programme rated the school on average at 8.3. 

There was slightly more variation between types of schools when parents broke down their ratings, with standard municipal schools falling further behind on the level of discipline parents perceived at their children’s schools, and also on the quality of extra-curricular activities.

  Overall Teaching Happiness of child Discipline Extra-curricular
Standard municipal 7.7 7.4 8.3 7.1 6.6
For-profit 8.2 8 8.5 7.9 7.4
Non-profit 8.6 8.6 9 8.5 7.1
International school 8.25 8.2 8.8 8 7.3

Which individual schools/chains came out tops? 

The schools which won the highest approval rating tended to be the international schools run by non-profit foundations, such as British International School Stockholm, Bladins International in Malmö, The English School Gothenburg, Sigtunaskolan, and Stockholm International School (although note that there were only one to three respondents for each of these schools). 

When it came to the for-profit free school chains, there was more variation, with some parents loving their children’s schools and others disappointed. 

Four parents sending their children to the IES chain gave the school ten out of ten, but two IES parents gave their school four or five out of ten. It was a similar story with the Kunskapskolan chain, where one parent gave an eight, another a four.

“The best thing about my child’s school is how respectful the children are towards each other,” send one parent who sent her child to an IES school. “There is a culture of the children being kind and supportive of each other. The teachers have all been amazing, and it’s been really interesting for my child to meet teachers from a huge variety of different countries.” 

Several IES parents also praised how well organised their child’s school was, with high standards of cleanliness and discipline. 

“I chose IES because the school inculcates the right values that I would like my children to have – discipline, respect for teachers, diligence in studying, academic excellence,” one wrote. 

“The staff seem genuinely interested in our concerns. The kids enjoy being there and enjoy learning,” wrote another. 

On the negative side, one noted that “teachers are not paid as well as [at] public schools”, another that “teachers are very often changing”, and another that “no proper curriculum [had been] followed”. 

In general, the most dissatisfied parents had children at municipal schools, perhaps because they were less likely to have actively chosen them. Ten respondents gave their municipality-run school a four or five overall. 

“[There is] nothing to do in their free time and an extremely low level of teaching,” complained one parent, while another complained of “incompetent staff with a lack of social-emotional intelligence”, and another of “extremely large classes”. 

“I’m not entirely sure of the quality of the education,” wrote one Irish parent. “At least one of the teachers seems to think the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK.” 

A particular complaint about municipal schools was the way teachers seemed unwilling to use imaginative and engaging teaching methods. “Some teachers are not able to engage the class with interesting teaching methods,” complained an Australian father. 

Given the level of variation in answers to The Local’s questionnaire between both the best and worst municipality-run schools and the best and worst schools run by the free school chains, it is clearly important to talk to local parents about which school in your area of Sweden seems best.