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From Kabul to a US campus

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 2002


In the short term, freedom can be as simple as venturing outside at 11 p.m. for the very first time, or ordering pizza just the way they like it. But for five young Afghan women who started their studies in the United States this fall, freedom for their homeland encompasses long-term goals: peace, education, and equality, for starters.

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In exchange for their four-year scholarships, they have promised to return home to help transform Afghanistan – an effort they expect will take at least as long as the 23 years that the country was choked by war.

Looking at Masooda Mehdizada and Nadima Sahar, one would never guess that they had recently swung a tennis racket for the first time. What might set apart these Roger Williams University students is how they greet the president and his wife: with kisses on the cheeks. Roy and Paula Nirschel not only set up the scholarships, but have also acted as their American mom and dad from the day they arrived at New York's JFK Airport.

The pristine coastal campus in Bristol, R.I., offers a protective environment, but it is bravery – their own and their families' – that has brought the women this far.

During the Taliban's reign in Afghanistan, Ms. Sahar's father took her and her sisters to Pakistan so they could continue their education. Their mother, a lawyer, stayed in Kabul and made one or two visits a year.

Sahar recalls: "She said, 'I have other family – my country, my people. If I leave them, or the others like me leave them, there will be no one to help.' " Her mother was jailed and injured at various times for defying Taliban rules against women working. Ultimately, she joined the family in Pakistan, and they all returned to Kabul in October 2001, a few weeks before the Taliban's fall.

Sahar felt apprehensive about going home. "When I was a child, I used to hear the shouting of people for help, but no one would help them because everyone was afraid that if they helped them, they would themselves die." This time around, she says, things were "a little better."

Amazed to see the door to America opened

The 18-year-old wants to become a doctor. If the scholarship hadn't come her way, she would have headed to Kabul University – a place with low-paid professors and critical shortages of books and labs. When she found out she'd been chosen for a scholarship in the US, she says, "It was amazing for me.... I didn't know about here, and I had just seen this in films."

That, however, is more than Ms. Mehdizada had seen of the US. At 20 years old, she had never even been to a movie before she came here and saw "Spiderman" with a group of students.

Mehdizada, too, had moved to Pakistan after the Taliban took over, and the two women became good friends there. Her mother often apologized for not being able to provide the kind of education for her youngest daughter that the older children had received. So when news of a scholarship surfaced, she encouraged Mehdizada to apply.

Mehdizada had her doubts about the scholarship actually coming through. "There's many, many promises happened to our country, but nobody did it," she says in her still- developing English. But she applied because she dreamed of following in her late father's political footsteps. He was a senator, and she has set her sights on becoming president or prime minister.

During the first few weeks away from her mother, Mehdizada shed her share of tears. "Now I don't remember home, sometimes," she says with a bashful smile, "because I am very busy."

As it turns out, she need not have doubted that the scholarship would materialize, because the woman behind it was the tenacious Mrs. Nirschel. In the weeks after Sept. 11, Nirschel was seized by the images of Afghan women shrouded in burqas. "I had to get my hands on some of these women and help them get educated and bring their professionalism and their new feelings of self-worth back to their country," she says. "So I talked with my husband, and we decided that what we had to offer was the gift of education."