From Kabul to a US campus

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

They sent off letters to all the college and university presidents in the US – about 4,000 of them – in the hopes that other schools would join them. Many have taken a wait-and-see approach, Mr. Nirschel says, but Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, and the University of Montana in Missoula have signed on.

Mrs. Nirschel spent months calling and e-mailing late into the night, and eventually coordinated the US State Department, the University of Kabul, and officials in the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai so that scholarship applicants could be screened. Ultimately, Roger Williams offered three scholarships, and the other schools are each hosting one student. A sixth winner's family insisted she stay in Afghanistan and marry, Mrs. Nirschel says.

The other five traveled by bus and plane for about 60 hours to get here in late August. They didn't eat during the trip because they were concerned the food offered to them might contain pork, which their Islamic faith prohibits them from eating. After the Nirschels picked the students up at the airport, they made a stop at McDonald's and finally broke their fast with French fries.

All the new cultural experiences, they say, won't conflict with their religious practices. "We just changed our place; we didn't change our mind," Mehdizada declares.

The Nirschels took them shopping for prayer mats, and they spend time reading the Koran and talking about their faith with other Muslim students. "Sometimes when I am not following [Islam's rules] – because we do make mistakes – I really feel bad," Mehdizada says. "But then I say, God, forgive me, because You know I am a human being, and You are so powerful."

The image that stands out to most Americans – women covered head to toe in burqas – was based on "a rule the Taliban made themselves.... They used the name of Afghan or Islam [to justify their actions]," Sahar says.

Many women still wear burqas, though, and Mehdizada says she rarely left the house during the months she was back in Kabul. One day she covered herself to go out with her cousin. "I couldn't walk and I couldn't see," she says, laughing as she mimics herstruggle to eat a spoonful of ice cream with her face covered.

The headscarf known as a hijab, on the other hand, does not get in the way of activities, they say. On campus, they've chosen to wear hijabs only for certain occasions.

What the two friends disagree on is wearing shorts. "If I wear shorts it does not really matter to me, because my inside will not be changed," Sahar says. But Mehdizada jokes, "If I wear shorts, my brother will shoot me."

Determined to help their homeland

The women will maintain ties with Afghanistan by returning there each summer, but Mrs. Nirschel says they sometimes worry that when they go back permanently, people may see them as traitors or bad candidates for marriage because they have lived in a liberal society. She hopes more universities will offer scholarships so the pioneers won't feel isolated.

For now, studying and socializing are on their minds, and they are happily blending in among the 3,000 students, especially fellow foreign students from about 30 countries. Because people on campus have been so kind, Mehdizada says, "I feel like they are my people."

Their courses range from advanced composition to history – a class that's exposing them to information far beyond the Afghan history they have learned so far.

On the advice of her brother, Mehdizada plans to study international business. But she hasn't lost sight of her goal: "Maybe after 15 years, I will be president or prime minister.... I can work as an accountant in government, because I find myself very honest. I wouldn't do anything wrong with my economy," she says.

If the women are nervous about what it will be like to return to Afghanistan, they don't show it. Instead, they say they expect to make good friends here and to come back for vacations. "We are the new generation," Sahar says. "If we don't go there, who will rebuild Afghanistan?"

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