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From Kabul to a US campus

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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.

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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?"