Back to Kabul with diplomas
A US-based scholarship program for Afghan women graduates its first students.
Nadima Sahar wanted to be a doctor when she first ventured from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Bristol, R.I., to attend college. But for some time now, she's cherished a new aspiration: "I wish to use my education when I go back home and influence policies by becoming the first female president of my country," she says with unflappable poise, seated on a couch at the president's house at Roger Williams University.Skip to next paragraph
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Her friend Mahbooba Babrakzai aims to be finance minister - that is, she adds playfully, if she loses the race for president to Ms. Sahar. And the third member of their sisterly trio, Arezo Kohistani, hopes to answer to the title of ambassador someday.
Having grown up when the Taliban regime prohibited women's presence in schools, let alone in government, they have no intention of waiting for another generation to show that women can fill any role they set their minds to.
On May 20, they'll be among the graduates listening to first lady Laura Bush deliver the commencement address at Roger Williams. A supporter of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, Mrs. Bush will celebrate these pioneers - some of the first to complete four-year scholarships offered through the initiative. Launched in 2002 by Paula Nirschel, wife of Roger Williams's President Roy Nirschel, it has grown to include 10 American colleges that will sponsor 30 scholars next year.
"We are all extremely committed to returning to Afghanistan, because we want to make sure that the next generation won't face the same problems, such as lack of education and not feeling secure enough," says Sahar, whose family split up for a number of years so that she, like many other girls, could continue her schooling in Pakistan during the Taliban's reign. Families who could not leave but were still devoted to educating their daughters were sometimes able to do so in underground schools in Afghanistan.
Scholarship candidates are screened, interviewed, and tested for English proficiency. They represent a cross section of Afghan families, but could generally be considered middle-class. They're also chosen based on their commitment to return to Afghanistan, a requirement of the program. Each summer, the students reunite with their families and work to develop the country.
Sahar spent one summer with International Medical Corps, a humanitarian group. Ms. Kohistani worked with a nongovernmental agency arranging small loans. Back at school, the business management major wrote research papers on microfinance in Afghanistan. One was so good that her professor asked her to present it at a conference in Puerto Rico. "If God wants, maybe one day I'll have my own NGO or my own business providing microfinance," Sahar says.
Ms. Babrakzai, a financial services major, helped a woman in Kabul win a grant to start a clothing business. "In Afghanistan, we don't have women selling anything, and it's hard for women who are not comfortable buying from men. That [new business] was a big step," she says.
Mrs. Nirschel visits Kabul each summer, and as she and the young women stroll down a street where colorful handicrafts are for sale, they wish more people could see all the rebuilding of homes and schools. She also hosts a party for all the students and their families. "What's really nice is that it's different ethnic groups in the same room.... The girls have broken down those barriers," she says.
Those summers in Afghanistan, along with daily prayers, have kept Babrakzai going. "The hardest part of the experience was being away from family ... and the pressure of the studies," she says.