Restoring Afghan education, one chair at a time

Skeptics who doubt that one person can bring about widespread change in a society haven't met Maliha Zulfacar.

As a child growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the 1950s and '60s, Ms. Zulfacar, the daughter of a diplomat, received a privileged education. At 17, she became the first Afghan woman to attend college in the United States.

Later, she taught sociology at Kabul University until the Russian occupation in 1979 forced her to flee. She and her two children eventually settled in San Luis Obispo, Calif., where she teaches ethnic studies at California Polytechnic State University.

Now, 23 years later, Zulfacar is determined to rebuild schools and universities in her war-torn land, where more than 70 percent of people are illiterate. She recently accepted a post as a liaison between the Ministry of Education and educational institutions around the world.

"One generation of Afghans did not have the opportunity to become educated because of continuous war," Zulfacar said during an interview last week at Harvard University, where she was attending a conference of an international group, Women Waging Peace.

Compounding Afghanistan's challenges is a decades-long "brain drain." Since conflicts began 25 years ago, the best-educated Afghans have fled. And when the Taliban took over, they forbade women to work. At the time, 70 percent of teachers were women, so schools emptied out.

The magnitude of Zulfacar's task became apparent when she traveled to Kabul last spring. One elementary school she visited resembles a ghostly shell. Its roof, windows, and doors are gone. So are blackboards and desks. Students must sit on the ground, awkwardly balancing papers as they try to write.

Zulfacar captured that bleak scene on videotape for a documentary. When she asked teachers what they most needed, they replied - chairs. The 1,600 students attend in two shifts, meaning the school needs 800 chairs.

Another day, during a visit to Kabul University, Zulfacar picked up several books in the library. Even the most recently published dated back to 1979. Her video camera rolled again, recording the university's impoverished state.

Back home in California, Zulfacar showed her film to students and faculty at Cal Poly. Then she began a sponsor-a-chair campaign for the Kabul school. Each $10 donation buys a chair. So far, she has funded 200 chairs.

In June, she also launched a book drive for the Kabul University library. Cal Poly students and faculty collected 400 boxes of textbooks in engineering, biology, and chemistry. The Asia Foundation in San Francisco shipped them to Kabul.

But Zulfacar isn't stopping there. A colleague, Susan Currier, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Cal Poly, is raising funds to build a child-care center at Kabul University. Her goal is $13,500. The center will make it possible for women to return to the university as students, faculty, and staff.

Zulfacar sees a "dire need" for educated Afghans, particularly women, to help in rebuilding the country. If 300 Afghans could receive scholarships to American colleges and universities, she says, that would assure the political stability of Afghanistan in the long run. Those chosen to study here would promise to return to Afghanistan and enter public service.

Nothing about Zulfacar's plan is theoretical or timid. Her soft-spoken manner gives little hint of her roll-up-your-sleeves, there's-no-time-to-waste determination.

She is also going global. In speeches around the world these days, she is encouraging universities to join in rebuilding Afghanistan's educational system.

"Her vision is to get projects going everywhere at all these universities," Dr. Currier says. "It's not modest. But modest probably would not work." She calls Zulfacar "an inspiration to people."

Is Zulfacar concerned that as war in Iraq looms ominously, Afghanistan will become last year's problem, increasingly invisible? "I'm fearful of that, but I hope not," she says. "The Afghan people were ignored for many years, and we can't afford to abandon them again."

Some of Zulfacar's projects are already bearing fruit. This week, Cal Poly faculty and staff are organizing a fundraiser for the child-care center. And on Nov. 19, Zulfacar will speak at the public library in San Luis Obispo to gain support for her fund-a-chair campaign.

Students have also stitched a large quilt to donate to Kabul University and a smaller quilt for the child-care center. These serve as symbols of what Zulfacar calls "solidarity and connectedness" between the two countries.

Afghans are not the only beneficiaries of these efforts.

"It helps my American students to see how privileged they are, how much opportunity is available to them, and how much there is to be done in the world," Zulfacar says. "And for ordinary Afghans and students, I want them to know that there are people around the world who think about them and are doing everything possible to reach them."

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