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.

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.

One Afghan student who started with them four years ago, Masooda Mehdizada, dropped out after a year because of the emotional strain of being away from her widowed mother. (She and Sahar were the subjects of a Monitor article, "From Kabul to a US campus," on Oct. 22, 2002.) The others credit Mrs. Nirschel - "our American mom" - for always being available to talk.

On winter breaks, all the women in the initiative get together with Nirschel for a week-long trip - one year it was to Washington, D.C. - and a highlight is always the opportunity to cook their own foods. (At school, the cafeteria warns them about pork, which observant Muslims don't eat.)

The young women at Roger Williams chose not to wear head scarves every day, because it might attract stares rather than deflect male attention as intended. But Sahar's initial fear that people at home might be upset with them for studying in the US hasn't come to pass. "People's attitudes have changed a lot. They're getting to learn more about the United States," she says. "We haven't changed our traditions, our culture, and our identity. People back home see that we are the same people but just have grown intellectually."

A lot of that growth took place in the library - "just like a second home," Kohistani jokes as they walk there to have their picture taken, teasing each other in Dari, a Farsi dialect. The three have a reputation for staying at the library until it closes at 2 a.m. Their work ethic has earned them a long list of academic honors.

But they're leaving their mark on the campus in other ways, too. Babrakzai started a Muslim Student Association last fall, not just to bring together Muslim students from countries such as Morocco and India, but also "to establish a base for others so they can learn about our culture, our religion. What they've been seeing on TV is not always true," she says. During the Muslim cartoon controversy, the group brought an Imam to give a talk in the library and attracted a standing-room-only crowd.

Linda Newcity, an assistant professor of legal studies, remembers Sahar as a bit hesitant and shy in an introductory course, but she's since transformed into an award-winning member of the mock trial team. A photo above Ms. Newcity's desk shows Sahar and her teammates clustered around the first-place trophy from a competition in December. "The other students really seem to respect and admire her.... It's like that EF Hutton commercial: Nadima speaks and everybody listens," she says with a laugh.

Sahar also won an art award for a charcoal drawing depicting the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Under the Taliban, music and art weren't allowed. At Roger Williams, Sahar signed up as fast as she could for an art course. "In my freshman year, I think that was the best experience I ever had. I was really interested in art, but I never had the opportunity to experience it," she says.

Now, with countless experiences to draw upon, the women can barely believe that graduation day is upon them. "It's a dream coming true," Kohistani says. "Not only our own dream, but our families' dream, our country's dream."

In the next few months they'll find out about various options for graduate school in the US or jobs in Afghanistan. Despite the continued hardships there, the three are optimistic that there will finally be peace. Whatever happens, it's hard to imagine any graduates being more appreciative of their college experience.

"Education is such a gift," Babrakzai says, deep emotion surfacing on her face. "Once you have it, nobody can take it away from you - no matter if there is a war ... no matter what.... And being women in the country, we have great assets within ourselves, and we are assets for the future."

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