09.27.134:45 AM ET

Helping Kabul's Girls Study Abroad

An innovative program is quietly schooling and giving scholarships to Afghanistan's girls, hoping to cement the next generation's educational gains.

Farahnaz Afaq’s father, Atiqullah, had one dream for his children: education. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, he was the first in his family to attend school. After his father died and his mother and siblings fell into poverty, Atiqullah picked through dump sites for pencils and paper, which he would smooth out and use for notebooks, which his family could no longer afford. Atiqullah went to school only part-time as he had to take on whatever jobs he could to support his mother and siblings. But he did well academically, eventually attending Kabul University and graduating with a degree in pharmacy. Afaq’s mother, Marzia, had to stop her schooling completely after her own father died when she was a young girl. Marzia wed Atiqullah when she was only 13 because he promised her that she could go back to school. Marzia went on to graduate high school and attend a program to become a kindergarten teacher.

Marzia and Atiqullah have six children, including four daughters. Life was as good as could be until Afaq was three. Both Marzia and Atiqullah held down steady jobs, earning good incomes, and their oldest children all went to school. Afaq’s teenaged sisters were, in fact, even preparing for university. That is, until 1996, when Marzia was no longer allowed to teach and Atiqullah’s pharmacy in Kabul was taken over by someone allied to the Taliban. The Islamic fundamentalist group had declared war and imposed extremely harsh social conditions on the people, and particularly on females. Afaq’s sisters had to abandon their educations completely. But there was Afaq, who hadn’t even started school, another sister, Farima, just a few years older, and a brother, who all faced illiteracy without a chance at schooling. Atiqullah and Marzia felt they had no choice. They boarded up their Kabul home and packed clothes and a few bags of food. They fled to Iran. “My parents had struggled so much for educations for all of us,” says Afaq. “Everything they struggled for, they felt disappearing between their fingers.”

When the family reached Iran, tragedy struck again. “My mother took my brother and me by the hand to the school,” says the soft-spoken Afaq. “I didn’t understand everything that was said, but I remember my mother crying. ‘Why?’ I asked her. ‘I have something in my eye,’ she had replied, not wanting to tell me the truth. But I knew. I could tell. I still wasn’t going to this place called school.”

Iran wouldn’t allow them to go to school because they were viewed as illegal refugees. But the family couldn’t move again for another three years as they now faced the painful reality of having no money. Atiqullah worked night shifts at a factory to earn enough so that eventually, in the dead of night, the family could flee again, hitching rides in the backs of trucks and dodging Iranian patrol guards who would have arrested them if they were caught. When they reached Pakistan, the first thing Marzia and Atiqullah did, after finding a place to live, was enroll the children in school. “There were about 50 of us students jam packed into one small block cement classroom,” Afaq recalls. “We were so hot sometimes. But I loved it … hearing how the chalk moved on the board. When I talked to my friends, ran around outside on our breaks, I started enjoying my childhood for the first time.”

Afaq has come a long way. A few weeks ago, the lanky 20-year-old, who wears her stylish hijabs with skinny jeans and high-top running shoes, started college preparatory courses at Westover School in Middlebury Connecticut. She is taking history, chemistry and English classes and scouting universities and colleges in the United States to attend next year. Afaq is one of14 Afghan young women to be awarded scholarships in 2013 to study abroad through the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA) in Kabul, where another 40 girls are boarding or enrolled in day courses. SOLA was founded in 2008 by Afghan native Shabana Basij-Rasikh and American Ted Achilles, as one way to rebuild the education system that was virtually eliminated under the Taliban. “Afghanistan needs leaders, particularly women who can be role models in Afghan society,” says Basij-Rasikh.

While the near-term goal is to offer all courses in the Kabul facility, in the past SOLA has lacked the capacity to educate the girls full-time. As a result, the students go to regular Afghan schools for three hours each day, and return to SOLA to board and take enhanced courses as well as receive some leadership training. Those at the top of the class have been awarded scholarships to study overseas in England, the United States, Bangladesh, Canada and Jordan. Those who are unable to study abroad have gone on to the American University of Afghanistan. As of this fall, the 40 SOLA girls in Kabul will be receiving a three-tiered curriculum in English, math and science and a full extra-curricular schedule focusing on health, sport, volunteering, visiting cultural sites and the arts.

Under the Taliban’s rule, girls over the age of eight were not allowed to go to school. Teachers were dismissed as the Taliban began to change the curriculum to make it more conservative. The consequence is that today there are few institutions in Afghanistan offering educations up to the standard that most Western universities and colleges would recognize. SOLA hopes to be a forerunner to change this, hoping to eventually offer courses that are recognized by a global program, like the International Baccalaureate. Furthermore, SOLA hopes that Western students will do year-long exchanges in Kabul, to experience Afghan life.

Afaq is one of the 35 young women over the past five years who have studied abroad with SOLA. It has been a long journey for her. When she was nine, she and her family returned to Afghanistan. Remembering very little from the time she left, she was shocked at the Afghanistan she saw. “My father would describe to me Afghanistan as being green, full of flowers and trees, colors, old buildings, history, culture. When we drove into the city in the truck, with all our possessions piled high in the back, a terror grew up inside of me. I had been lied to! Everything was dust and brown, broken and destroyed. There were burnt guns and cars littering the road.”


The first school Afaq attended in Afghanistan was outside, with her desk being the dusty ground. In 2010, Atiqullah, who had heard about SOLA through Farima, took Afaq to meet Basij-Rasikh. For a year and a half, Afaq supplemented her day studies with courses at SOLA. “Every day I walked out my door to go to school, I would say, ‘Ash-hadu an La illa Allah wa Ash-hadu an Muhammadun rasul-Allah.'” (The greatest fear Muslims have is to die as a non-Muslim. Saying the above: “I bear witness there is no god except Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger,” is one way to validate one's faith close to death). “The Taliban could be anywhere,” she says. “Anywhere people go together in crowds there was the fear that someone would walk into the middle with a bomb attached to their body. Every day I went to school, some man or boy on the street would call me a dirty name.”

SOLA co-founder Basij-Rasikh understands Farahnaz’s fear well. SOLA has kept a low profile in Kabul, not even posting a sign outside announcing their presence. She says that while most Afghans would accept such a school, there are still factions that wouldn’t. Basij-Rasikh remained in Afghanistan with her family during the Taliban rule, which ended with the U.S. invasion in 2001, and was forced to go to underground schools. “The students would arrive and leave at different times to not arouse anyone’s suspicion,” she says. “There were weeks when school was canceled because we feared we had been discovered and we would all bombed.”

Basij-Rasikh was part of a high school government exchange program run by retired philanthropist Achilles. This program saw Afghan youth attend schools across the United States. But at the end of their year in the United States, the majority of the students abandoned their educations, as there was no plan in place for them to bolster their studies. “I was the top student in the best school in Afghanistan,” says Basij-Rasikh. “I was overly confident about my education. But when I went to the United States my Afghan education didn’t prepare me well internationally. It was a real challenge.”

Basij-Rasikh says that she lacked a foundation in math and science. She had no critical thinking skills. “I wanted to create a program that would better prepare Afghan students on the international field,” she says. “There are lots of Americans who want scholarships and would be prepared. If these scholarships are going to Afghan students, I wanted our students to make the most of the opportunity.”

Achilles and Basij-Rasikh built SOLA out of the ashes of the first program, creating a model that involves long-term educational and vocational mentorship so the young women gain the confidence to take on key leadership positions in Afghanistan. While Achilles’ first program was co-ed, SOLA, for the time being, only targets females. “When we started, we could only do one thing at a time, and there was and still is a greater need to educate girls, as there are less resources for them,” says Rian Smith, SOLA’s executive director. “SOLA’s near-term goal is to become an accredited four-year, world-class, international college-preparatory boarding school in Kabul with 350 girls ... from all provinces in Afghanistan, as well as other countries in the region.”

One of SOLA's first students, Yagana, is currently completing her senior year in international relations and political science at Russell Sage College in New York. She is already scouting and speaking to US law schools to continue her studies next year. Her long-term goal is to become the first Afghan female ambassador to the United States. "I believe women can play an important role in diplomacy," she says. "It's important to show both Afghan people and Americans what Afghan women are really like."

The advancement of woman and girls has been identified by many as one of the key components to eradicating some of the most pressing global issues, including child and maternal mortality, poverty and diseases such as HIV/AIDS. When girls are educated, they are less likely to marry young, be trafficked for their labor or sex, or enter abusive relationships—and they’re more likely to have fewer children and prioritize the entire family’s health and educational needs. According to the US Agency for International Development, with a 10 percent rise in girls' school graduation rates, a country’s GDP increases by three per cent on average.

While foreign troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014 and many media reports are dire for the future of the progresses made in the country, Basij-Rasikh is optimistic. “About 70 percent of the population are under the age of 25,” she says. “These young people want to keep the country progressing.”

One of those young people is Maryam Fookor, a 14-year-old SOLA freshman at Loomis Chaffee School in Connecticut. She aims to return to Afghanistan as a much-needed female doctor, for under Taliban rule, women’s access to health services was severely restricted. Numerous preventable deaths, such as in childbirth or from treatable illnesses occurred and, due to lack of educational opportunities, there are few female doctors in Afghanistan today. In a speech she gave when she won a public speaking contest from Loomis Chaffee School, Maryam, who has always excelled in the sciences, said: “My father always said to me—my daughter, never learn for yourself. Learn and share. I am here [in the United States] to learn and share.”

While SOLA's young women are certainly outstanding, they have become so because of the common thread that runs through all their lives: they have fathers, like Maryam’s, who support their daughters' educations and eventual careers. Atiqullah himself couldn’t be prouder of Afaq, who returned to Afghanistan this summer, sporting a slight tinge of an English accent, Western clothing, and experiences including swimming in a burkini. Did he mind? Afaq laughs. “He was the one who brought me to SOLA. I am here because of his help. If a girl in Afghanistan reaches a good position, such as high up in university, it’s all because of the father’s support. ‘If you are my daughter, you have to do it,’ he told me when SOLA approached me about moving to England. ‘You have to change Afghanistan.’”