Out of the darkness
Afghan women pursue education in U.S.
BRISTOL, Rhode Island (CNN) -- A year ago, she'd be unrecognizable -- shielded by her burka, pressured into silence, discouraged from venturing out, barred from attending school.
"Since the Taliban came to Afghanistan, everything was dark," Masooda Mehdizada said. "The life of the people, the style of life, the clothes, the education -- everything was dark."
Today, Mehdizada is full of hope. The 20-year-old from the northern Afghan city of Konduz is not only free from her burka, but also free to pursue her education.
She is one of five Afghan women who will attend U.S. colleges this year as part of a scholarship program spearheaded by Paula Nirschel, the wife of Roy Nirschel, president of Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island.
Mehdizada and Mahbuba Babrakzai, an 18-year-old from the eastern Afghan town of Khowst, made a three-day, 7,000-mile journey late last month to Roger Williams University in the seaside town of Bristol, Rhode Island.
Three other scholarship recipients -- Sousan Rahimi at the University of Montana in Missoula, Nadima Sahar at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and Forozan Farhat at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio -- recently began classes at their new schools. The University of Southern Oregon, in Ashland, also has offered a spot in its freshman class to a yet-to-be chosen Afghan student.
The women's interests are diverse: They want to be doctors, politicians, computer experts and professors. But they share a desire to make Afghanistan a better place, and they believe that a U.S. education will help them do that -- in part by letting them teach future generations of Afghan boys and girls.
"When people are educated, it means the future of Afghanistan is bright," said Babrakzai. "And everyone is looking forward to a bright future in Afghanistan."
'I had to make a big difference'
Watching television last fall, Paula Nirschel became captivated by images of Afghan women -- sullen, detached and seemingly hopeless under the Taliban.
"I had to make a big difference," Nirschel said. "I had to get my hands on some of these women and do something big to change their lives."
Nirschel brainstormed with her husband Roy, and decided last winter that Roger Williams would offer a full room-and-board scholarship to an Afghan woman. The couple contacted other college presidents, urging them to do the same at their institutions.
"The women would come, they would get the benefits of an American education [and] they would return home and help rebuild their societies," said Roy Nirschel.
Yet Afghanistan was not exactly teeming with female students -- not after years of Taliban rule that forbid the education of young girls.
Paula Nirschel spent countless hours talking to school administrators in central Asia and the United States, U.S. and Afghan diplomats, and others to overcome diplomatic, logistical and financial obstacles and find quality students.
In June, she was told the program would not happen; a few weeks later, she heard it would go forward.
A panel including a U.S. State Department official, a member of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration and Kabul University's president interviewed each candidate and submitted a list of 12 finalists to Paula Nirschel.
The Nirschels welcomed five scholarship winners August 24 at JFK International Airport in New York, and pledged to bring more Afghan women to U.S. colleges.
"These women are extraordinary," said Dr. Nirschel. "And what better way to [learn about] the world ... than having these two terrific ambassadors [Mehdizada and Babrakzai] here and many more around the country. This is what education is all about."
A war-torn existence
Before the fall of the Taliban, the idea of attending a U.S. college was incomprehensible for the five Afghan women.
For many, like Farhat, survival was top priority. A resident of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, Farhat learned English surreptitiously in her home. If she'd been caught, she would have been arrested, or worse.
She lived through the U.S.-led airstrikes, and months later learned she would attend her first real school in years -- in the United States.
"I was so happy I cried," Farhat told The Associated Press last week. "My friends asked, 'Forazan, why are you crying?' I said, 'I'm going to America.'"
The other women also witnessed the horrors of war, a fact of life for anyone living in Afghanistan in the past 20 years, but they continued their formal education by fleeing their homeland.
Mehdizada remembers the parks, shopping, stylish clothes and restaurants -- "everything was nice and beautiful" -- in Konduz, which she left nine years ago for Peshawar, Pakistan, a year after her father died. Earlier this year, she returned to Afghanistan, moving back to Kabul, the nation's capital.
"Everything was completely changed," she said. "It made us sad. It's unbelievable that Afghanistan can become like this. It's unbelievable."
Devoted to Afghanistan
After living, like Mehdizada, in Peshawar for nearly a decade, Babrakzai enrolled at Kabul University last spring. The school was in disarray -- with laboratories destroyed, books scarce and limited teaching expertise.
But at Roger Williams, Babrakzai has her own room and studies in top-notch facilities, all in a tranquil, warm and tolerant environment.
"I like it here; the people are very friendly," she said. "I [wish] I could bring all of my country's children, and also the new generation, to study here ... But they cannot offer these things, they cannot get this opportunity."
Mehdizada says more U.S. and European universities should offer scholarships to Afghans who promise to return home and teach fellow Afghans, and that other governments should give more financial support to Karzai's administration. Education is critical to level the playing field among males and females, she says.
"There are many reasons [men and women] cannot be equal, but they can be equal in education and in working for our country," says Mehdizada, who aspires to be Afghanistan's president.
Babrakzai calls the Taliban's approach to education and its treatment of women unfair and un-Islamic. She says she is fully committed to rebuilding her homeland.
"All those things were destroyed, and it was a very bad situation," says Babrakzai. "But I still love my country, I still want to do something for Afghanistan. Even if it warrants my life, I can give it."
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