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Afghan women hope to break new ground in the sky

By Tracy Sabo, CNN Senior Producer
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Afghan female pilots in training
  • The young women are on a military mission as young lieutenants in the Afghan army
  • They are sent to the U.S. to learn English
  • They join hundreds of other foreign military officers
  • The center in Texas has been teaching language to foreign military students for over 55 years
  • Afghanistan
  • The Taliban
  • U.S. Air Force
  • Air Travel
  • Texas

Lackland Air Force Base, Texas (CNN) -- In a flower-filled courtyard near San Antonio, adult education students gather during a break, some celebrating the passage of final English exams and some discussing an upcoming social event.

The scene resembles very little of a typical campus. Everyone here is in a military uniform, each representing one of 80 countries. Loudly competing voices are conversing in dozens of different languages, each conversation competing against thunderous U.S. Air Force C-5 cargo planes training overhead.

However, it's not the campus that's most unique here. It's the school's four new female students -- each in their 20s and all wearing Afghan military camouflage and hijab -- that are turning heads.

These women, along with hundreds of other foreign military officers, were sent to the U.S. to learn English, courtesy of the U.S. military, but it's the women themselves who may soon teach their fellow students new English terms like "trailblazer," "role model," "groundbreaking" and "inner strength."

These four young women are on a military mission as young lieutenants in the Afghan army. They have been tasked by their home nation of Afghanistan with not only perfecting their English language skills but also in breaking new ground as military helicopter pilots in a progressing Afghan air force -- while the world is watching.

Lackland Air Force Base's Defense Language Institute English Language Center (DLIELC) has been teaching the English language to foreign military students for over 55 years.

Approximately 10% of its enrollment at any given time is made of up females; however, this marks the first time the school has welcomed Afghan women to its student body.

Among the names on this semester's historic roster: 2nd Lt. Sourya Saleh, 2nd Lt. Narges Safari, 2nd Lt. Masooma Hussaini and 2nd Lt. Mary Sharifzada -- all from Kabul.

Lt. Sourya Saleh, who joined the Afghan army after completing high school, says she responded to a newspaper advertisement looking for women interested in joining the Afghan military.

Saleh speaks with broken English, but her intent isn't likely to be misunderstood.

"It's the first time that ladies are coming to the military and joining the air force ... it's a very big deal for us. I thought with myself, let's do some new things for our country that all the other world countries know about."

Lt. Narges Safari also joined the Afghan military as soon as she head they were looking for women.

"For me, especially, it was my dream," she says. Lt. Mary Sharifzada, much like her colleague Saleh, hopes to be an inspiration in the future, specifically for Afghan women.

"We saw these women from other countries and they are strong, and they can do everything. Now, it's time for us. We should show the world that the women of Afghanistan are as strong," she says defiantly.

Lt. Col. Bonnie Ward, who is the center's dean, may be one of the young ladies' first official fans in the U.S.

Ward, who has spent some time with the women since their arrival on campus, believes the young lieutenants have shown "incredible strength" and determination.

"They're excited about flying, but more so, they are focused on providing a future for women in Afghanistan ... I'm inspired," she said.

U.S. Air Force Col. Howard Jones, who oversees the center, realizes the importance of this moment in history.

"Let's face it. These young ladies are pathfinders. They're trailblazers, and as such, they are subject to the criticism, the antagonism of those that don't want to see this particular path plowed," Jones said.

"All of us here in the United States are aware ... and understand the significance of what they're doing."

Jones admits he is impressed with these four "very poised" women noting how far they've come already in making it to the U.S.

The program is currently educating and housing nearly 900 students from 80 countries ... all of them from "partner countries" that the U.S. has a military relationship.

Jones is quick to credit the work being done by his colleagues in Kabul who operate "Thunder Lab," an English immersion program designed for Afghan air force officers awaiting pilot training.

These four Afghan women have graduated from the "Thunder Lab" program in Kabul before arriving to the United States earlier this month.

With a year or more of language study under their belts, it's now come time for more intensive immersion and professional aviation instruction. That means being away from Afghanistan and their families for many months.

Being homesick comes with the territory for most students.

"I think Afghan food is better," Sharifzada admitted at the lieutenants' news conference on base. The local press erupted in laughter.

The Afghan students will spend six to eight months at the center, roughly six hours each day in language classes. There is a lot of homework in addition to organized social and cultural activities aimed at increasing English-language proficiency ... and even some time allotted for watching television in the dorms.

Graduation requires mastering the nuance of some military terms necessary for future pilot training.

Time is set aside to allow for students' religious observation. There is an Imam on base along with religious leaders of various faiths. Early next year, these four Afghan women are expected to move from Texas to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where they will all receive advanced helicopter pilot training under the tutelage of the U.S. Army.

Jones does not question whether these Afghan lieutenants will succeed in his U.S.-based program.

"There's no doubt, to even arrive at the point they are now ... they've already faced many challenges. These young ladies know how to persevere. They know how to perform in a stressful environment," he said.

None of these four young women, however, will be able to claim the title of "first female pilot" in Afghanistan's military corps.

Capt. Latifa Nabizada has been a helicopter pilot in the Afghan air force for more than 20 years, and currently is the only female pilot.

Nabizada was trained in the days following Soviet regime in Afghanistan. She told CNN during a recent interview that, as the only female in the force, she had to flee the country when the Taliban took over, but has since returned and rejoined her male colleagues over the Afghan skies.

These young pilots-in-training realize the impact their decision may have on their own safety once back in Afghanistan ... and on their parents.

Lt. Sourya Saleh's father encouraged his daughter to apply for the Afghan military.

"Because it's the first time this is happening in our country, it's a very hard decision that our parents are making because about our safety ... about our everything that they should care about."

Saleh tries to explain further with her limited English vocabulary.

But, "My father said, 'why not? It's a new thing. Why not? ... You can do this."

Lt. Masooma Hussaini, who was the only female within her family or close high school friends to join the Afghan military, acknowledges her father was initially disappointed in her choice.

"He dreamed about me to be a doctor," Hussaini recalls.

She says her mother supported her and convinced her father that Masooma would never be happy as a doctor.

Eventually her father came around to her way of thinking, Hussaini says proudly, "and now I am very happy they are proud of me."

Young women in Afghanistan are making progress in improving gender equality among its military ranks, but they concede there is still a long way to go.

Saleh says there were about 35 other women in her class during a recent test back in Afghanistan, "and I hope that next year, we have more than that," says Saleh.

Clearly optimism is an attribute these four women possess -- arguably along with some fierce determination.

"There is an inner strength to them that you can just see. You can see how determined they are to succeed at what they've set out to do," says Christine Whittemore, an instructor working with two of the women.

Aware of her own impact on Afghanistan's history, Whittemore calls her work "a privilege." It's the first time she has taught females students at the language center.

Whittemore also admits she's been pleased to see male students at the school, many of them Middle Eastern, "very accepting" toward the female students in her classroom.

In comparing her students, the long-time instructor describes the Afghan women as "a little less boisterous than the men," pausing slightly before adding, "... but they make themselves heard!"

Whittemore smiles, a touch of feminine pride evident in her tone. "They're not afraid to say what they think.... Not at all!," she laughs.

Sharifzada hopes her message is heard loud and clear, especially by Afghan women. She may not be boisterous, but she is fearless. "Don't afraid anything ... if you want to do something, you can do it. Just believe yourself that you can do it," she states emphatically.

Fellow future pilot Saleh may also lack a boisterous attitude, but she's certainly a visionary and exudes confidence.

"We are going to open the door for our ladies in Afghanistan. It's a big deal for us to open this door ... and that the other ladies that have dreams that they can't do it, we want to show them!"

It may take these four brave women a bit more time to express themselves in perfect English, but their big hopes and dreams are clearly evident without any expert interpretation.