Afghan students find new hope

MIDDLEBURY — Two weeks ago, most members of this year’s incoming class at the Gailer School were soaking up some rays at the beach, playing ball, catching a flick at the movie theater or just chilling out at home.
Meanwhile, two of the school’s newest enrollees were almost a half a world away, preparing for a hazardous, life-changing journey through a war-torn countryside to board a plane for the safer climes of Addison County, Vermont.
The two students, both from Afghanistan, are attending the Gailer School this year with the help of an Afghan national attending Middlebury College.
Gailer officials last week were excited to welcome the students, whom they believe will not only benefit from the education they will receive, but also teach the school community invaluable lessons about life in a nation that remains mysterious even though it has been a fixture on the six-o’clock news.
“As a host family, I see this as an opportunity to learn as well as teach,” said Gailer School board Co-chairwoman Joan Stephens, who is hosting one of the students — 20-year-old Rahela Mohammad Akbar. She is joined by a 13-year-old male student whose name cannot be disclosed because of potential repercussions to his family. The education of young Afghans continues to stir controversy in some circles of the Middle Eastern land, where U.S. troops continue to operate and train the Afghan military.
The inclusion of Afghan and other international students, Stephens explained, is consistent with the Gailer School’s stated mission of “developing students into insightful world citizens.” She noted past Gailer School classes have visited such countries as Ghana, Japan and the Dominican Republic.
“It really makes a huge difference in the students’ lives,” said Stephens, who has seen the benefits of the international exchange. She hosted a Lebanese student in 2007.
Rahela and her fellow countryman are not the first Afghan students to study at Gailer. Stephens noted the school hosted a young man last year (whose name is also being withheld over fears of potential reprisals against his family). The young man and his classmates learned much from each other and participated in a drive that netted 200 pairs of shoes for needy people in the Kunduz Province of Afghanistan.
“The kids partnered with him … and became aware of life in his country,” Stephens said. “Everybody in the school was enthusiastic about the opportunity to bring more students this year. We really want this to be a permanent part of this program.”
Helping in that effort is Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a senior at Middlebury College, who is fast building a humanitarian pipeline between her native Afghanistan and Addison County. She is doing this, in part, through “HELA,” a nonprofit organization aimed at helping Afghan women by empowering and educating young Afghan women. The organization is doing this partly by building provincial schools and linking Afghan women with educational opportunities throughout the world.
HELA — which means “hope,” in the Afghan language Pashto — has proven to be the right cause at the right time for Shabana, an international studies/women and gender studies major at Middlebury who is dedicated in improving conditions in her country.
Last spring, while participating in a Middlebury College panel discussion on NATO involvement in Afghanistan, Shabana met Gailer board Co-chairwoman Mary Lower, who told her about the school’s shoe drive. The two women discussed the prospect of HELA providing more Afghan students for Gailer.
“We talked about a partnership between HELA and Gailer School, and this year we were able to bring Rahela and another student, a boy, from Afghanistan,” Shabana said.
Rahela, 20, hails from western Afghanistan. She speaks Persian, having spent several years in Iran, where she and her family sought refuge during the Taliban regime. Rahela has a sister attending Middlebury College. The male student is from eastern Afghanistan.
Stephens and Shabana credited the office of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for supporting the students’ entry into the country to study.
Plans call for Rahela to spend two years at Gailer, after which she will apply to U.S. colleges. The male student plans to spend one year at Gailer, then transfer to another private school in the U.S.
Stephens and Shabana agreed that the small, tightly knit Gailer School would be an ideal setting for the Afghan students to gradually soak up knowledge without a glaring spotlight.
“The students here have a very close relationship with the teachers and the other students,” Stephens said. “Students don’t get lost at Gailer; in fact, we hope they find themselves here.”
“The location and the dynamics of the Gailer School was the reason that I decided very quickly to go with the partnership, because I knew once I bring students to Gailer School, they are in great hands,” Shabana said. “They get a lot of attention from teachers, staff and their host families.”
Fortunately, the two incoming students have a good working knowledge of English. They expect to achieve great proficiency during the coming months through cultural immersion.
It wasn’t that many years ago that female Afghan students took a huge risk by advancing their education. Under the Taliban regime (1996-2001), women were not allowed to be educated, and those who did were often beaten or killed. It was this kind of oppression that prompted Rahela’s family to immigrate to Iran while the Taliban was in power. When international forces toppled the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai took power, Rahela’s family returned.
While she has been in the U.S. less than a month, Rahela has been impressed with the new educational resources and technology suddenly at her disposal.
“There are a lot of facilities for students,” she said.
“In Afghanistan, the system of education isn’t good,” she added. “Here, it is very good. Students here can improve their education, especially if you are a woman. A woman can’t continue her English as well in Afghanistan.”
Shabana had to go to “secret school” while the Taliban were in power.
“If they had caught us, they would be beheading teachers and punishing families and killing students,” she said.
From Middlebury, Shabana continues to hear cases of female students being poisoned, or having acid thrown in their faces, in retaliation for furthering their education.
“One of the things that gives me personal motivation is that those girls, when we see them on TV, they say from their hospital bed, ‘I am going to continue with my education; the only thing that can stop me is death.’ They have a strong message to send to other girls,” Shabana said.
Fortunately, gender discrimination is apparently no longer the top obstacle when it comes to pursing an education in Afghanistan. But there are other hurdles.
“At the moment, one of biggest problems we have in Afghanistan is illiteracy, both in men and women, but especially for women,” Shabana said.
While education opportunities have been increasing for Afghan women under the new regime, there is a long way to go, Shabana noted.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of universities,” she lamented. “At the moment, there are a lot of students who graduate from high school — both girls and boys — but colleges and universities have little capacity to admit students. So we end up getting a lot of young men and girls who have graduated from high school and have nothing to do.”
Still, Shabana is optimistic about the future — a future she said hangs somewhat in the balance. She hopes that U.S. and international forces don’t pull out of her country until it is more peaceful and stable, or they will risk having Afghanistan return to stormier days.
“People in Afghanistan do not support the Taliban or regimes like that,” said Shabana. “No one has good memories from the Taliban, so no one would want to see them in power again.
“I personally would like to see the U.S. and international community stay in Afghanistan for a longer period,” she added. “At the moment, we are just beginning to rise up. In other words, we are not standing on our own feet yet. Whatever people in Afghanistan have accomplished so far in the past 10 years will go back to nothing if the U.S. or international community were to leave now.”
If Rahela has her way, she will emerge as one of the Gailer School’s most accomplished graduates. She plans to return to Afghanistan to help shape the nation she and her family once fled.
“I want to work in our government, and I wish to be the first woman president,” she said with a determined smile. “I will try.”
After earning her Middlebury College diploma next year, Shabana plans to continue her work with HELA and the Afghan Youth Initiative, a nonprofit that helps get scholarships for needy students. She then wants to earn a master’s degree in public health and attend law school.
Middlebury’s Bridge School and the Brooks School in North Andover, Mass., helped raise around $4,500 for a new school built this summer by HELA outside of the Afghan capital of Kabul. Shabana is now spearheading an effort to build the first women’s high school in her ancestral village.
Like Rahela, Shabana sees her long-term future as being in Afghanistan, working to make things better in villages.
“I definitely think there is a lot I can do going to remote areas in Afghanistan; that’s what I hope to do,” she said. “And I am really interested in politics — I want to see a lot of Afghan women represented in politics.”
The Gailer School is seeking donations to help support the two Afghan students’ expenses while at Gailer. People are being encouraged to give what they can. Stephens noted that $25 will buy school supplies; $75 will provide for warm winter clothes; $500 will buy a laptop; and $5,000 would cover a half-year’s tuition. Checks should be made payable to the Gailer School Afghan Scholars’ Fund, and should be sent to the Gailer School, P.O. Box 1306, Middlebury, VT 05753.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
‘Glamour’ spotlights Afghan college student
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College senior Shabana Basij-Rasikh’s efforts to promote better educational opportunities for fellow Afghan students drew national attention on Wednesday, when she was named by “Glamour” magazine as one of its “Top 10 College Women” in an annual competition that dates back 53 years.
In response to the magazine selection, Basij-Rasikh discussed her activities, priorities and the award during an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show” Wednesday morning.
Here is a how Glamour magazine wrote up Basij-Rasikh’s award:
Shabana Basij-Rasikh, 20, Middlebury College
Her dream: “To become a minister of women’s affairs in the Afghan government.”
How she’s reaching for it: Growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan, Basij-Rasikh dressed as a boy for five years and walked 45 minutes to and from a secret school six days a week — that was the only way she could get an education. After the Taliban fell, she proposed a plan for a girls’ school to the deputy minister of education. She was just 16, but she convinced him. Today, the school has six classrooms and its own well, and Basij-Rasikh arranged for the construction of nine other wells.
“Only about 20 percent of the Afghan population has access to clean drinking water,” she explains. Now she’s attending Middlebury on a full scholarship, where she launched her nonprofit, HELA, which means “hope” in Pashto, her native language. Her next goal? To build fields for girls’ athletics in Afghanistan (make a donation at Oh, and to attend law school.
Her secret obsession: “I save most of my voice mails — I turn them into MP3s for my iPod.”

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