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Midd grad and her female students flee Afghanistan

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE GRADUATE Shabana Basij-Rasikh was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan, by parents who placed a high value on education. As a child during the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, she dressed like a boy so she and her older sister could attend a secret school. Basij-Rasikh went on to co-found an all-girls school in Afghanistan, but was forced to flee the country last month. Photo courtesy of Middlebury College

MIDDLEBURY — On Aug. 20, as thousands of Afghans desperate to leave the country converged on the airport in Kabul — and Taliban fighters, who had taken over the city just five days before, tried to stop them with threats and violence and hastily erected checkpoints — Middlebury College graduate Shabana Basij-Rasikh stood in front of a furnace at an undisclosed location in the region and fed into its fire a steady diet of paper documents.

“I’m burning my students’ records not to erase them, but to protect them and their families,” Basij-Rasikh explained on Twitter.

In 2008, during her first year at Middlebury, Basij-Rasikh co-founded, with Oregon businessman Ted Achilles, the School of Leadership-Afghanistan, or SOLA, which in Pashto means “peace.” Initially aimed at securing scholarship opportunities for Afghan girls, SOLA evolved into an all-girls boarding school in Kabul.

Two of the students Basij-Rasikh was protecting were sisters who had come to SOLA from a rural village and who in mid-July had made a suicide pact.

They had just arrived home for school break when their grandmother came to see them, carrying scythes, Basij-Rasikh later wrote in the Washington Post.

At the time, the Taliban, a militant Islamist political organization, was resurgent in the provinces, filling the vacuum left by departing U.S. forces, which had been in the country for nearly 20 years.

The last time the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, it had banned girls from getting an education and prohibited women from leaving their homes unless their bodies were entirely covered and they were accompanied by a male relative.

Fighters were getting closer to the village, the woman told her granddaughters.

“If the Taliban comes into this house,” she said, “use these scythes to kill yourselves.”

The sisters promised they would.

Thankfully it did not come to that.

LAST MONTH, MIDDLEBURY College grad Shabana Basij-Raskih, who co-founded an all-girls boarding school in her native city of Kabul, Afghanistan, burned her students’ records so the Taliban couldn’t use them to exact retribution on them or their families.

On Aug. 24, Basij-Rasikh reported on Twitter that all of SOLA’s nearly 100 students had escaped the country.

“Last week, we completed the departure from Kabul of nearly 250 students, faculty, staff, and family members. Everyone is en route, by way of Qatar, to the nation of Rwanda where we intend to begin a semester abroad for our entire student body,” she wrote.

Two days later, on Aug. 26, suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the crowds around Kabul’s airport, including the checkpoint Basij-Rasikh had led her students through, killing at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.

On Tuesday, SOLA Director of Communications Kevin Jones provided the Independent with guidance on telling Basij-Rasikh’s story without exposing the SOLA community to danger.

MIDD KIDD

In 2009, Middlebury Magazine published a very brief interview with then-sophomore Basij-Rasikh.

“How did you get here?” asked the Middlebury Fellows in Narrative Jounralism.

Her answer was short and sweet.

“There were some strong women who secretly taught girls in their living room. And it was a life risk for everyone.”

Basij-Rasikh, who was born and raised in Kabul by parents who placed a high value on education, regardless of the risk, attended a “secret school” while the Taliban was in power, and dressed as a boy to escort her older sister to school, she told the Independent in 2010.

“If they had caught us, they would be beheading teachers and punishing families and killing students,” she said.

With the help of a U.S. State Department Program, Basij-Rasikh had obtained a student visa to complete high school in Wisconsin, and was then accepted to Middlebury College.

She co-founded SOLA in 2008, after her first year at Middlebury.

That same year, the Davis Projects for Peace program funded Basij-Rasikh’s proposal to build six wells across Afghanistan, which would provide nearly 6,000 people with clean drinking water.

But nine years after the Taliban’s removal, girls were still struggling in Afghanistan, despite increased educational opportunities under the new regime, and as Basij-Rasikh worked toward her degree in International Studies and Women & Gender Studies at Middlebury, she was hearing stories about female students being poisoned or having acid thrown in their faces.

This prompted her to work even harder.

“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,’” Basij-Rasik told the Independent. “They have a strong message to send to other girls.”

Still, she worried about what would happen if the Taliban came back.

“I personally would like to see the U.S. and international community stay in Afghanistan for a longer period,” she said. “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.”

U.S. WITHDRAWAL

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, in response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The following year, Afghan girls were invited to take school entrance exams, which would be required for placement because the Taliban had burned all of their records.

A decade later, Basij-Rasikh described her country’s progress in a TED talk.

“Under the Taliban, girls who went to school numbered in the hundreds … but today, more than three million girls are in school in Afghanistan.”

But American patience with what seemed like an “endless war” began to run thin.

In February 2020, then President Donald Trump made a deal with the Taliban, outlining the terms for a U.S. withdrawal of its remaining 13,000 troops by May 1, 2021. As part of the deal, to which the Afghan government was not a party, the Taliban promised to stop supporting and working with the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, which had been responsible for 9/11, and 5,000 Taliban prisoners were to be released.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani objected to this deal, saying the Afghan government had made no such commitment, but the Trump administration pressured him until he relented.

Over the next few months the U.S. cut troop levels, despite escalated violence by the Taliban.

In November 2020, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced the U.S. would reduce its forces to 2,500 by January.

Not long after President Joe Biden inherited the situation, U.S. generals declared the Taliban were not holding up their end of the bargain and violence was increasing.

Biden then delayed the final U.S. troop withdrawal from May 1 to Sept. 11.

Then he moved it up to Aug. 31.

Things did not go well and violence continued to escalate.

On Aug. 6, the Taliban took control of its first province. Nine days later, on Aug. 15, the Taliban entered Kabul, President Ghani fled the country, the government collapsed, and the U.S. evacuated its diplomats from the city.

Last week, the Taliban Ministry of Education reopened schools for male students and teachers but did not mention girls or women. The following day, a Taliban spokesman told CNN that women would eventually be allowed to study in the country, but did not say when or how.

On Sunday, the mayor of Kabul told female government employees to stay home, unless they were doing jobs — like cleaning the women’s bathrooms — that couldn’t be done by men, CNN reported.

“My heart breaks for my country,” Basij-Rasikh wrote on Twitter last month. “I’ve stood in Kabul, and I’ve seen the fear, and the anger, and the ferocious bravery of the Afghan people. I look at my students, and I see the faces of the millions of Afghan girls, just like them, who remain behind.”

RECOGNIZED LEADER

THIS PAST JUNE Shabana Basij-Rasikh received an Alumni Achievement award from Middlebury College for accomplishments in advancing educational opportunities for girls in Afghanistan. Basij-Rasikh, who graduated from Middlebury in 2011, co-founded an all-girls boarding school in Kabul and successfully relocated it to Rwanda after last month’s collapse of the Afghan government. Screenshot courtesy of Middlebury College

After graduating from Middlebury, Basij-Rasikh received a master’s degree in public policy from Oxford University.

In 2018, she received one of Afghanistan’s highest national honors, the Malalai Medal.

Over the past 11 years she has been recognized for her leadership by a number of media outlets, including CNN International, ForbesNational Geographic and Glamour.

This past June, she received the Middlebury College Alumni Association’s Alumni Achievement Award in recognition of her accomplishments in providing educational opportunities for Afghan girls.

A video of the presentation and an hour-long conversation with Basij-Rasikh can be found at vimeo.com/564272505.

One of the biggest turning points of her life was coming to the United States to study, she told Janine Hetherington ’95.

“For the first time, I found myself living in a society where girls didn’t have this looming threat over their heads that they were going to lose their education,” she said. “And that was so beautiful.”

Later in the conversation, Basij-Rasikh talked about her students at SOLA.

“Without a doubt, they’re some of the bravest, funniest, smartest people — not just girls — I’ve ever met.”

Ten weeks later, she would help them escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan so they could continue their studies.

On Sept. 16, the Washington Post named Basij-Rasikh a contributor to its Global Opinions section.

“I’m truly honored to join @washingtonpost,” she wrote on Twitter, “and with this platform I make a promise to Afghan girls, and all girls around the world: I see you, and I will never look away.”

To see what a few local residents have to say about Shabana Basij-Rasikh, see our sidebar.

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

***

Shabana at Middlebury

The Independent asked a few community members to share their thoughts and memories of Middlebury College graduate Shabana Basij-Rasikh (’11), who co-founded an all-girls boarding school in her native city of Kabul, Afghanistan, and has received international recognition for her work advancing educational opportunities for girls in Afghanistan.

Here’s what they had to say:

******

Shabana has been in close touch with the Middlebury community since she graduated, and we have been awed by her courage, most especially visible in the recent months since she has had to leave Afghanistan and bring her school with her. She embodies the best of a liberal arts and sciences education, and we are so proud of her accomplishments and visionary leadership. We are excited to be partnering with her and SOLA (the School of Leadership-Afghanistan) in the future.

— President Laurie Patton, Middlebury College

******

I worked with Shabana closely in a history seminar on ‘Women and Islam,’ where 16 of us discussed (and got into some great debates about) philosophical, theological, and historical questions regarding women’s rights — in marriage, education, and work — within different periods of Islamic and Middle East history.

For Shabana, SOLA was often on her mind when we had these conversations, especially when we spoke of Muslim women activists and intellectuals fighting for women’s rights in their home countries. She admired them and was inspired by their work.

In thinking about how to face her own challenges in Afghanistan, challenges that are as much theological and dogmatic as political and socio-economic, she believed that SOLA could indeed produce positive and enduring changes for girls and women.

— Febe Armanios, Associate Professor of History, Middlebury College

******

During Shabana’s time at Middlebury College, Sophie Logan, a Bridge School student, and I organized a fundraiser at the school. The band Vorcza played music, and about 50 or so people came. We raised around $1,000 for Shabana’s humanitarian projects in Afghanistan. She was already in the early stages of starting SOLA, as well as planning a well-digging project for increasing access to clean water in remote villages.

For Shabana, who nearly lost her opportunity to go to school, education was clearly a treasured way of engaging in life. She talked about her experience dressing as a boy and attending a secret school, and the stories about sneaking out of the house early in the morning, all in order to attend elementary school, had quite an impact on the younger listeners in the room. It was a very memorable night, and it felt good to come together as a community: both to listen to stories about Shabana’s past, but also to support her vision for the future.

— Zim Pickens, Weybridge

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(Developing SOLA) was a process. It began with Ted Achilles, who first created a school for Afghan women in Kabul. Shabana attended that school, after her harrowing clandestine school venture when she dressed as a boy. Ted mentored Shabana and she was his right-hand person. As he aged and had health issues, he gave Shabana more and more responsibilities for running this precursor to SOLA. Eventually … it was all Shabana.

The Davis Projects for Peace Award to (dig) wells in Afghanistan gave Shabana an understanding of how to work with Mullahs and other influential men in different communities. This journey was what prompted her to continue with the school bequeathed by Ted, which became SOLA, and to seek a designated, unique location for it. While at Middlebury, she convinced a Kabul Army general to hand over land for the school and construction began. This coincides with her fundraising. And the rest, as we say, is history. She accomplished all this before graduating.

 

— Hector Vila, Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric, Middlebury College

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