Eight Afghan women flee Taliban to make a better life in Middlebury

Middlebury College

MIDDLEBURY — Eight young women from Afghanistan are making a future for themselves and their country starting here at Middlebury College. Sodaba Faizi, Zamzama Habibi, and sisters Taniya Noori and Nabila Noori are all part of this group.

The journey taken by these young women, ages 19-24, is one that some might say personifies grit, determination and courage.

They were studying in Afghanistan late last summer when rule of their country went to the Taliban, who are opposed to education for women. These women made their way to Vermont late this past winter, finished their first semester at Middlebury this spring and are settling into their new lives.

All eight of the women attended the School of Leadership Afghanistan, commonly known as SOLA. Located in the capital city of Kabul, SOLA was the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan and continues to remain the only one of its kind.

The school houses and educates students from 6th through 12th grade. Its vision is to educate young women and nurture them into being compassionate and bold leaders for their country, fighting for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a member of the Middlebury College class of 2011, founded SOLA in 2008 while still an undergraduate. She serves as the current president of the school and is affectionately referred to by her students as “Shabana Jaan.”

The decision to attend SOLA was not an easy one for these students.

“I did not know if I could live away from my family at such an early age. Also, going to boarding school in Afghanistan is a big deal, especially for women,” Faizi said.

Habibi agreed with her peer.

“My relatives did not know where I was when I first joined SOLA,” she revealed. “My parents hid it from them because our society believes that it is shameful for women to leave their homes and their families.”

Faizi credits her mother for being bold enough to stand up for her daughter’s education:

“My mother has always believed in my education, and she convinced my father to let me study at SOLA after my application was accepted.”

Attending this school, gave these women an opportunity to participate in different exchange programs in India and some other countries, where they found themselves in completely different environments from Afghanistan. Although overwhelmed at first, they said they matured into independent, empowered, confident young women with a bright future in front of them.

August 2021 brought with it a tumultuous time in the history of Afghanistan with the Taliban takeover of the country imminent. However, people still believed that Kabul would endure the Taliban’s continuous hostile efforts.

“The thought of the Taliban taking over Kabul did not seem to be realistic to anyone at the time,” Habibi remembered.

“As we saw on the news how one province fell after the other to Taliban forces, we were still sure that Kabul cannot fall and believed that history will not repeat itself,” Taniya Noori said.

Shabana did not share her students’ optimism.

“Shabana Jaan was convinced that everything was about to collapse. She started making arrangements to get us all out,” Faizi admitted.

Shabana went to Rwanda and met with the government to discuss relocating the SOLA school there. According to her students, Shabana chose Rwanda on account of a shared history of conflict and memory between the two peoples. The memory of the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s was still fresh in its populace, and they would be sympathetic and understanding to the plight of these young Afghan students fleeing conflict, she believed.

“Shabana Jaan called me on the 13th of August, asking me if I would like to go for another exchange program. She did not mention anything about an evacuation because she did not want us to be worried. I knew she was lying to me,” Faizi said.

Another student admitted that she knew she was not coming back to Afghanistan, and this was not an exchange program but an evacuation.

When the students asked their parents if they could leave under the guise of an “exchange program,” the parents knew what sending their young daughters away meant — forfeiting any hopes of seeing them again at least while the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan. However, it also meant that their daughters would have the opportunity to lead peaceful and prosperous lives away from the conflict.

“My mother agreed to send me without a second thought,” Habibi said. “She knew that if I stayed in Afghanistan, I could not pursue my education. We all acted normal and acted if nothing was wrong. We were just fooling ourselves.”

This hopeful denial of the gravity of the situation soon turned into a horrific reality as these young women made their way to Kabul airport with their families coming to bid them farewell.

“There were trucks driving by with people shouting, ‘The Taliban are coming.’

“We drove by Taliban checkpoints where I saw young kids — 14 or 15 years old — with guns threatening to shoot people and firing into the air,” Faizi remembered. “I did not dare look up the whole car ride from my house to the airport because I did not want to make them angry,” she said.

“All the people of Kabul were at the airport, trying to leave,” Habibi recalled. “It was just utter chaos and people had been driven to madness. In all that chaos, I could not even hug my mother goodbye one last time as my name was called and I was rushed onto a plane. We did not know where we were going.”

Two hundred people associated with SOLA escaped Taliban-controlled Afghanistan that day and found themselves in Doha, Qatar, for two weeks before going to Rwanda.

“Rwanda is such a beautiful country with such amazing people, but I never felt comfortable living there,” Faizi said.

“For the first few days, it would take me 5 seconds after I used to wake up to realize that I was not at home,” she said. “We were just not able to block the news coming from home about executions and terror of the Taliban.”

These eight students chose to come to Middlebury, the alma mater of their beloved Shabana Jaan. Upon being asked what their thoughts were about coming here, Taniya Noori remembered, “We were excited to start our education again. But within the first few days of us coming here, Taliban shut the door on education of women back home after making false promises, at first, that they would not do so. That just completely broke us all from within.”

Sodaba Faizi worries about a younger sister who is still in Afghanistan.

“When I used to go to my classes here at (Middlebury) College and observe all these resources around me, I felt so guilty. I am here living in all this privilege with good food, good education, and good support systems around me while my own sister cannot go to school back home. I felt like I did not deserve any of these privileges that I had. I sometimes still feel like that.”

This feeling of guilt has now been channeled into zest and desire to work hard and educate themselves to bring a change in Afghanistan.

All eight of them voiced their belief that them along with countless other young people who have fled Afghanistan will work hard to develop themselves and their abilities to return home one day to bring about positive change for Afghanistan and its people.

Habibi’s eyes teared up as she remembered her father’s watery eyes, every time she calls home, as he tells her how proud he is of her.

“I want to work hard and be a part of the UN and go back to Afghanistan one day and make a future for my country. It is the least that I can do for my people and my country,” she said.

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