Monday, October 5, 2015

The Ray of Hope that lights Candles

Image: Razia Jan (c)
In a little village outside of Kabul, a bunch of girls are gregarious and happy, walking along, chattering as they go to school. A lovely, pleasant lady welcomes them at her doorstep, ushering them into the school for their classes. She stands tall, as the lady who effected change in a nation torn by war. She stands as the ray of hope that she saw, in the future of the nation. The lady is Razia Jan, the founder of the Zabuli Education Centre and her allied initiative, Razia’s Ray of Hope. A CNN Hero, Razia shares her story.

I am a native Afghan, and lived in Afghanistan until the 1970s. I went to the US in the 1970s for my education. I couldn’t go back to Afghanistan, though, because of the Soviet invasion and the civil war, then the Taliban, and 9/11.  After 9/11, I rallied in my adopted New England Community to send over 400 homemade blankets to the rescue workers at Ground Zero, and slowly, to send care packages to the US troops in Afghanistan. I was involved in the military’s Operation Shoe Fly, coordinating the delivery of over 30,000 pairs of shoes for needy Afghan children. The US started bombing  Afghanistan right away, and I would spend time watching and listening to the news, thinking of how many innocent people – especially women and girls, were being affected by this.

I went back in January 2002, and visited a few orphanages with some gifts for the children. I made it a point to gift both, girls and boys with toys. I noticed, though, that when I gave a boy a toy, and gave a girl a doll or a toy, they would take their gifts and walk away – and a short distance later, I’d notice the boy snatching away the toy from the girl. She couldn’t do, or say a thing in response. I felt bad for the girls, and decided that I would start working to protect them, and give them the route to the self-respect and understanding they needed to stand for themselves.

I served as the president of the Rotary Club in Duxbury, Massachusetts, for over 20 years. I served as
Winning the CNN Heroes Award
the President of my club in 2007. My Club raised the funds to build a girls school in 2008, when I arranged for money from Massachusetts to build a school in an area in Afghanistan that had never had a school. I made it a point to search for a safe area, where the school won’t be destroyed and where the students won’t be mistreated for attending the school.

It took me time to persuade the community. There were about seven villages, and it is outside Kabul – I won’t name the villages out of concern for the security situation there. There were about 101 girls in 2008, from the Lower Kindergarten to Grade 4. Now, we’ve grown to a powerful strength of 491 girls, and the first class graduates this fall. The community refuses to let them go outside to study further, and so these girls got together and asked me for help. I am now building a midwifery institute next door to the school. A lot of women who studied with me, and from other places and are now sitting at home after marriage, or are forced to sit at home and not leave outside for their higher studies are eager to be part of this institute. I have about 57 girls who are going to join the institute. It is a great opportunity for them. I’m happy to say that the school has been privately run entirely, and I have had absolutely no government funding or dependency on the government. It has been a non-profit always.

When I started the school, after beginning the construction of a building, I needed money to complete furnishing it. An Afghan doctor in Massachusetts told me that the wife of the late Abdul Majid Zabuli – the man who pioneered economics and banking in Afghanistan only to be uprooted by the Soviet invasion – ran her foundation. She was a German lady, and said that she wanted me to name the school after her husband, who had done so much for Afghanistan, but had never been given the recognition he deserved. That was how it came to be known as Zabuli Education Centre.

I have many stories to tell, of my girls. But I’ll go with one that is closest to my heart. The oldest student of our school is about 23 now. Last year, her father wanted to remarry – he already has seven kids. His arrangement was with a girl in another part of Afghanistan. She was sixteen. He had given his word that he would give his daughter's hand in marriage to the 70 year old father of the 16 year old that he was about to marry. His daughter refused, fought tooth and nail – and was beaten, burned, her ribs were broken, she was brutally injured – but she stoutly refused. Six months passed this way, and eventually, her father resigned to her demand. But since he had given his word that he would marry the 16 year old, he could not go back on his word. He went ahead and married the girl, paying $20,000 as a bride price. She had a son, recently.

In Afghanistan, as is perhaps true in India and other countries, girls are married off while they are still young. Families live on the money they get, and so they bear many girls so that they can get a bride price for each of their daughters to get by. I encountered this as a bit of a resistance, as I had to negotiate with families to make them see sense in educating their girls. I began to tell their fathers the benefits of having an educated daughter at home. A man who was illiterate would have to go to ten different places just to have a notification he received, read out to him. An educated daughter in that setting would help ease out a lot. Many families saw sense in it, and it was a unique opportunity for their girls, indeed. Some of the girls are engaged to be married though still young, but they do continue to study. There are times when I try to persuade families to educate their girls, but I fail. When I fail, I realise I have to deal with it – because there is only so much I can invest in a family affair. I try my best.

I’m happy to note that my school is a safe place for the girls to come to, every day. There are seven villages, and my school is in a central location that allows girls from all the villages to come to study. We have a good support system in the village in that they act as vigilant guards for our school – so much so that they stop outsiders and strangers, question and verify credentials and then let people in only if they can be sure of their credentials. We keep checking the premises everyday for gas before we let the girls in, and we also check the well that supplies water to the school, to ensure that there is no poison.

Earlier, the girls used to walk about 4 or 5 miles to reach the school – and it was difficult, because the older girls would be teased and misbehaved with. Now, we have a bus that brings and drops the girls off. We do our best, and give our girls the best we can. Our school is the number one school for girls in Afghanistan. We have computers, and an internet connection, and we teach the girls English, for an hour, each day. It is a part of the curriculum. We have 19 teachers right now, one administrative head, one headmistress, a gentleman who oversees certain elements of the administrative process, three guards and two drivers, all of whom are on payroll. The teachers are very devoted, and travel from the school and to Kabul, spending 1.5 hours on the travel.

We have a program where we welcome people to sponsor a girl’s education. It costs $300 each year to educate one girl. We welcome people to sponsor students – one, two, as many as they can. The cost of education includes books, uniforms, stationery and transportation. The sponsor receives a letter and a picture from the child, and over 200 children have been sponsored as part of the program. 

To support the program, head over to