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Head of Afghanistan girls school visits Franklin County

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, 22, of Kabul, was 6 when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. She soon joined the underground resistance, dressing as a boy and escorting her younger sister so both could attend a secret school in Kabul.

Eventually, through the competitive Youth Exchange Studies program, Basij-Rasikh attended and finished high school in Onalaska, Wis. This year she graduated magna cum laude from Middlebury College in Vermont.

Yet, rather than remain in the United States, where it is safe for women to study, work and even drive cars, Basij-Rasikh returned home to Kabul to help give the same educational opportunities to other Afghan girls and to lead a new generation of Afghanistan.

Basij-Rasikh is now the managing director of the School of Leadership Afghanistan or SOLA, a people-to-people, nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering educational and leadership opportunities in Afghanistan and the world for the new generation of Afghanistan, especially for women.

“My own struggle to receive an education in Afghanistan as an Afghan woman has made me aware of what it means for a girl to receive an education. I am privileged to receive an education,” Basij-Rasikh said.

The country’s first girls’ boarding school was co-founded by Ted Achilles and Basij-Rasikh in October 2008. The boarding house, within a small compound in Kabul, began with four students. This year the enrollment is made up of 25 students, from 15 different provinces, and the school has 18 alumni in school in the United States, Bangladesh, Jordan and the United Kingdom.

SOLA is not a traditional boarding school. Unlike many of the provincial schools in Afghanistan, SOLA focuses on reading, writing, critical thinking and leadership.

“We give them academically what they don’t receive in Afghanistan schools,” Basij-Rasikh said. “We see it as key for their success in college and as future leaders of Afghanistan.”

SOLA students spend two years studying in Kabul, where they pledge to speak English only and prepare themselves to study at schools abroad, including boarding schools, universities and graduate schools. Schools that have already helped to educate SOLA students include Asian University for Women, Bates College, King’s Academy in Jordan, Middlebury, Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, Tufts University, Williams College, and Yale University.

It is no small feat for these students. Most girls come from uneducated families and live in secrecy. They have to hide their ambitions and whereabouts from neighbors and friends. According to SOLA, while women make up 50 percent of the population, in 2007, only 6 percent of Afghan women aged 25 or older had ever received formal education and only 12 percent of women aged 15 or older were literate.

Basij-Rasikh credits her father and mother for helping her earn an education. Her father, an army general, was the first in his family to earn an education, while her mother was the first female in her family to attend school.

“I know for me to succeed took the support of my parents. They are such strong advocates of education. Together we have fought obstacles,” she said.

Like Basij Rasikh, her three sisters and two brothers have also studied abroad. Her oldest sister is earning a master’s degree in public health from Tuft’s Medical School with the hopes of reducing Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate, the highest in the world.

No more than 5 feet, 2 inches tall and always wearing a warm smile, Basij-Rasikh and SOLA hope to create the future of Afghanistan with empowered, educated leaders who are committed to transforming the lives of their families and leading their country out of its present condition.

Part of SOLA’s mission is to help returning graduates secure significant public and private sector opportunities in Afghanistan on an equal footing with men.

“We look at the two years at SOLA as formative years of students realizing the impact of them returning to Afghanistan to work for their country,” Basij-Rasikh said.

This week Basij-Rasikh visited 17 schools across the Northeast in five days, alongside Rian Smith, SOLA’s director of development and U.S. programs, to find which schools would be a good fit for SOLA students.

On Friday, the two began the day at Northfield Mount Hermon, where they visited upperclassman, Fatima Saidi, one of their students. Saidi is the first student to attend NMH after studying at SOLA for a year.

“I was so happy to see her,” Basij-Rasikh said. “She is doing so well. I feel proud. She is our first student there. They are the door openers. They walk in and open the door for others to follow.”

At NMH, Basij-Rasikh met with the dean of enrollment, Claude Anderson, to see what else SOLA can do to prepare students for study at NMH. Next year, a few SOLA candidates may attend for post graduate study.

Similarly, at Deerfield Academy, Basij-Rasikh and Smith toured the school with students Teddy Wackerman and Lyric Perot, to see what the school could offer SOLA students. With them was former Headmaster Eric Widmer, who has become instrumental at SOLA, arranging the 17 school visits and advising SOLA. Widmer, a friend of SOLA’s cofounder, helped establishKing’s Academy in Jordan, which was modeled after Deerfield Academy at the request of the King of Jordan, a Deerfield alumnus.

Before leaving for Connecticut, Basij-Rasikh and Deerfield Academy had the same goal — to help educate Afghan girls.

This is only the beginning for SOLA. Basij-Rasikh’s dream is to make SOLA into a world-class boarding school, so that one day the school will not have to send its students abroad. The 17-day school tour offered Basij-Rasikh not only a chance to see the places her students would learn, but ideas for how she could transform SOLA.

“I am here with open eyes and mind to see what works and doesn’t work for schools. I get to see different programs,” she said.

Eleven days after Yousufzai and two classmates were attacked by the Taliban, Basij-Rasikh has gained national attention for advocating for the same cause.

“It is very devastating what happened to her,” Basij Rasikh said. “It’s a shame that it took that kind of attack on her for people to realize what they should be doing — being like her and advocating for girls’ education.”

As she fights for girls’ education, Basij-Rasikh is aware of the dangers she and her students face.

When asked if she ever fears for her own safety, Basij-Rasikh smiled. “No,” she said. “I am worried about the safety of my students. We keep a very low profile.”

To learn more about the School of Leadership Afghanistan or to donate to it go to www.sola-afghanistan.org.

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