Afghan student attends Northfield Mount Hermon
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice right, speaks, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai watches, dur
GILL — Fatima Saidi hopes to change her country — Afghanistan — and she’s come to Northfield Mount Hermon to do it.
The 18-year-old is a post-graduate student on the Gill campus after spending two years learning English at a small compound in Kabul as one of the first students at the School of Leadership Afghanistan, or SOLA.
SOLA is Afghanistan’s first all-girls’ boarding school and was founded in 2008 by Ted Achilles and Shabana Basij-Rasikh to give Afghani girls their first chance at education and a chance to change their country. The 25-student school is a people-to-people, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting educational and leadership opportunities in Afghanistan and for the new generation of Afghanistan, especially for women.
At the school, students speak only English and prepare themselves to study at participating schools abroad, such as the Asian University for Women, Bates College, King’s Academy in Jordan, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Tufts, Williams and Yale.
Sitting on the white rocking chair on the wrap-around porch at NMH’s admissions office, overlooking the red and orange hilltops of western Massachusetts, Saidi said she’s come a long way from her first home in Jaghori-Ghazni, one of the main districts of Ghazni province in Afghanistan .
Saidi has spent seven years in Kabul after American soldiers entered the nation’s capital in 2005 and displaced the Taliban. Prior to 2005, her family, who are members of the Shia sect and therefore Taliban targets, escaped to Pakistan to the village of Quetta, a safe haven for many Afghani families .
In Kabul, Saidi worked with the Ministries of Education, Public Health and Human Rights, hoping to be a part of her community. It’s a wish that could have gotten her killed.
“If you’re a girl and active, it’s dangerous,” Saidi said.
It wasn’t until after she attended a meeting of the Global Nomads Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting international dialogue by partnering educators across the world, that her future began to take shape.
At the meeting, Saidi met Ted Achilles, the co-founder of SOLA. Two months before, Achilles had watched Saidi take first prize in a local debate program, and he remembered her. I joined SOLA and my life changed,” Saidi says.
Starting in 2010, Saidi spent two years studying English at SOLA. During Saidi’s her second year, she served as its coordinator, creating video conferences between American high schools and SOLA and other Kabul girls’ high schools.
“I had a lot of dreams. I didn’t know how to get those dreams. I was trying to be involved with my community but there was no organization to lead me. With SOLA, I tried to do my best,” she says today.
Rather than spend the past summer in her mountainous home country, Saidi spent five weeks participating in an intensive English program amidst the cliff walk, beaches and historic mansions in Newport, R.I., at Salve Regina University.
Now, at NMH, she is studying math, English, speech and orientation and ceramics.
“I like New England. I never saw a fall this beautiful. It’s very new for me,” Saidi laughed as she looked toward the crimson hill tops.
Saidi is preparing to apply to 11 American colleges and universities to study international relations and business. Her top choices include Smith College and Mount Holyoke. Saidi plans to spend five years studying in America, and then return to Afghanistan.
“I want to go to college here and then go back. I want to change the rule of Afghanistan,” Saidi said with determination.
The desire to return to Afghanistan is the hallmark of SOLA and its students. The school tries to teach young girls to become the future leaders of their country. 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.
Saidi has big plans for her country.
“Everything is going wrong. I’m hoping to change it,” Saidi said.
Saidi plans to not only help women and girls, but men and boys, too.
“If my father and brother didn’t help me, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I want to give the opportunity I had to boys and girls,” she said. “I want to change the (mind set) and show them what I’ve learned, share my experience and knowledge.”
Saidi also has a plan to help the local economy. In Bamyan, one of the largest towns in central Afghanistan, there is no infrastructure of electricity, gas or water supplies. But the soil is rich, and Saidi wants to build a potato company there, growing a popular and increasingly expensive crop.
“These people in the heart of the country are so poor,” Saidi said. “The situation is not good. There is no job for them and if they can’t find a job, they go to the Taliban because the Taliban pays them. They need available jobs.
“The solution is to make factories. Let children go to school. If you look, it’s not the average person in the Taliban. It’s the poor.”
One of Saidi’s inspirations is Model UN, an academic simulation of the United Nations that aims to educate students about current events.
“It makes me think. I need to get educated about the world. Before, I was focused on my personal problem. I never realized what people are doing in Tibet, Egypt and Somalia. I only knew what the news said. I never thought about it deeply.
“I realize there are a lot of problems the world is going through. It is not just me and my country.”
Last week, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a 22-year-old woman accruing international and national fame for co-founding SOLA after studying in secret schools in Kabul, visited 17 schools across the Northeast in five days to find places where her students could study. Two of the schools included Deerfield Academy and Northfield Mount Hermon School, where she visited with Saidi.
“It was good to see Shabana. She’s a serious girl and I love that. (SOLA) gives me courage,” Saidi said.
Though a Pakistani girl, Malala Yousufzai, was critically wounded by the Taliban for advocating for her own and other girls’ education last month, the threat the militant group poses does not perturb Saidi, she says.
“For me, it wasn’t shocking. I’ve seen it before. Girls get shot, raped because they are standing against the culture. We’re a small minority,” Saidi said.
“I’m happy she is OK and she’s alive. She can be stronger because now she is known around the world. I don’t worry about the Taliban attacking me because I know what I am doing is right.”
To learn more about SOLA, and about how to donate to the school, go to: