"Let me tell you a short story," the woman next to me begins. She sits-- poised, strong, and vibrant -- before an audience of approximately 150 women, men, and adolescents.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh is the 22-year-old founder of SOLA: School of Leadership, Afghanistan, one of the first boarding schools for girls and young women in Kabul. She joins me on April 23, for a panel at Red River Theater, in Concord, New Hampshire, following a screening of the film Girl Rising, sponsored by the Women's Fund of New Hampshire. Together with Nancy Van Sciver, the founder of Education for All Children or EFAC, an educational program for children in Kenya, we relate questions about the film's content back to the larger context of girls' education.
Shabana is on fire:
"One of our students from a very rural village in Afghanistan was leaving for vacation," she continues. "Her father picked her up at the airport and as they were driving home they narrowly missed being killed by a bomb blast. That night, he received a call from someone who said, 'How come you're still alive? I was planning your funeral. If you send your daughter back to school I will try again.' Her father responded, 'Kill me now if you wish, but I will not stop my daughter's future because of your stupid ideas.' That girl is now back at school in Kabul, at SOLA, and her father is continuing to fight threats. The lack of girls' education in Afghanistan is not a cultural norm. It cannot be dismissed as a cultural norm. It is a problem that needs to be fixed."
Shabana looks straight ahead, "This story above -- this is a cultural norm in Afghanistan where fathers are fighting for their daughter's rights every day. There is hope in Afghanistan. I see it, and it is one of the reasons I chose to return after six years studying in the U.S."
We are riveted.
As I listen to Shabana speak, images color my subconscious. I see the past week's newsreel -- flashes of the bomb that tore the streets of my home country and nearby city of Boston on Monday, April 15. While I was in New York City at the time I distinctly remember the shock of learning how the Boston Marathon had been interrupted. I remember the photos, the colors, the smoke, and most importantly, the fear: my brother goes to school in Boston, numerous people I know and love call Boston home.
My mind turns to Afghanistan -- a country where bombs go off and have been going off intermittently for the past 50 years. I imagine my father risking torn limbs and shards for my education. I imagine how it would feel to live in constant and pernicious fear -- the kind of heel-biting fear I have been fortunate to feel only intuitively.
Shabana works in an area of the world where fear has been a cultural norm for too long. Her work is helping to reconfigure, to restructure that shadow so that it's sister cultural norm -- hope -- can replace what has been stolen by bloodshed.
Currently, School of Leadership, Afghanistan includes 25 students from 16 provinces. It brings highly motivated students and especially girls together from rural areas in Afghanistan. After several years of intense training these girls receive full scholarships to attend high schools or universities in the U.S., where they can further expand their horizons. Not only do all of these students have a Skype mentor in the United States, who helps to guide them on their educational path, but they begin to learn English through total immersion at SOLA's headquarters in Kabul. Once these students transition to schools in the U.S., SOLA remains engaged in their experiences to ensure that they receive future scholarships and internships, and most importantly, to help incentivize these girls to return to Afghanistan to help other girls from similar backgrounds obtain a brighter future. Next year, SOLA hopes to admit 40 new students. In this way SOLA is turning education into a sustainable platform for broader-based international development.
My thoughts take me back to Boston -- to a scene of post-bomb emergency response and community action. I see an image of two emergency responders bending together to lift a girl supported on a stretcher. I see how the architecture of collaboration and support replaces fear with a cultural norm shared by Americans and Afghans alike -- that of resilience.
When the audience shifts shape at the end of the panel discussion and the theater begins to empty MacNeill, the 10-year-old daughter of New Hampshire Representative Lorrie Carey, runs up the staircase in the middle of the auditorium. I am brought back to a salient phrase at the end of the film, Girl Rising: "I am change."
I am reminded of how dreams have, can, and will frame the future.
A bomb blast hits the streets of two cities separated by the strange shape of perception. The bridge? A girl. Through the shards, she runs. Maybe she falls. Maybe she runs through the rubble around her. Either way, she rises -- lifted by the support of those who believe that she will not only finish the race, but design the next route with the footprints she leaves behind. Always this girl looks up. Always her eyes reflect the still-bright blue of half the sky.