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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

From Kabul to St. Mary's City

Written by Barbara Geehan, River Gazette Editor

If you passed them on the way to class, you would not pick out the two raven-haired, giggling first-year students from any of the other students. Not from their clothes, their actions, or language. However, Mursal Asmati and Najiba Yousufi from Kabul, Afghanistan, have a unique story to tell.

afghanThey are here as part of a groundbreaking new effort aimed at helping to educate the next generation of Afghan women. Under the program, called the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women (IEAW), students are enrolled in colleges across the United States. All participants receive a four-year scholarship from their colleges, and are required to return to Afghanistan each summer to help rebuild the country and to return home permanently after they graduate as role models in areas such as law, political science and education. This is the first year St. Mary’s College of Maryland has participated.

Afghanistan, about one-third the size of Mexico, is an ancient country of desolate deserts and menacing mountains. Its turbulent history has largely been caused by its strategic location at the crossroads of central, west and south Asia, gateway to the riches of oil, trade and water ports. Empires rose and crumbled, dynasties came and went. Everyone invaded at one time or another: Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British, and more recently the Soviet Union. And yet this proud country always recaptured its independence and ousted the foreign occupants.

Historian Arnold Toynbee called the country a "roundabout of the ancient world" as waves of migrations left behind rich – often conflicting – patterns of ethnic, religious, and linguistic influences.

More recently, the turmoil has continued: a civil war and then the strangulating rule of the fundamentalist Taliban and Mujahadeen, and now NATO and U.S. troops’ attempts to oust al-Qaeda, all of which damage the structure of society as a whole but especially the women and children.

However, says Betul Basaran, assistant professor of religious studies who spent more than a year working with the College administration to introduce the IEAW program here, “it is a serious mistake to reduce the story of Afghan women to the image of the Taliban and the burqa. Contrary to what most of us would think, Afghanistan has a history of vibrant women’s rights movements and courageous women who refused to surrender to violence and oppression through many invasions and wars, and that struggle continues.”

Education, she adds, is undoubtedly a cornerstone of this struggle. “The IEAW, among numerous others, stands out as a program that supports the students throughout their college educations in the U.S. by bringing them together for holidays, helping them with visas, paying for them to return to Afghanistan every summer and helping them apply for paid internships. It is based entirely on the goodwill of donors and is not related to any governmental program.”

Paula Nirshel, a former social worker and wife of Roger Williams University President Roy Nirshel, founded the IEAW six years ago. That first year, four Afghan students were in the program. Today, 46 women attend 20 colleges. They are chosen for their high academic standards and good English skills.

Our two students, Mursal and Najiba, spent their young lives as refugees. In the early 1990s, when they were ages 4 and 3 respectively, their families fled the uncertainties of civil war for Peshawar, Pakistan. There, the youngsters began to learn English. “There were many problems,” says Najiba, “such as little security, economic and health problems. But I am very lucky and happy that I was able to study and go to school there.”

More than a decade later, the families retuirned to Kabul. In 2005, both Najiba and Mursal were chosen to spend a year of high school in the United States (one in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and one in San Diego, California), and lived with their host families through the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. And both worked when they returned to Kabul. Mursal was a human resources associate and then an administrative assistant for programs affiliated with U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations while going to night school at the American University. Najiba taught English to girls at a local high school.

So when they arrived on the St. Mary’s campus last fall they were well-acquainted with the very different American culture. “Socializing was not a problem,” says Mursal.

“The first semester went well, but it was challenging. The most challenging thing was being on time for classes and turning in assignments on time. I was not used to keeping up with deadlines; in Afghanistan mostly people are not as punctual as Americans.

“Also, we did not write papers to pass the class; we just had a midterm and final tests, very few quizzes.”

Najiba agrees: “The academic system in Afghanistan is very different than it is in the United States. It was difficult to adjust and keep up with all the materials a college student is required to do. Lots of reading and writing papers.”

Then there are the kinds of tests. “I knew the concept of multiple choice questions,” explains Mursal, “but I could not always understand the question because of the new vocabulary.”

Both appreciate the quality of their U.S. education. Back in Afghanistan, education is not as up-to-date, they explain. “What I really like here is the good quality education with great and helpful professors,” says Mursal.

As practicing Muslims, they pray every day and don’t go out Friday nights. When back in Kabul, they cover their hair and wear more modest clothing. But they both want to emphasize, they do it  by choice. “No one forces us,” says Mursal. “We have been doing it all of our lives.”

What do they miss? What every first-year student misses: home-cooked food and family.

‘We miss all the foods,” says Najiba. “I mainly eat tomatoes and pickles here.” Mursal eats pizza and salad. And, of course, French fries.

Najiba talks with her 5-year-old brother by phone or the internet’s Skype every other day. “He asks me when I will come home; I tell him the plane is broken for now.”

Mursal says her mother and sister are her best friends. “Families play a very important role in Afghanistan. We are very close. You love each other; it’s been that way for ages, it’s part of the culture.” She was excited to see similarities while studying Confucius. “It’s like Afghan! There is respect for your mother and father. You don’t look into the eyes” which is seen as rude.

They worry about their families’ safety these days. Even though the country shows signs of recovery with construction, schools opening and even malls, they say, the terrorist war continues. Several times, Mursal missed being at the site of an exploding car bomb by just a few minutes.

Considering how different their upbringing was, the two have adapted well to campus life. They plan to major in economics or political science. They have kayaked, and plan to learn to sail. They helped paint the Historic St. Mary’s City chapel last semester, and are looking for campus jobs for the spring. And when posing for the camera during the photo shoot, they grinned and giggled like teens. “We have learned to smile like Americans,” Mursal says. “Americans smile with their teeth.”

But they rely a lot on each other. Who best can understand what they are feeling?

“I am one of the luckiest females in my family to have the opportunity for higher education,” says Najiba. “I am thankful for all the Americans who care about our education and our country’s future. I will try my best to take advantage of this golden opportunity that I am blessed with.”

Says their adviser Betul Basaran: “I am thrilled to see how quickly Mursal and Najiba have adapted to the St. Mary’s community and can just picture them walking in their caps and gowns on graduation day! My sincere hope is that we all stay in touch with them and that the college continues to fund more students after Mursal and Najiba graduate.”