Girls, Hope and Computers in Afghanistan

Decades of war in Afghanistan have led some to doubt the future, but one brave woman I met last week believes educating the country's girls will make an important difference.
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Decades of war in Afghanistan have led some to doubt the future, but one brave woman I met last week believes educating the country's girls will make an important difference.

Razia Jan, a CNN "Heroes of 2012" finalist, visited as a guest of the Omaha Suburban Rotary Club. They plan to sponsor 55 girls at her Zabuli school.

She was born in Afghanistan but came to the United States in 1970. In relative comfort as a tailor, she responded after 9/11 by sending hundreds of blankets to Ground Zero rescue crews. She also helped send thousands of shoes to children in Afghanistan.

Razia Jan is a naturalized U.S. citizen, but she returned to Afghanistan about four years ago to build and open a school for girls. Tears came to her eyes, as she told us how she stood outside and watched as every brick for the Zabuli Education Center was properly placed.

She began with 107 girls and today has more than 300. "I have to be so selective because financially it's impossible for me to really take every child that comes," she said. Instead, Razia Jan selects 50 to 60 of the best and most needy for each kindergarten class.

Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation raises money to benefit the girls. She says the CNN check and other dollars go straight into the fund.

Her first girls are nearing high school work, and Razia Jan wants to create a partnership with Omaha Central High School.

For four decades, the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies has linked my university and city to the wonderful Afghan people.

I am currently part of team teaching professors at Kabul University new journalism curriculum. The University of Nebraska at Omaha also has a history of training women teachers. The results are consistent with what Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn reported in their book Half the Sky -- small amounts of money targeted at young women for education change culture.

Razia Jan's simple belief is that "education is key to positive, peaceful change" by providing "opportunities to learn and grow in a safe, nurturing environment."

Razia Jan said that her girls must rise at 4 a.m. and do chores for their families before being brought to school. They work a full school day with comprehensive curriculum before returning home to do more housework. By lamplight in homes without electricity the girls end their evenings doing homework.

It costs only about $300 per girl to support their tuition, but Razia Jan needs to expand the school by building more classrooms and hiring additional teachers.

She used some of her funding to buy 10 computers and connect them to the Internet. Razia Jan told us that the girls are now using Google to answer questions and learn about the world.

These are underprivileged girls. "They never had a chance to have a school or learn even to write their name," Razia Jan says. "They want education, but they are scared."

So, she stood outside every day four years ago supervising the school's construction and declined offers to go inside for tea. "In a really bad mood I said, 'Listen brother, if you want a school in this place, you have to deal with me. You have to stand shoulder to shoulder to me. And if you don't want, then either you get away from here or I won't build this school here.'"

"Oh, no, no, no sister, we don't mean that," he retreated. So, for almost two years, she was the only woman standing there, as 30 to 40 men built the school in the Afghan village.

Razia Jan is a remarkable woman who now devotes her life to changing Afghanistan one girl at a time. By educating girls, connecting them to the outside world through the Internet and helping them grow to be women, there is hope for a better life.

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