Please note, the name and various details have been altered to protect “Daana”
It was the beginning of the semester several years ago. Daana’s face lit up. Her light green eyes whirling with excitement as she recounted the moment, she learned of her admission to AUAF. Similar to so many stories of young Afghan women, Daana’s life journey has been defined by periods of debilitating challenges and often insurmountable obstacles that are outweighed by perseverance, determination and triumph. Listening and speaking to Daana, one is immediately struck by her poise, resolve, intelligence, and maturity well beyond her then tender 24 years of age—a constant reminder of the amount of life that she has lived in this short time.
Daana’s story is one shared by millions of young Afghans who have been brought up during war and is so symbolic of the spirit of female students at AUAF. She lost her father at a young age, leaving her mother to raise a growing family who sought to escape the horrors of war that have plagued the country for decades. They, alongside thousands of fellow Afghan refugees, settled in Uzbekistan where life for the Afghan diaspora was often as restrictive and troublesome as the war zone from which they departed.
“Education was the only way out and my mother pushed me to work hard in school.” Daana explained, “I had to learn a new culture and a new language because we were sometimes treated as second-class citizens.” Her intense focus on education that evolved from the support of her family led her to excel in a rigorous academic system. She scored brilliantly in math and science and acquired proficiency in Russian, Uzbek and English. Her academic success is even more astounding considering that Daana also held the responsibility of helping to raise her siblings and contribute to the household economy—a duty she continued throughout her time at AUAF and to this day.
Daana returned to Kabul where she graduated from high school and attended a local university before she transferred to AUAF. “My friend told me how great AUAF was, and I knew I wanted to be part of this amazing place, so I applied for a scholarship and took the tests, but I didn’t think I would make it,” Daana commented. The AUAF selection process for a scholarship is and always has been highly competitive. It is comprised of a pre-test and TOEFL examination. There were 204 applicants for this single scholarship. Daana’s self-doubt was short-lived; she scored far above average in the tests and excelled in the interview. She admitted to disbelief when she received the call of her admission and receipt of a privately donated scholarship that would cover several years at AUAF.
Perhaps the only person more ecstatic than Daana was her mother, whose outlook on life for her children always remained positive even when common sense and reality occasionally urged her to abandon hope.
Although the scholarship supported Daana to live in the campus dormitory, a situation far more luxurious than her home in the outskirts of Kabul, Daana’s family needed her at home. Her unwavering commitment to her education was never hindered by the often-vexing two-hour roundtrip commute by bus or the pervasive danger due to deteriorating security over the years while she was a student at AUAF. Daana found precious time to study during the commute and at home, only after her chores were completed. So, it was often late in the evening that she would find time to study. She often studied through the night and due to frequent blackouts, she routinely would reach for her trusted candlelight to enable her to complete her work. In her sophomore through senior years, she also worked full time.
Even though we communicate frequently, due to COVID it has been difficult to be with Daana in person. But the last time I was able to see Daana, with tears in her eyes as she reached for her heavy and ever-growing backpack to board a bus to go home, she hugged me and graciously asked me to once again express to the donor family her gratitude on behalf of her entire family for helping her to achieve a coveted degree from AUAF. She said then as she continues to say, “my objective is to never stop learning.”
During her senior year, Daana received a very senior position in the public sector. Even though the position was quite demanding, she continued to excel in her studies. After graduation, she continued the position.
But Daana was still dreaming of a master’s degree, and she was awarded a prestigious scholarship to study in Europe. When she arrived in this European capital, she couldn’t believe the architecture, the fresh air, the gardens and how bright everything was, even at night. She completed her first master’s in one year.
With great excitement, Daana shared the news with me a couple of months ago, that she had received notice from Fulbright that she will study at a prestigious university in the United States to pursue a Master’s in National Security and Diplomacy. She was to depart Afghanistan at the end of August.
My hope was to greet her shortly after she arrived and get that long-awaited hug.
For every success story such as Daana’s, there are thousands of young women and men who are not presented with an opportunity to study and to better their lives. During the first Taliban rule, the women of Afghanistan were barred from having an education. Nearly two decades later, women represent nearly 30% of all university students in Afghanistan. The first class at AUAF in 2006 had 50 men and one woman. Now with over 2,000 students in undergraduate, graduate, and professional development programs, nearly half are women. A staggering achievement for this nascent institution in a conflict zone. However much more urgent work needs to be done.
I add this comment following the Taliban’s take over of Afghanistan. Daana was in hiding with her mother and siblings and nieces and nephews, all of whom feared for their lives. Although Daana could have been evacuated early in the process, she chose not to, because she simply could not leave her family who were in great danger. But recently, at her mother’s urging and through the help and generosity of many, Daana was evacuated from Kabul and is now ensconced in a world-class university in the United States and is avidly pursuing her education. I hope to get that long-overdue hug very soon.
I do not know how this story and those of hundreds of AUAF students will end, but of one thing I am certain—
Education will Prevail
A Reflection from Leslie M. Schweitzer, Chair & Founder of FAUAF