Seeing so much need in her home country of Afghanistan, Shabana Basij-Rasikh was undecided in choosing her studies at boarding school and college here in America, where she came at age 15.
"Every day I would ask, ‘Where do I start?' I wanted to become so many things," she said at the RA on Saturday. One in five women die in childbirth in Afghanistan; 90 percent of women are unable to read or write. Clean water was needed. Should she be a doctor? Lawyer? Engineer? What would help her country best?
"I realized that the way to achieve my dream is to become an educator," she said.
Now, she is co-founder of the School of Leadership Afghanistan, the only boarding school in her country. In 2008, SOLA had four students; today there are 25. Students go on to boarding schools and college in the U.S., U.K., Jordan and Bangladesh. In Afghanistan, she said, the public schools have 30-year-old textbooks and students are taught by rote memorization.
"Solutions to Afghans' problems must come from educated Afghans, especially women," she said, noting the multiplying effect of educating women who, in turn, educate their families and their communities. Education, she believes, will provide change "so our country will not be misused and be a place where threats against the rest of the world are generated."
In her youth, the Taliban took over and forbade TV, news or education for girls. She dressed as a boy and snuck out to a house where people risked their lives to provide education, changing the hours of their meetings to avoid suspicion.
Basij-Rasikh said she first heard of the U.S. after 9-11. She could not fathom a world with buildings as high as the World Trade Center, and wondered how many days it would take to climb to the top. She became aware, she said, "of the power of ignorance and at the same time, the power of education."
"The brutal treatment of women worldwide is deplorable," said Lee Cutler, NYSUT secretary-treasurer who oversees social justice for the statewide union, noting the recent killing of U.S. Diplomat Anne Smedinghoff, 25, while bringing books to Afghan children.
"In our country we know it is still unsafe for women and girls to walk alone at night," he said.
Abdul Hakim Atarud, acting charge d affaires for the Embassy of Afghanistan, presented her with the $5,000 Starfish Award from the Friends of Afghanistan, an affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association.