Founder of Afghan girls school tells Heidelberg Scouts of challenges
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Razia Jan has told the story countless times of how she left a comfortable life in Massachusetts and went home to Afghanistan to build a school for girls.
But the enormity of what she’s accomplished and of what still lies ahead in her stubborn fight to better the lives of girls oppressed for generations in her native land at times overwhelms her.
Jan choked up Tuesday night while sharing with Heidelberg-area Girl Scouts the tale that has come to define her life.
“If I can survive a day with my school, I am so happy,” Jan said. “I thank God that nothing happened to the school. Every day is a trial; every day is a worry.
“But there is always hope,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “That is what is keeping me going, and when I come and speak to people like you, it gives me more strength to go forward.”
It was Jan’s strength that inspired 17-year-old Cara Burmedi, a Heidelberg Girl Scout whose project to earn the Scouts’ coveted Gold Award has centered on supporting Jan’s school through Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation.
Jan, 68, founded the nonprofit organization to help establish educational support and resources for girls and women in Afghanistan’s rural Deh’Subz District, about 30 miles northeast of Kabul. The foundation’s focus is the Zabuli Education Center for Women and Girls. Jan was instrumental in getting the center built in 2008, despite village leaders’ initial insistence that it be a school for boys. The private school currently enrolls more than 350 students from seven villages.
Before starting her Gold Award project, Burmedi organized a used-book drive with the help of her troop, raising more than $1,000, which was sent to Jan’s foundation with a note saying it was from Troop 372. The girls received a note back from Jan, saying she would be in Germany in July 2011 and would like to meet them. When they met, Jan made such an impression on Burmedi that she decided to switch her Gold Award project from helping animals in a local shelter to supporting Jan’s school.
“Razia dedicated her entire life to this school and to this cause and to helping these girls, and that really inspired me to continue helping,” Burmedi said.
Burmedi was also struck by the plight of girls in Afghanistan, where they have been attacked and killed for trying to get an education, an opportunity they were denied under Taliban rule.
The country has long had one of the poorest education records in the world, with low school attendance rates and high illiteracy.
“It seemed so weird to me. In America, or here in Germany, it’s really a drag to go to school, where in Afghanistan, girls want to go to school and they don’t have the opportunity,” Burmedi said.
Burmedi asked Jan how she could help. Jan needed winter coats for her students and volunteers at her school, she told Burmedi.
The first request was easier to accomplish. Burmedi organized a coat drive, collecting dozens of winter coats for Jan’s students; 20 boxes of them recently arrived at Jan’s school, Jan said Tuesday, and every single one will be worn.
Burmedi also had planned to volunteer at Jan’s school, but her family deemed it wasn’t safe, as the trip dates coincided with the violent protests that broke out across the country in early 2012 in response to the burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers.
Burmedi invited Jan to come to Germany, offering to pay for her trip through donations and fundraising.
Jan arrived last week and has given several talks to U.S. and German audiences. She’s scheduled to speak Thursday at Ramstein Middle School in the multipurpose room from 5-7 p.m.
Before her talk Tuesday, Jan said she appreciates the opportunity to spread her message of hope at a time when news from Afghanistan continues to be grim.
“As you know, things are really not going very well in Afghanistan. Every day a soldier is killed, and so it’s just very important to let them know there are good things happening there, no matter how small it is,” she said. “Education is the only way, really, we can change Afghanistan in the long run.”
The challenges to keep her school going have been many, she said, but the families, despite their initial misgivings about sending their daughters to school, have supported her. Still, when they hear news of girls elsewhere in Afghanistan being killed or attacked for going to school, or the case of a 14-year-old girl in neighboring Pakistan who was recently shot in the head for asserting her right to an education, it makes Jan and the families worry.
“Yes,” she replied when a Girl Scout asked if she were scared. “I’m very scared. Everybody’s scared. I worry every day. When every day passes, I say ‘Thank God, we are going forward.”