Girls' academic hopes disrupted as family plans return to Afghanistan

Hussna Azamy, 17, is struggling with the reality that she will have to return to Afghanistan with her family after her father was unable to find employment in the United States.
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

When Hussna Azamy was 5, she began her schooling in the living room of her family's apartment in Herat, Afghanistan. Her only classmate was a sister; their teachers were their parents. For up to five hours a day, they studied the Dari alphabet, fundamentals of math and science, and how to read the Koran.

Hussna and her older sister, Farah, came of school age in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when it was forbidden to educate girls and most of the country's schools had been destroyed. They yearned to see the inside of an actual school.

Their aspirations became real after the Taliban fell in 2001, and later, they carried their academic dreams thousands of miles to a country with one of the world's most renowned education systems.

But after less than a year in the United States -- where Hussna, 17, and her younger sister, Tamana, 13, quickly became A students in Prince William County schools -- the family plans to return to Afghanistan. Their father wants to help rebuild his country, work he has been unable to find here.

The girls, given a taste of American education, do not want to leave. They are afraid to entrust their ambitions to a system that is still vulnerable and far behind.

"I cry sometimes alone at night, sometimes with my sisters," said Hussna, a junior at Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge and an aspiring computer scientist. She worries that her lessons in Afghanistan will not be as up-to-date as those here or, worse, that girls might again be barred from schools.

Three decades of war left Afghanistan's schools in shambles, and many of its people are illiterate. Since the fall of the Taliban, the country has made strides in rebuilding, with help from foreign governments and international charities. There were 700,000 boys enrolled in primary or secondary schools in Afghanistan in 2001, according to Ministry of Education estimates. Since then, enrollment has swelled to about 7 million students, and 37 percent are female.

In recent years, the resurgence of the Taliban has brought fresh threats to the education of girls, particularly in rural areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan. But aid workers and analysts say the overwhelming demand for education and the momentum girls have achieved will continue.

The Azamys lived in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, near the Iranian border. In 2001, the girls returned to school, donning black clothes and white head scarves to join hundreds of other girls at long tables under a big tent before moving into a renovated school building next door.

Each day, they checked around their desks for bombs and handed over their bags to be searched. Their mother, Farzana Azamy, walked them to and from school each day and worried for their safety in the hours they were away. But the girls enjoyed school and excelled in their studies.

Farah, now 21, received top marks on a grueling national college entrance exam, and in 2008, she became one of an elite group of Afghan women to enroll in a public university to study medicine.

She dropped out soon after she began college, though, because the family was preparing to move to the United States. The Azamys had long sought to join relatives in Virginia and to live far from bomb blasts in a place with good schools.

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