Girls' academic hopes disrupted as family plans return to Afghanistan

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; C01

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.

After years of waiting, their visas were issued by the U.S. consulate in spring 2008, and their departure seemed imminent. But paperwork continued to drag on. The family put schooling and jobs on hold and waited in Kabul and then Islamabad for a year before they could leave.

Last May, they moved in with a relative in Woodbridge, and their father, Ahmad Zahid Azamy, 46, began to look for work. The college-educated Azamy had spent nearly eight years working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. He traveled the country monitoring conflicts, human rights violations and the piecemeal development of local government institutions. He hoped to find related work in the United States as an adviser or researcher for one of the many Washington-based organizations focused on Afghanistan.

"I have done a lot for Afghanistan," he said. "I have this view that I can still do a lot . . . for peace in my country."

He was still unemployed in September when his family rented a townhouse in Woodbridge, spending savings accumulated over many years. Hussna and Tamana enrolled in school.

High school, U.S.-style

American high school was overwhelming and exciting for Hussna. Teachers helped her navigate the enormous building between periods, when hallways swarmed with students. She learned what it meant to be "tardy" and how to follow a schedule marked with blue days and red days.

She traded her head scarf and black clothes for brightly colored sweaters, jeans and sneakers. And she quickly adjusted to American-style education, with lots of student interaction.

Although not yet fluent in English, Hussna was bored at first by her courses, which included basic math and science, with extra help from an English teacher. Her teachers noticed her abilities, and within a few weeks she was enrolled in the school's rigorous International Baccalaureate courses for biology and advanced algebra.

One morning this month, she was surrounded by the bubbling sound of fish tanks in biology lab. The teacher divided the class into teams and asked them to draw pictures of the various stages of photosynthesis and respiration. Hussna grabbed a marker and began to sketch the Krebs cycle.

She easily explained to her classmates how the chemical reactions happen, ultimately yielding energy and carbon dioxide. Some students stared wide-eyed as she talked. One mumbled: "Wow. Someone who knows what she is talking about."

Biology teacher James Nolan said Hussna often takes the lead in class. "She has set the curve on a few tests already," he said.

Her report cards have been filled with A's, and an assistant principal said she should be considered for the school's gifted program.

But as she and her younger sister blossom at school, her family is struggling at home.

Farah had hoped to enroll in community college and eventually pursue a medical degree. But her family has no car and no money to pay for tuition. So she spends long days at home, listening to music and quizzing herself from a geometry textbook.

A father's frustrations

Her father spends his days worrying about money and watching the news from Afghanistan. "It's nearly one year now that I am jobless," he said.

He described a frustrating job search, filled with unreturned calls and e-mails and promises of help from former employers in Afghanistan that did not materialize.

His relatives here have found jobs in banks or driving taxicabs. But he does not want work that is unrelated to his expertise about Afghanistan, knowledge that he thinks is critical to this country's security. His job worries have been compounded by health problems that he and his wife could not afford to have treated here. Finally, this winter, he decided that the family should go back.

The plan is to move to Kabul, and to move soon, so Farah, after a two-year hiatus, can enroll again in college before the next term begins in March.

The father is deeply disappointed to be starting over again, but he hopes that his daughters will find new academic opportunities and that he will be able to support his family. Kabul is home to the country's flagship public university, which is undergoing extensive rebuilding.

There is also the recently opened American University, a private school that offers scholarships and computer science degrees.

The decision has pitted him against all the women in his family, who want somehow to stay. But they are slowly preparing to go.

Hussna has begun telling her teachers that soon she will be gone. "I know that we can't stay here," she said.

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