For Half the Cost of War, We Could Educate Instead
by Pat LaMarche
One hot August night in 2008, high school senior Alex Motiuk went to his parents and said, “Mom, Dad, there’s something I want to talk to you about,” Leo Motiuk explained with a smile. “As parents of a young son you just wonder what that’s all going to be about.”
18-year-old Alex was worried about a friend from school. Alex feared that she was in trouble, that her life was about to change forever and not for the better. His Blair Academy schoolmate, Shamila Kohestani, had been sent back to her native Afghanistan and would not be able to return to the United States for college. Kohestani, captain of the Afghan girls’ soccer team, had been offered a scholarship at Blair, but at the end of the school year she went home with no prospects for college. Alex, was greatly concerned for her safety, he believed that she could be killed by extremists for stepping so far from tradition, pursuing an education in the United States.
Alex’s dad Leo thought there might be something to his son’s fears and more importantly, something he could do. Leo started making phone calls. One of those calls was to a colleague of his who was a trustee at Drew University. The trustee called University president, Robert Weisbuch, who responded, “If you can get her here by the start of the school year, we’ll give her a scholarship.” Shamila enrolled at Drew that fall.
But the Motiuks didn’t stop there. Shamila’s situation taught them that there were young Afghan women who needed help moving beyond their regular options in a war torn nation with a history of oppressing women who strayed from their traditional roles. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that 3 million Afghan school girls — along with 2 million boys — are barred from receiving an education. And more importantly for what they had in mind, the Motiuks also learned that good people inside and outside some of the nation’s most prestigious higher education facilities were poised to help.
If the Motiuks wanted to help more young women though, they would need to start a foundation. The Community Foundation of New Jersey provided a short cut to their 501(c)3 status. In just 5 years, the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund (AGFAF) has brought 25 young women to the United States to pursue their dream of higher education. And just this past week, one of their beneficiaries, Dickinson College Junior, Noorjahan Akbar, was named the very top college woman of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women.
In a speech given at Dickinson College, Akbar praised the other 9 women selected. She also praised the school which stepped up to admit her. Akbar — in an interview following her speech — heralded the faculty, saying that she loved spending time with “people on Dickinson’s campus who have done a lot more with their lives.” Doing a lot more with one’s life is a tall order when it comes to the things this 22-year-old war refugee has accomplished. Forbes Magazine has designated Akbar one of the “Women Changing the World.”
More important to Akbar than her honors in the United States are the lives of the women she struggles to help back in Afghanistan. From her earliest years when she worked as a translator at the International School of Kabul — which she did to receive a reduced tuition of just $25 per month for herself and her sister — Akbar has been putting the education and equality of woman first.
Much like an arranged marriage, AGFAF identifies colleges that will take young woman like Akbar. In this way, the plight of young Afghan women still rests in the hands of others. Dickinson College President Bill Durdin says what they’ve done by educating Akbar suits the Dickinson College mission to, “Develop global sensibility, engage the world, seek connections, practice civility and strive for accountability.”
Dickinson, Drew and the other Universities which have stepped up to educate the AGFAF’s 25 young Afghan women have shown courage and leadership and proven there’s another way to change the world. In fact if the U.S. federal government had embraced the example shown by AGFAF and its collegiate partners, they could have provided U.S. college educations to every Afghan girl for half of what the U.S. tax payer has spent on the America’s longest war. And that might go a lot farther toward positively shaping the future of women in Afghanistan.
And what do the young women back home learn from those who came to the U.S. for their education? Well, if Akbar could teach a young woman something, she said: “I would want her to focus on how beautiful her heart is. I would want her to be kind.”
Pat LaMarche has extensive experience working with the nation’s poor, most recently as Vice President of Community Affairs at Safe Harbour, Inc. As a former journalist and award-winning broadcaster, LaMarche spent more than two decades studying and reporting on poverty issues both in the U.S. and abroad. During her 2004 Green Party Campaign for U.S. Vice President, she took to the streets to uncover the lives of the homeless in what she called the “Left Out Tour,” resulting in the book Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States (2006). Among other venues for her work, LaMarche is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.