Seattle attorney battles to keep girls' schools open in Afghanistan

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 3, 2010 

Mullah Ahamdjan is the Islamic cleric who serves as principal of a village girl's school in Afghanistan that came under attack by Islamic extremists. (Hal Bernton/Seattle Times/MCT)

HAL BERNTON / SEATTLE TIMES / MCT

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — In late September, Julia Bolz got disturbing news about the first girls' school she had helped build in this country.

A young militant, recently returned from Pakistan, was whipping up opposition to the school in the small village outside Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. At night, he and his allies put leaflets on doorsteps. During the day, they patrolled the street in front of the school on motorbikes and warned the girls to stay away.

The principal was told to shut down the 7-year-old school or face assassination. To reduce the risk of beheading, he moved out of his home.

When Bolz heard about the threat, her initial impulse was to attend the community meeting set up to confront the militants.

“I wanted to be a voice for these girls,” recalls Bolz, a Seattle attorney. “But I was told that if someone from the West came, it would show that this school was a Western idea. It was important that this be an Afghan meeting.”

So Bolz stayed away, hoping for the best from an Afghan village that has undergone seismic change as girls, for decades shut out of the education system, have been given a chance to go to school. (The Times is not naming the village for security reasons.)

In the past seven years, Bolz has raised money to construct 19 new schools and repair more than a dozen others in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan. Those schools, now operated by the Afghan Ministry of Education, serve nearly 18,000 students, most of whom are girls.

Next year, Bolz’s organization, Ayni Education International, plans to spend about $600,000 building, expanding and maintaining schools as well as operating two teacher training centers.

Bolz, 48, has not gained the fame that envelops Greg Mortenson, whose best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea” chronicles his transition from climbing mountains to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But she has achieved notable success bolstering education in a nation where so many aid efforts have foundered.

Bolz, who no longer practices law, spends part of the year in the U.S. tapping a fundraising network that ranges from Seattle schoolchildren to the National Geographic Society, and part of the year in Afghanistan rallying community support.

Her work is part of a broader international effort to revive an Afghan education system shattered by 30 years of war.

Throughout the fighting, schools often have been under siege.

During the years of the Soviet occupation, schools were targeted by mujahedeen forces, wary that they might spread communist ideology. More recently, schools have been attacked by Taliban insurgents who want to keep girls at home and educate boys in religious madrassas that teach militant Islamic ideology.

In the past seven years, the U.S. government has helped build or renovate 680 Afghan schools. And the U.S. Agency for International Development is spending $94.million for training and support of teachers.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has cited expanding the education system as an essential part of the battle against the Taliban.

But just like the military fight, there have been plenty of setbacks.

Some 45 percent of Afghanistan’s school-age children — 5.million boys and girls — still do not have access to primary education. In some remote areas, there never have been schools. In other areas, the Taliban have burned, bombed or otherwise shut down hundreds of schools, including some built with U.S. or other Western aid.

“If we send our children to these schools, then the Taliban, they will come to our homes at night and kill us,” said a Pashtun elder in an Arghandab village, where a large, modern school built with Japanese aid now stands empty.

A time of change

Bolz first arrived in Balkh province in January 2002, right after the fall of the Taliban. An immigration attorney in Seattle, she had decided on a dramatic career change after helping her sister in a successful battle with cancer. She worked in Africa and other Asian countries before arriving in Afghanistan.

Northern Afghanistan is a stronghold of the Tajiks and Uzbeks, who backed the mujahedeen fighting Soviet rule during the 1980s. These ethnic groups have long been the backbone of resistance to the Taliban, who are dominated by Pashtuns from the south.

Like most of Afghanistan, conservative Islamic traditions dominate. In the villages, women typically live most of their lives within family compounds, leaving only when shrouded in burqas. Still, Bolz found plenty of people who were weary of war and eager to reach out to Westerners with fresh ideas.

“I felt like this was a place where I could make a difference, where people were open to working with us,” Bolz said. “And I felt like if I could make a change here, there is a ripple effect elsewhere.”

Bolz focused some of her early efforts in a village northwest of Mazar-i-Sharif.

There, a woman named Kobra was determined to get a school built for girls.

Kobra, who like many Afghans goes by one name, had been educated in Mazar-i-Sharif. In an arranged marriage, she became the second wife of a mujahedeen leader in the village.

She had always believed that girls had a right to education, and during the Taliban occupation she’d taught students in an underground school. Once the Taliban were ousted, she wanted to bring education for girls out of the shadows.

“Kobra said, ‘If you build this school, I will knock on every single door on the village and get the girls to come, and I will also get you teachers,’.” Bolz recalls.

Kids helping kids

In the spring of 2002, on a return trip to Seattle, Bolz visited Coe Elementary on Queen Anne Hill and asked for help building that first girls’ school in Afghanistan. The Coe students were then housed in temporary classrooms because their school had been destroyed by a fire.

Eager to do something to help Afghan children, Coe students raised nearly $4,000 through bake sales, concerts, baby-sitting, parent contributions and other means.

The money was pooled with other funds to build the girls’ school on a bare-bones budget of about $30,000.

That school opened in 2003, in a brick building with a roof made of clay mixed with straw.

Kobra served as the principal. On the first day of classes, more than 400 girls of all ages showed up to begin their studies.

The students learned to read and write so they could help their parents decipher the meaning of a local newspaper or a drug prescription. They mastered some basic math so they could make sure the merchants fairly calculated weights and prices of the food their families purchased.

But in 2006, the school suffered a setback when Kobra, the charismatic principal, died at age 55.

School leadership passed on to Mullah Ahmadjan, an Islamic cleric with a lifelong interest in education.

Ahmadjan began his teaching career at a boys’ school in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation.

That school was burned down by fighters revolting against the communists. Fearful that he would be killed, Ahmadjan fled to Pakistan, returning home nearly two decades later after the fall of the Taliban.

Ahmadjan believes there is no conflict between the Quran and anyone — boys or girls — getting an education in math, science, language and art.

“All girls should be able to attend school so they will be able to know their rights, know good from bad, and be able to serve their community,” Ahmadjan said.

But he has had a difficult tenure.

Some female teachers quit to raise families. Qualified replacements were hard to find, especially for the more advanced classes. So male teachers took over these classes — offending many parents who did not want the men in close daily contact with their adolescent girls.

School attendance, which had peaked at more than 1,000 students, went into decline. Janese and Van Hubbard, two Americans who oversee Bolz’s school-construction program in Afghanistan, feared that the mullah couldn’t turn things around.

“The mullah was struggling,” Janese Hubbard said. “He is a quiet man, so he has a harder time addressing these issues head on.”

New teacher emerges

Last spring, the school got an infusion of fresh energy from a 20-year-old teacher named Shabona.

Shabona, who had family ties in the village, offered to teach the older girls, and she insisted that the men shift to the more culturally acceptable task of teaching only the younger girls. She also went door-to-door to boost attendance.

“I had to convince the families to send the older girls back to school because the males were gone from those classrooms,” Shabona said. “But a lot of the parents didn’t believe that.”

By early summer, attendance revived as Shabona took over teaching Dari language, math, physics and other courses in the eighth-grade curriculum.

Some village women said they also wanted an education. So Shabona launched early-morning adult literacy classes that attracted more than 40 housewives.

Not everyone backed this expansion of education.

The young militant, returned from a stay in a religious madrassa in Pakistan, was convinced that education for any females conflicted with Islamic values. He harassed girls who attended the school and appeared willing to launch a violent campaign to close it.

Though fearful, Ahmadjan stood his ground. The mullah joined the village elders and officials from two Afghan government ministries at an October community meeting to confront the militant and his allies.

The meeting, an all-male gathering, was a victory for school proponents. Everyone, including the militant and his allies, signed a pledge to support education for boys and girls.

“Ever since that meeting, there have been no more problems,” Ahmadjan said. “These people, they knew they were outnumbered. They had to change their ways or be isolated from the community.”

In the years ahead, there will be plenty of new challenges for the school, which eventually is to be expanded to offer a full high.-school education.

The real test of the school, though, may rest with what happens to its students once they graduate.

Families often marry off girls before the age of 20, and there are still scarce opportunities for village women to attend college or vocational schools.

But surveys conducted by Bolz and the Hubbards show that students’ aspirations are changing. In an initial survey several years ago, few said they thought much about their future. Now, many say they want to be teachers, run for parliament or even for president.

“These kids are frustrated with the status quo. We have given them hope,” Bolz said. “Now, what do we do?”

(Bernton reports for the Seattle Times.)

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