An Afghan girl walks down the road on her way to school. An Afghan man splashes acid on her face.
It's an example of what girls in Afghanistan face in trying to get an education, Razia Jan said Wednesday in Omaha. And it's the challenge of changing that oppression that led Jan to return to her homeland five years ago and open an all-girls school.
“I'm trying to put that seed in their mind that they are human beings,” Jan told about 65 students and teachers at Omaha Central High. “Education is the only way.”
Jan was in Omaha to talk with the Central students and teachers about a potential partnership. The Omaha Suburban Rotary Club helped bring her to Omaha because the club plans to help sponsor 55 girls at the school, said member Ed Walsh.
Jan was born in Afghanistan, immigrated to the United States in 1970 and for years ran a small tailoring business outside Boston while volunteering in organizations such as her local Rotary.
Then Sept. 11, 2001, transformed her life.
She sent more than 400 homemade blankets to Ground Zero rescue workers. She mailed care packages to U.S. troops in her home country. And she helped send more than 30,000 pairs of shoes to Afghan children.
In 2008, she moved to Kabul and opened the Zabuli Education Center with 107 girls.
She told the Central students that her girls study similar subjects — four languages and algebra and geometry, along with physics and chemistry — but without many of the resources the Omaha students have, such as a notebook for each subject.
Central plans to establish a sister-school relationship with Jan's school. Central students and teachers discussed exchanging emails or short videos initially.
The program will be a part of Central's newly formed International Baccalaureate program in which students take classes with international and analytical aspects to them.
The program requires students to study math, science, social studies, arts, English and an international language. Students also have a community service requirement, take a course in critical thinking and write a several-thousand-word research paper.
Central students asked Jan why girls are treated so poorly, what the Afghan government thinks of educating girls and what children are like in Afghanistan.
Jan said some Afghan men become selfish, want everything for themselves and treat women poorly out of fear. The men act as if women are their property, arranging marriages and throwing punches.
“They can't imagine for a woman to be free, to do something for themselves,” Jan said.
The government supports educating girls, but it's the Taliban that suppress movements and attack schools, she said. In 2011, there were 185 documented attacks on Afghanistan schools and hospitals, according to the United Nations.
Girls there are similar to girls here, she said. They think about boys, act their age and get into trouble. “There are spoiled brats here, and there are spoiled brats there,” Jan said to laughs.
But Afghan girls have not always endured such abuse, Jan said. She told the students about the Afghanistan she knew growing up, calling Kabul at that time the “Paris of the Middle East.”
The country had the best clothing in the region, offered its children the best education and let its women travel freely to other countries for more schooling.
But from the Soviet Union's invasion of the country to the Taliban's takeover to the U.S. occupation, Jan said, “This is 35 years of war.”
She, however, does see hopeful signs: Attendance at her school is up to 347 girls. Boys have brought their sisters to kindergarten, a year after they refused to do so. And at home, girls tell of speaking up and asking their parents questions.
At Central, she encouraged the students to find ways to help here and there.
“Service above self. You do things for your neighbor,” she said, asking students to donate money to worthy causes. “If you can be a part of it, a little bit, that would be so great for us.”
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