Although it was a Sunday evening in Afghanistan thousands of miles away, I could hear Razia Jan begin to softly cry over the phone from Kabul. “It is so difficult to have something good happening here because there are so many bad things,” said Jan. “And so you can’t really celebrate. There’s a lot of killing of innocent people.”
I had just asked Jan how she felt when she heard she’d been named a finalist for CNN's Hero of the Year. It still seemed unbelievable to her. And no wonder. In 2006, after living 35 years in the United States, Jan returned to her native Afghanistan with a seemingly impossible idea: to open a free private school for girls. Then the Taliban was launching horrific attacks on girls and schools throughout the country.
But Jan, who fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in 1979 and built a successful tailoring business in Duxbury, Massachusetts, wasn't about to let a little thing like the Taliban get in her way. Using her contacts, she approached the Ministry of Education and convinced them to donate a piece of land for the school.
Today the school she opened four years ago, Zabuli Education Center, has a roster of 350 girls in kindergarten through eighth grade. Even so the Taliban continue to be a huge threat to girls throughout Afghanistan. This spring in two separate incidents the Taliban poisoned dozens of girls. It’s something Jan worries about constantly, so she has chosen to live in Afghanistan, where she serves as project director of Arzu,a socially conscious nonprofit that sells beautiful rugs made by Afghan women.
If she wins the CNN Hero award, Jan plans to use the $250,000 prize to make long-needed improvements to the school, but also to start a teacher training program for the girls. You can read the rest of her remarkable story at CNN.com.
I spoke with Jan shortly before the deadly shooting by the Taliban of 14-year-old Malala Yousef, so in retrospect our conversation was especially bittersweet.
CNN Hero Nominee Razia Jan with some of the girls who attend the school in Afghanistan she founded (Credit Image: © Press Photo)
Mona: What made you return to Afghanistan to start a school for girls?
Razia: I wanted to find a way to help the children of Afghanistan. I read they were being killed and maimed. So I sent about 30,000 shoes and packages with toys to an American regiment in Afghanistan. Then they invited me to come. I was trying to help some orphanages. We went to an orphanage that had been destroyed and they were rebuilding it. And then I thought, ‘There are no schools for girls. Why not build a school?’ At that time I was the president of our Rotary Club [in Duxbury, Massaschusetts.] So I thought we should do a national fundraiser. We raised about $65,000 in one night. This was in 2005. Then we did another one in 2007.
Mona: What kind of resistance did you face with the male elders or other men in the village? How did you convince them that a school for girls was something they should support?
Razia: Their intention was that it should be a boys’ school from day one. The first day I went to where the school was going to be built. I was waiting for somebody to come and measure the place, and every two seconds one of the men would come to me, ‘Don’t stand outside woman. Women don’t stand outside. Please go inside and sit with our women and have a cup of tea and let us take care of this place.’
Mona: So what did you tell them?
Razia: I said, ‘If you want to build a school, I have to be here. I’m going to decide what I’m going to do. You have to work with a woman. If you can’t, then you’re in trouble.’ There were about 30 men and I was the only woman. I was very firm, I knew what I wanted to do, and no matter what they said I never budged. I didn’t want to give them a chance. It , worked. Slowly they stared to respect me and really work with me. I wasn’t scared of them at all. I think that made a big difference for us to go ahead.
Mona: Do you think being from Afghanistan helped?
Razia: I think, yes, of course. My age and being Afghan has made the difference. It is very very difficult for somebody else to come here and to do what I’ve done.
Mona: How did you convince the villagers to bring their daughters to your school? Was it tough?
Razia: They are people who are very conservative. They are very religious. They could not even imagine their daughters going out from the home and going to school or learning something. It was very hard for them. When we started the school, we had 108 girls. As time went on every time we had a meeting, the men would ask, ‘Would you change your mind and have the boys also here?’ I said, ‘No boys with the girls.’” It’s very hard to manage them. I would love it, but at the moment my focus is girls. And that’s my goal really.
Mona: How do the girls do their homework at night without electricity?
Razia: The girls do their homework after they do their chores. They use a candle or they use a lantern. Or they get up early in the morning and do their homework at first light.
Mona: The school is five years old now. How have the girls changed as a result of going to school?
Razia: They’re more independent. They can talk to their father or talk to their mother and show their opinions. Things can’t be forced on the girls. They rebel. Each of these girls has character. Each one can define herself and I see how they’re growing in the way they speak, and the way they carry themselves, especially the eighth graders. We were talking about something and one of them stood up and said, ’You shouldn’t worry about what the world thinks.’ They couldn’t say this before.
Mona: Has the school or any of the girls ever been targets of threats or violence by the Taliban?
Razia: This area is outside Kabul and far away. There’s no public transportation so it’s not a place people go to and find out there’s a school. Only the people in the villages know there’s a school. If someone comes, the villagers ask, ‘How did you get here?’ There are so many questions he [a stranger] could not survive to walk around in this area. So literally they watch. These people have kids coming to the school. I worry so much. Every day, every night I worry because things happen that you don’t expect.
You can’t be comfortable. I worry, but then I think I have the community with me. I hope and I pray that nothing will happen to these girls. It’s a gamble. It’s one thing that I don’t know. Every day is a struggle for us, to give these girls the education they deserve. At school they are so normal, like any American child. At home, it’s ‘go bring water, do this, do that.’ When we are in school they are children and they have the best time. I am so delighted to see their smiles and laughter. It just makes my heart so happy and so thankful to God that they have this change. Every day I try to find out what can I do to make it better for them.
Mona: Where were you when you heard that you’d been named a finalist for CNN Hero of the Year?
Razia: I was in the village. I got a call from CNN. This was 48 hours before it was announced. They said, ‘We want to tell you this, but you can’t tell anybody.’ I said, ‘Word of honor.’ I started to cry and laugh. I don’t say anything to anybody. I didn’t call my son for three days because I thought I might say something. I talk to him every day. I never indicated we are one of the winners. I kept my word of honor.
The funny thing is, you can’t tell anybody [in Afghanistan]‘I won this award’ because they don’t get it. Because they don’t watch CNN. They have no idea. So by the time you explain it to them, it loses the charm of it. I don’t know. You can’t celebrate here.
Mona: What did you tell the girls?
Razia:I explained it to them. Then of course we have computers so we can look at CNN see my face there. So they are rooting for us. They are so happy.
Mona: Do you think the U.S. war in Afghanistan has made life for girls better in the country? Or worse?
RaziaI think things are not going the way we want them, but in a way it’s never good. It's always difficult. But I think it has made it possible for millions of girls to go to school, I think it has given them an opportunity that they almost lost. It will take a long time to be where they should be. That is what I see. I think because of Americans I have a school here today. Otherwise it would have been impossible.
Mona: What will it mean to you if you win?
Razia: Oh God, it means so much to me! We can improve the school. Right now nobody really has given us any big amount of funding. Twice a year my rotary club will do a fundraiser or we’ll have a dinner. I design clothes. If I sell those, the money goes directly to the foundation. Every month I’m so worried. Every year it costs $4000 or $5000 to run the school. That's just for the basics. Then in winter we have more because I have to buy them winter clothes. We have to buy wood for the stove. They don’t have heat in their homes, so this is such a pleasure for them to come sit in a warm room and study. So these are extra things. We have Internet now. It's a lot. I pay $350 a month, but it’s a classroom so you have to have Internet if you want them to learn.
With that money we can do so much, I would love to build a third floor. My school is very small. We don’t have enough [room] for a kids playground. I want to make beautiful playground for them so they can have swings and a merry-go-round and volleyball, maybe even a court for basketball. Every penny will go to the school. This is what I want to do. I'm working very hard to make it happen.
You can cast your vote for Razia Jan for #CNNHeroes Hero of the Year at
If you'd like to like to make a difference in the lives of these young girls and learn more about the Zabuli Education Center, you can go to Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation.
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