By Candy Cooper
I can’t decide where this story begins, though I know that I came to it in the middle and along the margins. Does it start in 1998, when a spirited 9-year-old girl, Shamila Kohestani, skips off to the market in Kabul, Afghanistan, only to have a Taliban soldier grab her and beat her with a stick because her ankles are bare? Or does it start with Shamila kicking a soccer ball around her small Kabul courtyard, burning with anger and ambition while on virtual lockdown under the Taliban?
Maybe it begins 10 years later at the verdant Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey, where Shamila — at first barely fluent in English, and five years of schooling behind her peers — earns her diploma. Or it starts with her classmate, Alex Motiuk, who is struck by the injustice of his relatively bright future as compared with Shamila’s possibly dead-ended one. He shares his upset with his father, Leo, a Morristown lawyer, who is pleased to see his son show an interest in something beyond computer games and trips to the mall.
The elder Motiuk calls a friend, who in turn calls a friend, who is a trustee at Drew University, who then emails the president, Robert Weisbuch. Could Drew possibly sponsor Shamila Kohestani over four years? “I think this sounds promising,” the president responds, adding that he is out of town, attending his wife’s graduation from a master’s degree program. Maybe this story starts soon after, when the Drew president says yes, that he will pay for tuition as well as room and board. But I am biased, because that is my husband, and that, incidentally, was my graduation.
In any case the story keeps writing itself, because Shamila graduates from Drew while Motiuk starts up a fund to bring other Afghan women to the U.S. to go to college. Bob helps place students at Skidmore and Goucher. Over the next nine years, Motiuk and his friends succeed in placing 39 Afghan students, mostly women, in U.S. colleges and universities, including Yale, Rutgers, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Lafayette, Connecticut College, Oberlin and more. Fifteen of the 39 are in school now and another 21 have graduated, an amazing record of completion.
The goal in every case is to support the higher education of Afghan women who are committed to using their education to bring about social change and gender equality when they return to Afghanistan, which has in more than one survey been ranked the most dangerous country in the world for women. One student, Sajia Darwish, a junior at Mt. Holyoke, returned to Kabul last summer to build a library at her old high school, which hundreds of students and teachers now visit daily. Sajia wants to renew the lost reading culture of Afghanistan.
To go to the annual dinner for the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund is to be wowed and inspired. The young women are extraordinarily self-possessed though most also have gone through one or another kind of hell. Yet their optimism is undamaged. At the dinners, Shamila Kohestani, now 27, calls herself the “grandma,” since she was the first and is now the oldest.
Motiuk and his friends are inspiring as well, for they have no other motive than to help. And they could use some. That is why they are holding two events in Montclair this weekend, one on Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Montclair Public Library, where they will tell the story of the fund. They will describe the creation of Sajia’s library, called Baale Parwaz, translated as “Wings to Fly.” And, with the support of Watchung Booksellers, they will be joined by Jeffrey Stern, author of “The Last Thousand,” about the Kabul high school from which many of the Afghan girls graduated.
A similar session will take place Saturday at 3 p.m. at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, at 73 South Fullerton Ave. Attendees are asked to bring a nonperishable food contribution to Toni’s Kitchen, also a supporter.
Why help Afghan girls when so many American kids also need the support? In our house we say: Do both.
Candy J. Cooper is a journalist and author living in Montclair.