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The family plan

How the Basij-Rasikh siblings intend to shape Afghanistan’s future

The Basij-Rasikh sisters, on the grounds of the Brooks School with English teacher Leigh Perkins (second from left). From left: Shabana, Shugufa, and Marjeela. The Basij-Rasikh sisters, on the grounds of the Brooks School with English teacher Leigh Perkins (second from left). From left: Shabana, Shugufa, and Marjeela. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / September 19, 2009

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NORTH ANDOVER - The two teenagers perched side by side on a sofa at the Brooks School are dressed nearly identically, in skinny jeans and embroidered blouses. Their bare feet are tucked underneath them and dark scarves cover their hair. Sixteen-year-old Marjeela Basij-Rasikh and her 19-year-old sister, Shabana, don’t much look like political powerhouses, but to hear them quietly lay out their long-range plans for Afghanistan is to reconsider the nature of change.

“We don’t have enough women doctors,’’ says Marjeela, the newest member of the Brooks School class of 2011, who moved from Kabul to Massachusetts this summer to complete her high school education. “We also don’t have enough hospitals. If a person doesn’t have health they can’t do anything.’’

Shabana, a Middlebury College junior, is double-majoring in international studies and women-and-gender studies. In her spare time she runs the nonprofit organization Hela (“hope’’ in their native Pashto), which is raising money to build a high school for girls in her ancestral village of Qalatik, in Laghman Province.

There are more Basij-Rasikhs. Shugufa, 27, will graduate this fall from Simmons College with degrees in public health and sociology. Mustafa, a 22-year-old sophomore at Bates College, is a double-major in politics and economics. Freshta, 23, just graduated from journalism school at Kabul University, and the youngest Basij-Rasikh, 12-year-old Mujtaba, lives at home in Kabul and attends middle school.

Their plan? Nothing short of a family-wide foray into the fabric of Afghan society.

“Ours is a war-torn country,’’ Shugufa says. “All the systems need to be rebuilt.’’

And the Basij-Rasikhs intend to be on the front lines of that effort, as each sibling pursues a different profession - lawyer, economist, reporter, teacher, doctor, government minister - with the hope of shaping Afghanistan’s future.

“I don’t need to explain the value of education,’’ Shabana says. “We need to build schools, and even more important is to have teacher training. It doesn’t mean anything if you build a million schools and don’t have anyone to teach. We need engineers, doctors, lawyers. How do you get them? Through education.’’

It would be hard to overstate the lengths to which the Basij-Rasikh family has gone to educate its children. When the Taliban was in power, from 1996 to 2001, females were prohibited from attending school or even leaving their homes alone. (Threats and violence against schools and schoolchildren are again on the rise. In the past two years more than 640 schools in Afghanistan were burned, bombed, or shut down. Eighty percent of them were girls’ schools.)

During the years of Taliban rule, Abdul Fatah Basij-Rasikh, an army general, and his wife, Zabela, a teacher, sent their daughters to study at secret schools in private homes. Shabana dressed as a boy so she could escort her sisters through the streets, risking their lives - and their parents’ and teachers’ - for a goal that’s central to every obstacle they’ve surmounted and each opportunity they’ve embraced: to make Afghanistan a better place.

“When I graduated high school and didn’t get into the university that I wanted, I told my father I am going to work,’’ says Mustafa. “He said, ‘No. This is the time for you to go out and learn and come back home with greater knowledge.’ I think I am the luckiest person for having such a parent.’’

Mustafa and his siblings have also had the good fortune of knowing Ted Achilles and Sally Goodrich, Americans who are part of a growing network of individuals and organizations devoted to helping Afghans get an education. Achilles formerly ran the Afghanistan division of American Councils for International Education, recruiting students to attend American high schools as part of the State Department-funded Youth Exchange and Study program. Last year he founded SOLA - the School of Leadership, Afghanistan - to help Afghan students boost their reading comprehension and essay-writing skills to compete for scholarships at US colleges.

Achilles believes that the Basij-Rasikh children are part of a generation that is destined to mark a turning point in their country’s history.

“These kids growing up under the Taliban came to understand their parents’ fears of being punished, of being executed, for educating their children, and they will never ever take a moment of their education for granted,’’ Achilles says. “It’s worth waiting for Marjeela, Mustafa, Shabana, and all the others. We’re going to have to muddle through until they get here with their degrees in hand to displace the foreigners in charge of [non-governmental organizations] and get into politics and the ministries.’’

Goodrich, a coordinator of academic achievement programs for disadvantaged students in the North Adams public schools, was Mustafa’s host mom when he came to Massachusetts in 2007 for a postgraduate high school year at the Berkshire School. Goodrich lost her son Peter in the Sept. 11 attacks, and when she and her husband, Don, a lawyer, created the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation to honor his memory, their focus became education in Afghanistan, which has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. They’ve built a girls school in Logar Province, and have hosted dozens of Afghan students who come to study in America.

It’s not the Basij-Rasikh’s drive to be educated that sets them apart, Goodrich says, but their sense of service.

“Afghanistan is a country with very few job opportunities and no infrastructure, and in order to survive Afghans have had to look out for themselves,’’ Goodrich says. “They don’t have the luxury, and the country doesn’t have a history, of the kind of service to others that this family has undertaken. The Basij-Rasikhs cross ethnic boundaries in their thinking, which is unusual. What distinguishes them from other kids is this understanding that if Afghans are to succeed they need to be altruistic.’’

Meanwhile, Marjeela, who not so many years ago had to hide her lessons inside a hollowed-out Koran, is acclimating to life at a New England prep school. She lives on the leafy Brooks School campus with English teacher Leigh Perkins, is perfecting her computer skills, and learning to ride a bicycle. She began her classes last week.

“I am taking biology, chemistry, math, and Latin,’’ says Marjeela, and turns to ask her older sister for a translation. “I want to be a surgeon.’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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