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First Afghan women scholars graduate from American program

BRISTOL, R.I. --When she was a child growing up in Afghanistan, Nadima Sahar loved to draw. But after a political upheaval which brought the conservative Taliban into power in the 1990s, her love for art became a secret.

The strict Islamic movement banned art and secular music as vices, so only Sahar's family knew about her drawings.

"I couldn't share them with my neighbors," Sahar said.

Today, after four years as a college student in Rhode Island, Sahar has showcased her work at four art competitions and won prizes in all of them.

Sahar is one of three women graduating from Roger Williams University May 20 who came to the United States as part of a unique scholarship program started after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following Sept. 11, 2001. The program, called the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, provides a free college education for Afghan women, who under the Taliban were not allowed to go to school after age 8.

Sahar, 20, a political science major, Arezo Kohistani, 24, a business management major, and Mahbooba Babrakzai, 21, a major in finance, are among the first group of women in the program to graduate. On hand to see them will be First lady Laura Bush, who has developed a relationship with the women, and is scheduled to speak at their commencement ceremony.

"Coming here was a great experience," Babrakzai said. "It just, I think, changed the future of all the girls in this program and will make a change in Afghanistan as well as we go back and work there and bring our experiences from here to Afghanistan."

The women's stories start back in Afghanistan, where years of civil unrest and Taliban rule forced their families into hardship and exile in neighboring Pakistan for most of their teenage years.

Kohistani's family left Afghanistan in 1993, soon after a rocket from missiles targeting foreign embassies near their home landed in their backyard. Babrakzai and Sahar fled Afghanistan with their families in 1996 when the Taliban assumed power.

"We left with only our clothes and us," Sahar said. "We couldn't carry anything."

In Pakistan, the women were able to continue their education and learn some English. The women returned to Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.

After learning about the scholarship through family and work connections, the women were selected from 20 to 30 applicants for their excellent high school grades, work experience, English proficiency, commitment to serving their country and resilience.

But though they had a basic command of English, school was initially a struggle. Babrakzai could not understand what her professors were saying in class in her first semester.

Writing pages and pages of term papers in English was a struggle for Kohistani, and so was homesickness. It was sometimes difficult to get a phone connection to Afghanistan, so instead, she would speak to a framed portrait of her family she keeps on her dorm room desk.

"I'd share my thoughts with them," she said.

Growing up, all three women were accustomed to learning by rote memorization; in the United States, they say the education demanded independent thinking and independent work.

All three used to carry dictionaries with them to look up words they did not understand. Today, the women keep their dictionaries on their shelves.

"We still have an accent, but it has improved a little bit," Sahar said.

They spoke in fluid English while sitting in the home of Paula Nirschel, wife of Roger Williams University President Roy Nirschel. She founded the program in 2002 after seeing images of women shrouded in their burkhas on television, and being haunted by the thought that Afghan women were deprived of education and the opportunity to work.

Nirschel said when the three young women first came to campus, they appeared shy and frightened and averted their eyes from men, a form of respect in their culture. Today, she describes them as independent and confident young women who lead and participate in many organizations on campus.

"It's the wings that they've gotten by this experience, living in the United States and being part of the initiative and the Roger Williams community," Nirschel said.

Three other women in the program also graduate this year from the University of Montana, Kennesaw State University in Georgia and Montclair State University in New Jersey. By this fall, the program will sponsor about 30 students at 14 institutions, including Duke University and Mount Holyoke and Middlebury colleges.

Although the women remain devout Muslims and pray five times a day, they do not wear a traditional head scarf, as they would usually at home. After consulting with an Imam, the women decided not to cover their heads while in the United States because they did not want to draw attention to themselves for fear of some anti-Muslim sentiments that arose after Sept. 11.

The scholarship requires the women to return to Afghanistan after their studies. All three women have been accepted to a two-year masters program in public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Once they are finished, they say they'll return home to work on reconstruction.

Sahar aspires to become Afghanistan's first female president. Babrakzai wants to become the country's finance minister, and Kohistani hopes to become an ambassador.

"The more education that one has, the more on can help the country," Sahar said. "By educating a woman, you are educating a family. By educating 20 women, you are educating 20 families."

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