KABUL — When Fariba Mohebi, an 11th grader, learned in September that most Afghan girls would not join boys returning to school under Taliban rule, she closed her bedroom door and windows. Then she collapsed and sobbed.
From her despair, a poem emerged: “Why was I born a girl?”
“I wish I was a boy because being a girl has no value,” Fariba wrote. Afghan men “shout and scream: Why should a girl study? Why should a girl work? Why should a girl live free?
Fariba’s poem found its way to Timothy Stiven’s AP history class at Canyon Crest Academy, a public high school 8,000 miles from San Diego. It was relayed via Zoom calls between Canyon Crest and Mawoud, a tutoring center Fariba now attends in Kabul, where girls sit in class with boys and men teach girls – testing the limits of Taliban tolerance .
Periodic Zoom sessions between the Afghan and American students have opened a window to the world for the Mawoud girls, strengthening their resolve to continue their education against daunting odds. The calls also exposed the harsh contours of the Taliban regime for California students, opening their eyes to the repression of other high school students halfway around the world.
“If I was a tenth as brave as these girls, I would be a lion. They are my heroes,” Canyon Crest student Diana Reid wrote after a Zoom call this month in which Afghan girls described bombing threats and Taliban interference.
For Afghans, the Zoom sessions were a fun novelty and a reminder that some Americans still care about Afghans five months after the chaotic withdrawal of US troops and the collapse of the US-backed government and military. United.
“We are so happy that we are not alone in the world,” Najibullah Yousefi, Mawoud’s principal, told students in San Diego via Zoom. “There are beautiful minds on the other side of the world who care about us.”
The Zoom calls were organized in April by Mr. Stiven and Mr. Yousefi. One of the first topics of discussion was Fariba’s poetry, translated by Canyon Crest student Emily Khossravia and published in the school magazine. “Why Was I Born a Girl” sparked an in-depth education about Afghan realities for American students.
The class learned that Afghan students risk their lives simply by walking through the fortified gates of the tutoring center. The old location of Mawoud was leveled by a suicide bombing that killed 40 students in 2018. The new school building, tucked away on a sharp bend in a narrow lane, is protected by armed guards, high walls and concertina yarn.
Most of Mawoud’s 300 students are Hazara, a predominantly Shia Muslim minority ruthlessly attacked by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, ISIS-K. Hazara schools, protests, mosques, a New Year celebration and even a wrestling club have been bombed by ISIS since 2016, killing hundreds.
Two Shia Muslim mosques frequented by Hazaras were bombed a week apart in October, killing more than 90 people. ISIS considers the Hazaras as apostates.
Since the Taliban takeover, several Hazara-used commuter minibuses have been bombed in the Hazara neighborhood of western Kabul known as Dasht-e-Barchi. At least 11 people were killed and up to 18 injured, mostly Hazaras, the Afghan Analysts Network reported.
The Taliban, who have persecuted the Hazaras in the past, are now responsible for their security. The analysts’ independent research agency called the Taliban government’s response lukewarm, saying it downplayed the strength of Islamic State, which claimed most of the attacks. On January 14, Afghan media reported that a young Hazara woman, Zainab Abdullahi, was shot and killed at a Taliban checkpoint just five minutes from the center of Mawoud.
San Diego students also learned that attending class is a leap of faith for Fariba and her classmates, who make up 70% of Mawoud’s student body.
Mawoud prepares students for the rigorous Afghan university entrance exams. But there is no guarantee that girls will be allowed to take annual exams – or go back to high school, attend university or pursue a career in a country where the Taliban have begun to eliminate most women from public life.
The Taliban said they hope older girls will return to schools and universities, in line with Islamic guidelines, by the end of March. With the exception of some schools in northern Afghanistan, most Afghan girls beyond sixth grade have not attended school since August.
Yousefi said Taliban officials who visited the tutoring center did not set specific rules, as they had in some public schools. He said they simply insisted on adhering to “Islamic values”, interpreted as separating boys and girls and requiring girls to cover their hair and face.
When Mr Yousefi told the Taliban that a nationwide teacher shortage made it almost impossible to separate classes by gender, “they had no logical answer for me”, he said.
For American students, the Mawoud girls’ tales of perseverance – delivered in near-fluent English – were both sobering and inspiring.
“I can hardly imagine how difficult it must be and the courage girls must have to sit alongside male students after facing suicide bombings,” wrote Selena Xiang, a student from Canyon Crest, after this month’s Zoom call. “It’s so different from my life, where education is given to me on a silver platter.”
Alice Lin, another student, wrote: “They are stronger, more determined, more steadfast in their beliefs than I have ever been, and I can’t help but think: what if the Mawoud girls had had my life ?
And Ms Reid said she was struck by something one of Mawoud’s students said on Zoom: “Knowledge is powerful – and the Taliban know that.” That’s why they hide it from us.
Fariba, 16, the poet, said of the San Diego students: “They motivated us to achieve our goals – and for me, my goals are very big. She said she wanted to become a famous poet and cancer researcher.
Zalma Nabizada, another student from Mawoud, said: “I lost my motivation and was in the dark after the Taliban came. But she said the Zoom sessions helped her keep trying to be successful. She wants to become, she says, “a shining star”.
A sign, in English, hangs in a hallway in Mawoud: “Dreams don’t work unless you make them.”
Before suicide bombings killed students in Mawoud in 2018 and at a nearby tutoring center frequented by Hazaras in 2020, Mawoud had 3,000 students. Since the bombings and the Taliban takeover, the size of Mawoud’s student body has dropped by about 90 percent, the principal said.
Some Mawoud students fled with their families to Pakistan or Iran. Others stayed home, fearing Taliban bombings or harassment. Fariba said she spent weeks persuading her parents to let her attend the center.
Guards at the center turned to shotguns after the Taliban refused to let them carry assault rifles, Mr Yousefi said. As the students walk to and from the center, the principal directs them to travel in small groups, to avoid presenting a mass target.
On a recent frosty morning, the Zoom session was frequently interrupted by technical issues, but each reestablished connection was met with cheers and whoops from both classes.
There was a heartfelt discussion about a question posed by a Mawoud girl: How do you deal with loneliness? There was virtual silence as a student from Mawoud, Sona Amiri, showed her football medals and then said the girls had stopped playing football after the Taliban took over.
Another Mawoud student exhibited his oil paintings, then told students in San Diego that the Taliban cracked down on artists, forcing them to paint, draw and perform in secret.
Other Mawoud students described their dreams of graduating from high school and college and pursuing careers as doctors, journalists, lawyers, poets – and for one girl, as an ambassador for Afghanistan. in the USA.
They also talked about never backing down. “This bad situation can make a person more powerful,” Ms. Amiri, the soccer player, told American students.
Aaron Combs, a 10th grader at Canyon Crest, responded moments later, “To have each of you brave enough to speak up is incredibly inspiring.
Afterwards, Fariba, the poet, said that the sessions with the American students lifted their spirits, at least for a while. But for her, a heartwarming Zoom chat cannot soften the daily indignities and terrors endured by a young Hazara woman in Afghanistan.
“We mentally prepare for the worst,” Fariba said just after the Zoom screen went black. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s our reality.”
Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.