‘Why was I born a girl?’ An inspirational Afghan poem for US students

KABUL – When Fariba Mohebi, an 11th grader, learned in September that most Afghan girl will not join the boys back to school under Taliban rule, she closes the door and window into her room. Then she broke down and sobbed.

From her despair, a poem emerges: “Why was I born a girl?”

“I wish I was a boy because being a girl has no value,” Fariba wrote. Afghan men “scream and shout: Why should a girl learn? Why should a girl work? Why does a girl have to live freely? ”

Fariba’s poem made it to Timothy Stiven’s AP history class at Canyon Crest Academy, a public high school 8,000 miles away in San Diego. It was relayed via Zoom calls between Canyon Crest and Mawoud, a tutoring center Fariba currently attends in Kabul, where girls sit in class with boys and men teach girls – check the limits of the Taliban’s prohibition.

Periodic Zoom sessions between Afghan and American students have opened a world door for the girls at Mawoud, solidifying their determination to pursue their education in the face of challenges. The appeals have also revealed the harsh contours of Taliban rule over California schoolchildren, opening their eyes to oppression by high school classmates half a world away.

“If I were a brave 10th like these girls, I would be a lion. They are my heroes,” wrote Diana Reid, a Canyon Crest student, after a Zoom call this month in which Afghan girls described navigating bomb threats and interference. of the Taliban.

For Afghans, the Zoom sessions are a delightful novelty and a reminder that some Americans still care about Afghans five months after the US military withdrew in chaos and the government and army led US-backed collapse.

“We are very happy because we are not alone in this world,” said Najibullah Yousefi, principal of Mawoud, to San Diego students via Zoom. “There are some beautiful souls on the other side of the world who are interested in us.”

Zoom calls were arranged in April by Mr. Stiven and Mr. Yousefi. One early topic of discussion was Fariba’s poetry, translated by Emily Khossravia, a Canyon Crest student, and published in the school magazine. “Why I Was Born a Girl” promoted an intensive education in Afghan realities for American students.

The class learned that Afghan students could risk their lives just by walking through the fortified gates of the tutoring center. Mawoud’s former position was leveled by a suicide bombing killed 40 students in 2018. The new school building, tucked away in a narrow bend in a narrow alleyway, is guarded by armed guards, high walls and piano strings.

Most of Mawoud’s 300 students are Hazara, a predominantly Shiite Muslim minority that has been brutally attacked by Islamic State-K in Afghanistan. Hazara School, Demonstration, mosque, a new year celebration and even a wrestling club has been bombed by ISIS-K since 2016, killing hundreds of people.

The two Shiite mosques attended by Hazaras are bombed a week apart in October, killing more than 90 people. ISIS considers Hazaras apostates.

Since the Taliban takeover, several commuter minibuses used by Hazaras have been bombed in the Hazara district in western Kabul, known as Dasht-e-Barchi. At least 11 people were killed and 18 injured, most of them Hazaras, Network of Afghan Analysts report.

The Taliban, who have persecuted the Hazaras in the past, are now responsible for their security. The independent think tank of analysts described the Taliban government’s response as tedious, saying it undercut the strength of ISIS-K, which has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks. On January 14, Afghan media reported that a young Hazara woman, Zainab Abdullahi, had been shot dead at a Taliban checkpoint just five minutes from central Mawoud.

San Diego students have also learned that taking the class is a leap of faith for Fariba and her female classmates, who make up 70% of Mawoud’s students.

Mawoud prepares students for the rigorous Afghan university entrance exams. But there’s no guarantee that girls will be allowed to sit for the annual exams – or go back to high school, attend college, or pursue a career in a country where the Taliban have begun to clear most of their lives. women from public life.

The Taliban said they hoped older girls would return to schools and universities, following Islamic guidelines, by Last March. Except for a few schools in northern Afghanistan, most Afghan girls above sixth grade have not attended school since August.

Mr. Yousefi said that Taliban officials who visited the tutoring center did not make specific regulations as they have applied at some public schools. He said they merely emphasize adherence to “Islamic values”, which is understood as separate boys and girls and asked the girls to cover their hair and face.

When Mr. Yousefi told Talibs that a nationwide shortage of teachers made it nearly impossible to divide classes by gender, “They didn’t have any reasonable answers for me,” he said.

For American students, the Mawoud girls’ narrative of perseverance – delivered in near-fluent English – is both serious and inspirational.

“I can hardly imagine how difficult it must have been, and the courage it must have taken for girls to sit next to boys after facing suicide bombings,” said Selena Xiang, a Canyon Crest students, wrote after a Zoom call this month. “It’s very 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 ever before, and I can’t help but think: What if the Mawoud girls were given the best chance of being given the best chance to be a Mawoud girl? give me my life?”

And Ms. Reid said she was struck by something one of the Mawoud students said on Zoom: “Knowledge has power – and the Taliban know it. That’s why they keep it with us. ”

Fariba, 16, a poet, said of the San Diego students: “They pushed us to achieve our goals – and for me, my goals are huge.” She said she wants to be a famous poet and a cancer researcher.

Zalma Nabizada, another Mawoud student, said, “I lost motivation and fell into darkness after the Taliban arrived.” But she said that the Zoom sessions helped motivate her to keep trying to achieve. She said she wanted to be “a shining star”.

A sign, in English, hangs in the hallway at Mawoud: “Dreams don’t come true unless you make them.”

Before suicide bombers killed students at Mawoud in 2018 and at a nearby tutoring center attended by Hazaras in 2020, Mawoud has 3,000 students. Since the bombings and the Taliban takeover, Mawoud’s student size has dropped by about 90%, the principal said.

Some Mawoud students have fled with their families to Pakistan or Iran. Others have stayed at home, fearing bombings or Taliban harassment. Fariba said it took her weeks to convince her parents to let her study at the center.

The center’s guards switched to shotguns after the Taliban refused to let them carry assault rifles, Yousefi said. When students walk to and from the center, the principal instructs them to walk in small groups to avoid large crowds.

On a recent freezing morning, the Zoom session was frequently halted due to technical problems, but each re-established connection was greeted with cheers and regrets from both classes.

Have a heartfelt discussion about a question posed by a Mawoud girl: How do you deal with loneliness? There was near silence as a Mawoud student, Sona Amiri, displayed her soccer medal, then said the girls had stopped playing football after the Taliban took over.

Another Mawoud student displayed his oil paintings, then told the San Diego students that the Taliban had persecuted the artists, forcing them to paint, paint, and perform in secret.

Other Mawoud students describe dreams of graduating from high school and college, pursuing a career as a doctor, journalist, lawyer, poet – and for one girl, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States.

They also say to never back down. “This bad situation can make a person stronger,” soccer player Amiri told American students.

Aaron Combs, a 10th grader at Canyon Crest, replied shortly after, “It’s incredibly inspiring that each of you are brave enough to speak up for yourself.”

Later, Fariba, the poet, said the sessions with the American students boosted morale, at least for a while. But for her, a touching discussion about Zoom could not assuage the daily outrage and horror that a young Hazara woman in Afghanistan endures.

“We brace ourselves for the worst,” said Fariba shortly after the Zoom screen went dark. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s our reality.”

Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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