Dr. Hill and students
Wofford freshman hopes to bring nonprofit kindergarten to native Afghanistan

By Jason Spencer
jason.spencer@shj.com
Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Published: Sunday, February 15, 2015


Frahnaz A. (Herald-Journal photo)Fleeing a country as a child in order to go to school can really make one appreciate education.

That, in part, helps drive Wofford College freshman Farahnaz A., who hopes to start a nonprofit kindergarten in her native Kabul, Afghanistan, for children of low-income families. It's an ambitious project in a region where many children have lost their fathers to war and women and girls were relegated to second-class citizens in the not-too-distant past.

She goes by Farah. It means "happiness" in Dari, her native language. Her nonprofit would be called Farah Kindergarten.

The Herald-Journal is withholding Farah's last name to protect her identity.

"If suddenly the Taliban came back in power and they find out about me, they would kill all my family," she said. Perhaps the most remarkable part of that statement was how casual she said it — not indifferent, just accustomed to such a potential threat as a fact of life.

Farah Kindergarten is one of 10 finalists in the Impact & Launch Competition at The Space in the Mungo Center at Wofford College. In March, students will face off in a pitch competition for the chance at thousands of dollars in cash and services to bolster their startups.

Farah was born in 1993 in Afghanistan, where she lived until she was 3. When the Taliban took control in 1996, girls were banned from attending school.
Farah said her parents wanted their children to be educated — she has three sisters and two brothers — and the family initially fled to Iran before finally settling in Pakistan, where Farah attended a refugee school for four years.

The Taliban fell from power in 2001 following the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan. In 2002, Farah and her family returned to their home country, and she was able to attend school. She graduated.

Farah went on to attend Dauntsey's School, about 100 miles west of London in the United Kingdom, for two years. After graduating there, she attended the all-girl Westover School in Middlebury, Conn. That's where she discovered Wofford.

"I was the star of my school in Afghanistan," she said. "But in the UK, I was the lowest in my class. It was really, really painful." She remembers excusing herself to the restroom to cry.

Afghan education, she said, was primarily based on memorization. It wasn't until she studied in the United Kingdom and United States that Farah was exposed to an education that developed critical thinking skills and connected learning with real life.

"It changed my entire way of learning," she said. "It took a long time."
Farah recalled first arriving in the United Kingdom. Coming out of the airport, she saw a woman driving a bus for the first time.

"For me, that was a big deal. That's something I had never, ever seen in my life," she said. Her teacher told her not to stare.

Farah is Muslim. She said her family did not force the religion on her. Around 13, her parents discussed it with her, and as she got older she began researching Islam herself.

"We're all human. We all have five senses," she said. "Religion is something a human chooses for their own goodness." Farah said she has not experienced any prejudice against Muslims in her time in America.

Farah talks about her kindergarten as especially important for girls — girls who can be raised with the idea that "you are powerful" and enjoy their childhood. One might become the first female president of Afghanistan, she said.
Under the Taliban rule, women were largely confined to their homes. If they did leave, they were required to cover their entire body and be accompanied by a close male relative.

There's an edge in Farah's voice when she describes the condition. The Taliban, she said, sees women as "weak human beings."

"They were scared, because if a woman came out of the house, they would learn about society. … They would learn about their rights," she said. "Now, I feel I am dangerous to the Taliban, because I know my rights. … I could stand up and argue with them."

Younger children in Afghanistan typically find themselves polishing boots or collecting cans to sell, Farah said. A kindergarten would allow mothers to go to work and know their children are safe.

"I lived through it," she said. "I actually saw children suffering. And I had the feeling that if I could, I should do something."

She continued: "The children are the resources. If you going to build a house, you start really strong on the basic … if the basic breaks down, the whole house breaks down."

Farah Kindergarten would start out with a single kindergarten in the Afghan capital of Kabul. The focus would be on 4- to 6-year-olds from low-income families. Children from wealthier families typically are able to attend private kindergartens, Farah said. After kindergarten, children can attend public school.

Farah said she needs around $5,000 to launch her nonprofit and about $2,000 annually to operate. Her budget includes $120 per month for a teacher and $100 per month for a guard.

She's been working on her project for about two years, and said she has received preliminary government approval to open her school.

Farah wants the children to have resources such as storybooks, song books and basic writing and math books.

"These children have never had storybooks," she said. "Never, ever."

Farah said she discovered the story of Rapunzel, which she described as silly, at age 19 while studying in the United Kingdom. Adults would ask her why she was reading a book for youngsters; she told them, "This is something new for me."

Courtney Shelton, director of The Space, called Farah "a great student, who has great heart and great vision for what she wants to accomplish."

"What's different about Farah's project is that it's also a deeply personal story," Shelton said. "Students who have a passion for doing things internationally, it's always different when it's your own personal story, your own background, where you came from and where your family still is. I think that's a very different element."

Farah said she loves her time at Wofford. She hasn't yet declared a major. She is a Bonner Scholar, which requires 10 hours of volunteer work each week. Work at The Space is done in what free time Farah is able to grab.

"This is the main thing: I'm learning something," she said. "I'm a seeker. Not only am I a seeker, I'm trying to be a teacher as well."

Farah hopes to visit Afghanistan this summer. If she had been from the country's northern provinces, where the so-called Islamic State has a presence, the trip probably would not happen.

"If I put my life in danger, I help a handful of people back home. I think it's a great achievement for me," she said.

Copyright © 2015 GoUpstate.com — All rights reserved. Restricted use only.

Reprinted with permission