By French Hill-This year, we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Fulbright program. Established in 1946 by then-Arkansas U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, this exceptionally American contribution to the world has educated over 360,000 students from 165 countries, including 52 Nobel Laureates and 31 heads of state.
Little known is the contribution of this program to the relationship between America and Afghanistan. Starting in 1952 and all the way through 1979, 250 Afghans studied in the U.S., and 105 Americans studied in Afghanistan.
Following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent takeover of the country by the Taliban, the Fulbright program became absent in Afghanistan until recently. Since 2003, there has been a rebirth of the program, with over 450 Afghans pursuing professional and graduate study in the United States.
Recently, I had the good fortune of having tea in Kabul with one of those students, Naheed Esar, a native of Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
At four months old, she and her family were forced to flee to Pakistan, where they lived in a refugee camp. In 1999, she moved back to her native country and studied in an underground school in Herat Province. In meeting with her, I quickly realized I was in the presence of a remarkable individual, one whose story should remind all of us that there can be a future with a free Afghanistan.
During our time together, I learned that she comes from a long line of extraordinary women. Her inspiration for her own success was her grandmother, a freedom fighter and founder of three schools. The indomitable spirit of her and her family has resulted in Naheed’s successful graduation from the University of Arkansas as a Fulbright Scholar with a master’s degree in cultural anthropology.
Today, she is in her home country pursuing a career as an independent researcher and writer. She has completed a longitudinal research project on the lives of widows in Kabul and, as a result, has founded a “Widows Association” to help the many women who have struggled with loss from decades of strife in Afghanistan.
In November, we were reminded of the extent to which women have been oppressed in Afghanistan when the long trial of a young woman accused of adultery ended in her gruesome murder by stoning in Ghor Province at the hands of Taliban zealots.
While this paints a picture of the challenges that still exist in Afghanistan, we also have seen major improvement in the last 14 years. In 2001, no girls attended school, and only one million young boys did. Since that time, according to the World Bank, Afghanistan has seen 560 new schools built with over eight million enrolled–more than one-third of which are girls. Likewise, life expectancy in 2001 was 44, and today it is 64.
Naheed is a leader of this mini-renaissance, and it is the education she has received that has made her an integral part in the fight for a hopeful and economically independent Afghanistan. However, with a literacy rate of only 38.2 percent, there is no chance for a great democracy until Naheed’s experience becomes the rule and not just the exception–just as we know in our own country.
And, while education is important for their entire population, it is particularly critical for the women of Afghanistan. For not only does education advance their lives and opportunities, but it enriches the entire culture, building better communities and families.
Many have questioned America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan, and this is understandable given that when we invest so much in something we want to see immediate returns on that investment. But even the most cynical among us should be able to look at stories like Naheed’s and be proud of the work America is doing to provide young men and women in Afghanistan the power to control their own destiny.
Recently, the president made the decision to continue America’s military investment in Afghanistan. While I agree with his decision, we need to acknowledge that this is not a mission American men and women in uniform can win all on their own. Access to education will ultimately be what makes or breaks the future of liberty and democracy in this war-torn country.
There is no better time to sing this message than on the 70th anniversary of a program that has resulted in amazing advances for people all across the globe, including many in Afghanistan.
The road is long, but the future is in the hands of Naheed and the other brave young people who will not concede their futures to terror.
I take inspiration from a beautiful poem published in a 2015 collection of works by the Afghan’s Women Writing Project titled “Washing the Dust from Our Hearts.” Masuama’s poem, “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,” contains these verses for the future: “Yesterday my sister was stoned, today she is studying to be a doctor, and tomorrow she will save a life.”—(The Democrat-Gazette)