Nargis Zadran serves as education director for Educate Girls Now, a nonprofit that supports Afghan girls and their families. (Photos by Suzanne Carr-Rossi)

In Afghanistan, old forces threaten girls’ education. She represents a new school of thought.

by | Jun 9, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, Schools & Education

In 2021, when the Taliban swept across Afghanistan, neither billions of dollars in aid nor 20 years of nation-building could impede the group’s return to power and the far-reaching cultural and humanitarian ramifications that would follow.

Where those vast resources have failed, Nargis Zadran sees a path forward with $120 a month and, when feasible, the occasional smartphone or tablet.

Less than three years after fleeing her home country, Zadran sits outside a cafe in downtown Fredericksburg. On the other side of the glass storefront, a young woman studies at a wood-top bar, headphones in and gaze transfixed on the glow of a laptop screen.

The girls Zadran works to educate can’t afford to be so conspicuous.

As director of education programs for the nonprofit Educate Girls Now (EGN), she serves more than 50 Afghan families who receive monetary support in the form of monthly stipends to educate their daughters surreptitiously to avoid notice of the repressive regime, which shut down girls’ secondary schools in 2022.

Approximately 30 girls receive online instruction through WhatsApp and Signal, platforms chosen by EGN for their sophisticated encryption technology. When EGN sends stipends to families, the funds arrive under the cover of innocuous entities.

“People cannot put two and two together,” Zadran says of the Taliban. “They’re disorganized. They’re just crazy people, really. I hope they don’t get organized. It helps us. I see potential in this program.”

Some provinces lack the infrastructure to allow for online education, so EGN focuses its efforts into providing in-home tutors or tuition for underground schools or “madrassas,” some of which are still operational.

Few conditions are attached to the funds, provided families pledge to educate their daughters.

“It’s the women and girls in the families who are the changemakers that break the wheels of poverty and everything,” Zadran says. “If you educate a woman, you educate the entire family.”

‘We made a fire’

A rather harmonious spring day on Caroline Street was shattered momentarily by the honking of a perturbed driver.

“Speaking of trauma,” Zadran says, shifting in her chair.

Cars jammed Kabul’s highways on Aug. 15, 2021, with traffic concentrated in particular along the northeast corridor of the city near the international airport. That morning, Zadran and her partner had driven to pick up his COVID test results before he boarded a flight to Germany.

On the way home from the airport in gridlock, a man rapped on her passenger window.

“He was like, ‘Sister, get out of the car,’” she recalled. “’You’re sitting in a government vehicle with a government plate. The Taliban have entered.’”

Without a second thought, Zadran got out and removed the license plate. Her guard, who was dressed to look like a government official (“For crazy reasons, there was some wisdom to it at the time,” she offers.), ditched his uniform in favor of a plain T-shirt.

Ultimately, they decided to ditch the car as well and go on foot.

The armored vehicle wasn’t the only factor that made Zadran and her family potential targets. She served as the principal for Mezan International School and was a member of a steering committee that helped develop a new, westernized curriculum in Afghanistan. Her partner worked with an intergovernmental organization, and her sister-in-law served in the country’s parliament.

It took more than three hours for Zadran to arrive home, where her two children were waiting anxiously. She knew the Taliban could enter her home at any time.

“The moment I came home we started burning any documents we had: pictures, any documents, everything,” she recalled. “We made a fire, and we were just burning any evidence.

“We thought that we were stuck here; they will come here any moment, put us in prison. Anything we left behind they would use against us in court, to say for treason, for being associated with Americans.”

Zadran’s son, who was 11 at the time, stoked flames in a barrel as she brought him batch after batch of papers.

“We did not sleep that entire night,” she says.

The next day — Aug. 16 — the French government evacuated Zadran and her immediate family to a safehouse, where they remained until the U.S. State Department evacuated them to Bahrain. By Aug. 24, she was among 13,000 refugees at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

“I had no idea I was going to Bahrain,” she says. “I had no idea I was going to the U.S. I had no idea I was going to Wisconsin. It was evacuation; no one had time to explain where we were going.”

‘Wrong on so many levels’

Marilyn Mosley Gordanier is no stranger to online education.

In 1991, she founded Laurel Springs School, a distance-learning private school that counts among its alumni celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Kylie Jenner.

“It was very early, and, you know, like, no one had even heard of it,” Mosley Gordanier says of what is considered the United States’ first online school. “We were on ‘The Today Show,’ and Brian Gumbel said we are ‘the wave of the future,’ because no one had done it. And now it’s a multibillion-dollar business for people.”

The financial incentives offered by her current venture are considerably more modest.

Inspired by a documentary film called “Girl Rising,” Mosley Gordanier established Educate Girls Now in 2013. Back then, its singular goal was preventing Afghan girls from being married off as child brides in a country where dowry culture puts impoverished children at especially high risk. According to the organization’s website, EGN has so far saved 54 girls from early marriage.

“We really had a different environment,” she says. “All our girls were in school. No girls had been sold into marriage.

“The mothers were empowered in the families, because we only gave the monthly stipends, which were very small, like $60 to $80 a month. But it didn’t go to the fathers, it only went to the mothers — because we found that mothers are more reliable in Afghanistan.”

Zadran’s mother was a child bride. Growing up in Peshawar, a city in Pakistan that her family fled to in 1978 following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, she had never seen war, and — until her family’s return to the country in 2005 — she had likewise never seen women treated as property.

“I had no idea all of these customs,” she says. “I was not born there. It was my first time coming to Afghanistan and seeing all of its challenges and problems.”

Twenty years old at the time and a recent college graduate, Zadran’s English language skills positioned her as a prized candidate in a country whose economy was being transformed rapidly and with significant international input.

“The entire world was bringing money to Afghanistan,” she says.

Zadran’s first role was in reporting and communications with the Afghan Women’s Educational Center. Through her involvement in proposals with foreign embassies and international aid organizations, she began to comprehend the various forces that women in Afghanistan — including her own mother — were up against.

“So many things were wrong on some many levels,” she explains. “It was the culture, it was the war, it was the customs. It was just living inside it and understanding the culture in Afghanistan. I knew this was the one area I knew I could be impactful.”

Another epiphany came several years later, when Zadran was preparing to enroll her own children in the existing government schools.

“The attitudes in the schools, the whole system was so crippled, so bad, it left the kids I’m pretty sure with traumas for lifetime,” she says. “I would say it’s the worst curriculum in the world in terms of being backward.”

With her English skills and educational background, Zadran knew she could offer her children a superior education at home.

Mezan International School’s inaugural class featured three students: Zadran’s children and the principal’s daughter. The private school was based on a progressive western curriculum from the U.S.-based Oak Meadow distance-learning program that incorporates art and creativity into learning.

Gradually, Mezan’s approach earned it a status as an educational hub for the children of industrialists, government officials and diplomats. In 2020, when Rangina Hamidi was tapped by Afghanistan’s then-President Asher Afghani to serve as the country’s first female minister of education, Zadran succeeded her as principal.

Mosley Gordanier soon received a note from a fellow Oak Meadow founder — yes, she also had a hand in establishing that program back in 1974 — about an Afghan principal who had implemented their curriculum some 7,500 miles away from its home base in California.

“It’s so wonderful to have her because we talk the same language,” Mosley Gordanier says. “She was educating children in Afghanistan, but we come from the same school of education.”

An education for every girl

Zadran starts most mornings with a cup of sheer chai, each sip of tea calming her nerves as she prepares for the whirlwind of emails and meetings to follow.

From her home in Stafford County, she straddles three time zones; Afghanistan is nine hours ahead, meaning her daily meetings with EGN’s ever-growing roster of teachers necessarily wrap up by 11 a.m. Eastern time. Mosley Gordanier often calls in around 9 a.m., not long after daybreak at her home in California.

Currently, EGN offers three tiers of education for its 159 girls in Afghanistan. The most basic curriculum is designed to support girls in underground madrassas, many of which subsist as religious schools, as they seek to resume schooling for the first time since the Taliban returned to power.

A second group of girls receives online courses in math, science and history in their native languages of either Dari or Pashto. The smallest, most exclusive of EGN’s cohorts is following a full Oak Meadow curriculum in English that promises an accredited high school diploma.

Recently, EGN forged partnerships with Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to teach English as a second language to post-secondary girls in Afghanistan.

“We’re meeting each girl at a level that’s working for them,” Mosley Gordanier says.

On occasion, EGN’s services transcend education entirely. Zadran referenced the concurrent crisis of “brain drain,” in which many of Afghanistan’s brightest professionals, such as doctors, have fled the country in the three years since the regime change.

The result, according to Zadran, is substandard medical care in many of Afghanistan’s provinces. She related the story of two girls from an EGN family who suffer from epilepsy. The girls, ages 3 and 5, didn’t have access to the proper treatment in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan.

“They were taking medication that kept them asleep all day long,” recalls Zadran. “We knew that the doctor doesn’t know the right treatment.”

Through EGN’s connections, Zadran learned of a program overseen by French physicians at a hospital in Kabul, and the nonprofit arranged for the children — who were too sick to make the roughly 500-mile journey by car — to be flown into the capital city for treatment.

Similarly, when earthquakes devastated Herat province in October 2023, EGN purchased food, tents, blankets and fuel for families in its program who were displaced.

“It’s not only education and it’s not only girls,” Zadran says. “It’s so many other things.”

Najia’s wish

The video opens buoyantly, with a close-framed shot of algebraic equations on graph paper being solved by a headscarf-wearing mathematician with red nail polish.

After fading, it cuts to the image of a line of AK-47s wielded by a row of men whose faces are obscured by blur.

“I thought that one day I would finish my schooling and would always be the first position in my grades,” says the girl in the video, a 14-year-old named Najia. “But, when I was in grade six, we were in the middle of the academic year when the Taliban suddenly took over Afghanistan. It was a terrible day I would never forget.”

Najia explained that her academic career ground to a halt after her sixth-grade year as the result of the Taliban shuttering girls’ schools and educational centers in Kabul. EGN, however, has plans to help her resume it.

To date, the organization has raised approximately $18,800, enough to cover two years’ worth of tuition at St. Margaret’s, an all-girls Episcopal boarding school in Tappahannock to which Najia has already been accepted.

Mosley Gordanier noted that none of EGN’s girls — even those who were college students back in 2021 — had ever seen the Taliban. Early, optimistic sentiments pointed to a group that would be comparatively more tolerant in its return to power.

“They were saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not going to be like the old Taliban,’” Mosley Gordanier says. “They had no idea what was coming. They had no idea that their lives were, you know, that they were literally being like returned to that way of life.”

The final shot in the video is Najia’s handwritten “wish list,” which includes bullet points of “Go to school, go to work, do sport gym, travel,” with a sobering addendum: “Maybe it seems like a daily schedule, but I can’t do any of these because I’m a girl in Afghanistan.”

In the years since she was forced to leave school, “I had many bad days,” admits Najia, who recalled locking the gate of her house and covering the windows with a thick curtain. The only glimmer of light, she says, came from the opportunity awaiting her in the United States through EGN.

If all goes according to plan, she’ll arrive in Tappahannock in time for St. Margaret’s orientation in August.

“I don’t cry at night anymore, and I think clearly about my future,” she says.

‘I thank my God’

“Classification talks” at the Rappahannock Rotary Club are limited to 10 minutes, and promptly cut off at 20 without protest.

When Zadran spoke to the group in April, “after 45 minutes, there was silence in the room,” says Nick Cadwallender, a member of the rotary club. “No one had stood up to leave. No one had looked at their phone.

“Everyone was just sitting with their mouths open, just, and there were men and women, me amongst them, crying in that room.”

That reaction is fairly common among those who have gotten to know Zadran and her story since she and her family relocated to a one-acre property in southern Stafford last year.

While in Wisconsin, two families Zadran knew through the U.S. State Department sponsored her, her partner and their two children — now ages 14 and 15 — to move to Virginia as asylum seekers. The family initially moved to Arlington but, like many, they were drawn to this region’s comparably affordable housing prices.

“I had no idea what Fredericksburg was all about,” says Zadran, “but now I know how lucky we were.”

Cadwallender bonded with Zadran over a mutual appreciation for both Asian cultures and the immigrant experience. He migrated twice — first from England to Australia and later to the United States.

Zadran hopes to one day return to Afghanistan, where she once helped to develop a new national curriculum.

“I wish people would understand that those people who choose to get up and leave and have the courage to leave where they are, are the people with guts, the people with courage,” Cadwallender says. “And they’re the people, vital people we need in a country like this.”

Cadwallender has already witnessed Zadran become enmeshed in her new community.

When Micah Ministries wanted to distribute information about its planned Jeremiah Project community to nearby Bragg Hill residents, Zadran volunteered to translate all of the material into Pashtun and Dari.

On another occasion, a friend of Cadwallender’s wife Jeanette mentioned that there were tensions at James Monroe High School, where she teaches English as a second language, between Afghan students and some of their classmates. At a subsequent gathering, Zadran volunteered to hear out the students’ concerns.

“She’s just been so willing and offering to support in any way she can here,” Cadwallender says.

Zadran’s heart, however expansive, remains rooted in Afghanistan. She yearns to return, if the Taliban relinquish power, or — more likely — if the regime’s dubious claims of amnesty are shown to be genuine.

Until then, she will exercise the rights she hopes will one day be restored to the girls whose education is her vocation.

“I came here as a refugee, but I thank my God for all of the privileges I have,” Zadran says. “I’m employed, I get to work. Even if I was not doing meaningful work, I would be doing some other work.”

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