Speaker 1: This summer as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was looming, we heard on the program from Shabana Basij-Rasikh. She's the co-founder of that country's only boarding school for girls, the School of Leadership Afghanistan SOLA. When we spoke to her in July, she was certainly concerned, but also determined.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: I spoke with another woman who said, "I see this coming. It's likely that a Taliban could disrupt life temporarily here in Kabul, but we're not going to go back to that time. We're going to fight them."
Speaker 1: We know what happened after that. The Taliban swept into Kabul far faster than anyone had expected. Despite some lip service to preserving rights for women, the Taliban in power remains hardline to say the least. They've blocked the women from holding government jobs and banned girls from attending secondary school. As the Taliban were seizing control, Shabana worked desperately to evacuate the students and staff of SOLA. Sue Halpern who's a staff writer had been trying to keep in touch with her, and last week she was finally able to get the full story.
Sue Halpern: Over the summer, as the news was coming in from Afghanistan, I was concerned for Shabana and her students because I knew they'd be an obvious target for violence. Shabana had already lived under the Taliban as a child, and when we talked back in July, she told me how she had to dress as a boy to attend school in secret.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: I remember my father saying this was quite repeatedly at that time, that everything we have could be taken away from us, but he would say that if there's one thing that no one, and I mean no one can take away from us, that is our education, our ability to think for ourselves. 20 years ago, statistically, I didn't exist. There were zero female students in Afghanistan 20 years ago but look at me today. I am not only a highly educated Afghan woman, I run a school where girls from 28 of the 34 provinces come to SOLA most often because they don't have the opportunity to continue with their education where they live.
Sue Halpern: When the provinces began to fall, I reached out to Shabana who told me she was working around the clock on a plan. In fact, she'd been working on that plan since the Trump administration struck a deal with the Taliban back in February 2020. Then this past April, President Biden announced a unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan, and those plans accelerated.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: That is really when things got real. It's safe to say there was a beginning of countless sleepless nights. I tried as much as I could to find out what was really happening, but what was becoming clear day by day was that operating SOLA as the first and only boarding school for girls in Afghanistan, as usual, was increasingly becoming irresponsible. We looked at all sorts of possibilities. We looked at many, many contingency plans. Finally, what made most sense was doing a study abroad year. What's interesting is that I was looking at countries in the region, but where I made the most progress in the shortest period of time was a country that I had never imagined taking my students to, and that was Rwanda.
In the beginning of August, I took a two-day trip to Rwanda. On my way back to Afghanistan, I received a text message from the president's office informing me that the plan is approved and that we could move forward with our study abroad program in Rwanda. There are many more details that I can't talk about, but what happened in the very, very last moment was our carefully planned study abroad program turned into an evacuation.
Sue Halpern: There's a lot Shabana can't talk about in order to protect the many people who helped her get the entire school including the staff and their families out of the country in the midst of the chaos, but the other reason is that it was a traumatic experience that's too raw to account detail. As Kabul fell, I tried to track what was happening with Shabana and SOLA as best as I could and at one point saw a horrifying image she shared on Twitter of a fire consuming all the school records of her students to keep the documents from falling into the hands of the Taliban.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: There was an Afghan father who saw all of this coming way before anyone did. This was December 2019, he came from a village in a province in Afghanistan where there were no schools for girls and his daughter was the only educated girl in his village and she was studying at SOLA. He came to see me because he wanted to convince me to admit his other daughter who was 8-years-old. I was trying to help him understand that she was too young to join us as a sixth-grader. He got up, he said goodbye. He was almost out of my office and he turned around and he said, "Oh, by the way, "and he didn't even say if, he said, "When the Taliban come, I want you to promise me that you will burn any and all records indicating that my daughter was ever a student at your school.
I think I said something along the lines of, "Of course, I don't see that ever happening. Let's hope that never happens, but if it does, you have my promise, you have my word." I couldn't stop thinking about him and what he had told me. At this point, I knew that the families of our students could be harassed and targeted if any information links them back to SOLA.
Sue Halpern: Kabul fell on August 15th. On August 20th, I got a message that Shabana had somehow managed to get 250 people out of Afghanistan, and 100 of them were young girls. This was a time when getting a single person to the gauntlet of checkpoints and Taliban fighters, and the pandemonium at the airport seemed nearly impossible. Of course, I wanted to know how she did it.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: I, unfortunately, can't share too many details, but what I can say and some of it simply because it's in a way too painful to relive some of these moments. What I can say is that the one decision that I made that ended up being key to the success of our plan was I had a commercial flight on August 14th that I did not take. I knew that if I left there would be no way anyone from our community, any of our students would be able to make it to Rwanda. What I can say is that I feel indebted to the government of Rwanda, to the government of Qatar, and to many, many individuals at the US State Department for working around the clock to help me make all of this happen.
Sue Halpern: You were working around the clock, but you have 100 girls in your school. They were already planning on leaving the country, that was already in motion, but what was the mood at SOLA? What was going on with the girls and how are you handling what had to be a fairly traumatic time in their lives?
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: Everyone truly believed-- We all believe that this was going to be a study abroad program. The girls each got to pack a suitcase and they all had their SOLA laptops with them. The conversation was, can I bring this item with me or, but obviously at the end no one could bring anything they packed. They only came to the airport with a backpack or a purse nothing more.
Sue Halpern: Why did they have to leave their stuff behind? Why did they have to just limit it to a backpack?
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: There were all sorts of rumors that even movement within city getting from any point in the city to the airport or if you had anything with you indicating that you were headed to the airport could be risky. A lot of people just walked through the airport or took a taxi to a point and then got off and walked and then you couldn't have any indication that you belonged to a group getting out and certainly that was the case with our students and our colleagues. At one point ended up at the airport with my phone and my passport and nothing else on me. I didn't even have a charger.
I have borrowed power bank from many US Army soldiers and state department reps who were at the airport to keep my phone charging. The focus was the immediate, what was in front of me, students and colleagues stuck at Taliban checkpoints and constantly trying to assure them they're okay and they're going to be okay at a time when I didn't even know-- quite frankly we do didn't know if everyone would be able to make it out. It's actually something-- look at us we're all out. Every single person who wanted to come with us made it out. It is that thought still hunt me.
It suddenly takes over all my senses in a way. It just this idea of what if we lost a student and I have to work very, very hard to remind myself in my head that physically everyone is out we're fine. We're really fine. I obviously was incredibly relieved when our last group made it through, but there wasn't a sense of victory or when in the days that I was stuck at the airport and was traveling in between checkpoints around the clock. I witnessed something that pains me to my core.
Sue Halpern: It's okay, you don't have to say what you don't want to say.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: I think it's important that I finish what I wanted to say and watching people, even beyond the SOLA community, watching thousands and thousands of Afghans forced out of their homes, forced out of the livelihood that they made for themselves was very painful. Watching brain-draining from Afghanistan was very painful. Give me a second, please.
Sue Halpern: Sure. It's unclear when the girls are going to be able to see their families again, but for now they're safe and in school.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: We ended up in Rwanda, we're in a place where people truly understand what it means to lose your home. People are very kind, a lot of Rwandans that I have spoken with, they all remind us how they were once forced out of their homes, how they were once refugees themselves and here they are. They have returned to-- Rwanda is an inspiration for us. Rwanda is a reminder that being in exile isn't the end. Our campus in Rwanda is a beautiful Afghan community.
Sue Halpern: Tell us as much as you can about where you see SOLA going in the future.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: We will not in any way allow Taliban to win. Girls under the Taliban regime are not allowed to go to secondary school right now making Afghanistan the only country on earth where girls' access to secondary school is outlawed. For me SOLA and educating Afghan girls was never, ever about a job. For me, it's my life's work and it's my way of life for as long as there is an Afghanistan for as long as there is an Afghan girl for me this work continues.
SOLA's mission was, is, and always will be to educate Afghan girls and no one, no one can get in the way of that. Don't look away. Don't look away from Afghanistan. Don't look away from Afghan girls and Afghan women. The last time the US and the rest of the world chose to look away from Afghanistan, it was devastating both for Afghanistan and the US. We cannot afford for any of that to happen again.
Speaker 1: Shabana Basij-Rasikh, she spoke with Sue Halpern who's a staff writer.
[00:18:03] [END OF AUDIO]
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