KABUL. When Fariba Mohebi, an 11th grader, learned in September that most Afghan girls would not join the boys returning to school under Taliban rule, she closed the door and windows in her room. Then she broke down and sobbed.
Out of her desperation arose a poem: “Why was I born a girl?”
“I would like to be a boy, because being a girl costs nothing,” Fariba wrote. Afghan men “scream and scream: why should a girl study? Why does a girl have to work? Why should a girl live free?
Fariba’s poem ended up in Timothy Stephen’s history class at Canyon Crest Academy, a public high school located 8,000 miles from San Diego. It was relayed via Zoom calls between Canyon Crest and Mawoud, the tutoring center that Fariba now attends in Kabul, where girls sit in a classroom with boys and men teach girls, testing the limits of the Taliban’s patience.
Periodic Zoom meetings between Afghan and American students opened a window to the world for the girls at Mawoud, strengthening their resolve to continue their education despite daunting odds. The calls also revealed the harsh contours of Taliban rule for California students, opening their eyes to the crackdown on classmates around the world.
“If I was 10 times braver than these girls, I would be a lion. They are my heroes,” Canyon Crest student Diana Reid wrote after a Zoom phone call this month in which Afghan girls talked about how to overcome bombing threats and Taliban interference.
For Afghans, the Zoom sessions were a fun novelty and a reminder that some Americans still care about Afghans five months after the American withdrawal amid the chaos and collapse of the American-backed government and military.
“We are so happy that we are not alone in this world,” Najibullah Yousefi, director of Mawoud, told San Diego students via Zoom. “There are some wonderful minds on the other side of the world who care about us.”
The Zoom calls were hosted in April by Mr. Steven and Mr. Yousefi. One of the first topics of discussion was Fariba’s poems, translated by Canyon Crest student Emily Khossravia and published in the school magazine. “Why I was born a girl” encouraged American students to study Afghan realities in depth.
The class learned that Afghan students risk their lives simply by passing through the fortified gates of the training center. Maud’s previous location was razed to the ground in a suicide bombing that killed 40 students in 2018. The new school building, hidden in a sharp turn in a narrow alley, is protected by armed guards, high walls and coiled wire.
The majority of Maud’s 300 students are Hazaras, a predominantly Shiite Muslim minority that has been relentlessly attacked by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, ISIS-K. Hazara schools, protests, mosques, New Year celebrations and even a wrestling club have been bombed by ISIS-K since 2016, killing hundreds of people.
Two Shia Muslim mosques visited by Hazaras were bombed a week apart in October, killing more than 90 people. ISIS considers the Hazaras to be apostates.
After the Taliban came to power, several commuter vans used by the Hazaras were bombed in the Hazara district of western Kabul, known as Dasht-i-Barchi. At least 11 people were killed and up to 18 injured, most of them Hazaras, the network of Afghan analysts said. The Taliban, who persecuted the Hazaras in the past, are now responsible for their safety. An independent research agency of analysts described the Taliban government’s response as lukewarm, saying it downplayed the strength of ISIS-K, which claimed responsibility for most of the attacks. On January 14, Afghan media reported that a young Hazara woman, Zainab Abdullahi, was shot and killed at a Taliban checkpoint just five minutes from downtown Maud.
The San Diego students also learned that attending classes is a leap of faith for Fariba and her classmates, who make up 70 percent of Maud’s students.
Mawood prepares students for the rigorous Afghan university entrance exams. But there is no guarantee that girls will be allowed to take their annual exams or go back to high school, go to university or pursue careers in a country where the Taliban have begun erasing most women from public life.
The Taliban said they hope older girls will return to schools and universities in accordance with Islamic principles by the end of March. With the exception of some schools in northern Afghanistan, most Afghan girls over the sixth grade have not attended school since August.
Mr. Yousefi said that the Taliban representatives who visited the training center did not set specific rules, as they did in some public schools. He said they simply emphasized adherence to “Islamic values”, interpreted as separating boys and girls and requiring girls to cover their hair and face.
When Mr. Yousefi told the Taliban that a shortage of teachers across the country made it almost impossible to separate classes by gender, “they didn’t have any logical answer for me,” he said.
For American students, the Mawood girls’ stories of perseverance, delivered in near-fluent English, were both sobering and inspiring.
“I can hardly imagine how difficult it must be, and what courage girls must have to sit next to male students after they faced suicide attacks,” Canyon Crest student Selena Xiang wrote after the call on Zoom this month. “It’s so different from my life when education is presented to me on a silver platter.”
Alice Lin, another student, wrote: “They are stronger, more determined, more staunch in faith than I have ever been, and I can’t help but think: what if the Mawood girls gave my life?”
And Ms Reid said she was struck by what one Mawoud student said on Zoom: “Knowledge has power – and the Taliban know it. That’s why they hide it from us.”
Fariba, a 16-year-old poet, said of the San Diego students: “They motivated us to achieve our goals – and for me, my goals are very big.” She said she wanted to be a famous poet and cancer researcher.
Zalma Nabizada, another of Maud’s students, said: “I lost motivation and went into darkness after the Taliban came.” But she said the Zoom sessions helped her keep trying to succeed. She wants to become, in her words, a “shining star”.
There is a sign in English in the corridor of Mawoud: “Dreams don’t come true if you don’t work.”
Before suicide bombings killed students in Mawud in 2018, and in 2020, there were 3,000 students at a nearby training center attended by Hazaras in Mawud. Maoud’s student population has dropped by about 90 percent since the bombings and the Taliban takeover, the school principal said.
Some Mawoud students fled with their families to Pakistan or Iran. Others stayed at home for fear of bombings or Taliban harassment. Fariba said she spent several weeks trying to persuade her parents to let her attend the center.
Yousefi said the center’s guards turned to hunting rifles after the Taliban denied them permission to carry assault rifles. As students walk to and from the center, the director instructs them to walk in small groups so as not to create a massive target.
On a recent frosty morning, the Zoom session was often interrupted due to technical issues, but each reconnection was greeted with applause from both classes.
There was a heartfelt discussion of the question asked by the girl Mawood: How do you deal with loneliness? There was near silence as Sona Amiri, a Mawood student, showed off her soccer medals and then said the girls stopped playing soccer after the Taliban took over.
Another student, Mawood, showed off his oil paintings and then told students in San Diego that the Taliban were cracking down on artists, forcing them to paint, paint and perform in secret.
Other students at Mawood spoke about their dreams of graduating from high school and university and pursuing careers as a doctor, journalist, lawyer, poet, and one girl as the Afghan ambassador to the United States.
They also talked about never backing down. “This bad situation can make a person stronger,” soccer player Ms Amiri told American students.
Aaron Combs, a 10th grader at Canyon Crest, replied moments later, “The fact that each of you guys are brave enough to speak for themselves is incredibly inspiring.”
The poet Fariba later said that the meetings with the American students really lifted the spirits, at least for a while. But for her, a touching discussion on Zoom cannot mitigate the daily humiliation and horror endured by a young Hazara woman in Afghanistan.
“We are mentally preparing for the worst,” Fariba said immediately after the Zoom screen went dark. “It’s scary to say, but that’s our reality.”
Safiullah Padshah provided reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.