The mountains that surround Missoula remind her of the ones that tower over Kabul, so Florence Nabiyar, who dreams of her family every night, feels a little less homesick for her hometown.
Nabiyar is one of 12 Afghan women now studying in the U.S. as part of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. This year, the University of Montana awarded her a full scholarship, as it had its first Afghan Initiative student, Sousan Rahimi, last fall. Nine colleges and universities participate in the initiative, started by Paula Nirschel, wife of the president of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
Nabiyar’s parents began the quest to educate their children when Nabiyar was young. The journey has led her to study in Afghanistan, then Pakistan and now, of course, the U.S. She easily explains her family’s commitment to formal schooling.
“You know if the mom is a teacher she always wants her children to be… more educated,” she says, small hands in motion, rings tinkling.
But unlike Nabiyar’s mother, “the mom” will not always uproot her family and transplant them to a foreign country in the name of education.
Nabiyar, who speaks four languages, studied English in Kabul before the Taliban came to power. In 1996, her family left the country.
“When the Taliban came we decided to go to Pakistan,” she says. Her parents decided to move primarily so that their children—two daughters and two sons—could attend school.
“When we went to Pakistan it was very, very difficult in the first year. Very difficult. Very expensive. Especially the electricity bills.” Simply turning on the air conditioning or the fan for relief from the heat would send the bills through the roof. Her family sold belongings in order to survive. Everybody did, she says. A neighbor taught her mother how to embroider—something she had never done before—in order to earn money. And Nabiyar studied English and computers.
For seven years, she lived, studied and worked in Pakistan. When she and her family finally returned home in 2002, Kabul was a changing city. Women wore jeans. Chinese restaurants opened. Nabiyar, 21, describes the transformation as “unbelievable.”
In Kabul, she found employment with the U.N. International Labor Organization, where she often worked until 8 p.m. One day, while sitting through a meeting about child labor, she received a phone call. Her friend was on her way to the U.S. Embassy to fill out a scholarship application. Would Nabiyar walk with her? Nabiyar agreed.
At the time, she had intended only to accompany her friend, but the five-minute walk turned into a two-hour session—including an interview—and eventually a four-year scholarship.
Because officials at the embassy asked her to do so, she filled out an application and waited for an interview. Studying abroad wasn’t in her plans, so she spent more time advising her friend than preparing herself. She advised her friend, who is physically small, not to be intimidated during the interview. And having listened to people drone during interviews at the UN, she also recommended short answers. That afternoon, both were interviewed, and both eventually received the awards.
Nabiyar would study in Montana. Her colleagues at work told her she was lucky to be going to beautiful Montana, but she didn’t trust that what she calls a “golden chance” would materialize.
Her visa and passport arrived just days before her departure date. Even as she was packing, placing her blue jeans and prayer rug and a dictionary into her suitcase, she felt uncertain. Not until she entered the airport did she feel sure that the promise would become a reality.
Now, she finds Missoula not unlike home. “I love snow. There is lots of snow. I love winter. There is a good winter,” she says. “Weather in Kabul is like this.” The people of Missoula, too, are taking good care of her, she says.
Effie Koehn, director of UM’s Foreign Student and Scholar Services, quickly lists other reasons that Missoula is suitable for foreign students: the academic programs, the accessible faculty, the recreation and the international connections. “I think it’s an ideal place,” she says, “both in terms of the campus and the community.” But she is quick to say that the benefits are reciprocal: Missoula also gains in having international students—380 from 76 countries last school year—says Koehn. Many belong to an international speaker’s bureau, and they contribute to UM’s goal of diversity—and maybe constitute a first step toward global understanding.
The experience will undoubtedly provide many firsts for Nabiyar: her first semester being homesick, her first time being independent of family, her first time being completely surrounded by water. “I love water and I’d never been in the middle,” she says of a recent boat ride on Flathead Lake. “I wish I could swim.” She plans to take lessons.
Sousan Rahimi, UM’s first recipient of the Initiative scholarship, seems to alternately mentor and fend off her fellow student—she shows Nabiyar where she can get online on campus, but hopes to help Nabiyar become independent, too.
“When I left Afghanistan, [my family wasn’t] sure about me because I was really dependent,” Rahimi says. But when she returned, they saw she had changed. “They were thinking that I had grown up…I can decide for myself. I can manage.”
One condition of the award is that the women return to help their country, a poor country where, in 2000, only 21 percent of female adults could read according to UNICEF. Rahimi hopes to work for the government, “If there will be a place,” she adds. “Hopefully we will have more women in our government. But it will take time for people to accept.”
Nabiyar considers herself a feminist, one ready to help both women and men. Her friends have not been shy about asking for this help. For starters, they have requested unusual souvenirs—her textbooks and study materials.
These young students are, in part, Afghanistan’s future, but behind the story of the young women who will return to help their country are their mothers, like immovable anchors. Nabiyar’s mother advised her not to think too much of her family while she was away—they are fine—and to study hard.
“You are not just studying for your family,” Nabiyar remembers her mother saying. “You are studying for your Afghanistan.” She also recalls a gentle disowning: “You are not my daughter…Your country needs you more than my family.”