A Letter from an Afghan Educator: Optimism in the Face of Agony

Shabana Basij-Rasikh and her students made it out of Kabul—but so many women and girls remain in Afghanistan, denied an education and all the opportunities that come with it.

An Afghan girl at an open classroom in Kandahar on Jan. 1, 2023. Under Taliban rule, girls can only attend school until the sixth grade, when primary school ends. (AFP via Getty Images)

This article was originally published in Pat Mitchell’s blog and weekly newsletter.

On Monday, the Taliban’s Ministry of Education announced it will allow girls from first to sixth grade to continue their studies in schools. The announcement was a welcome surprise after last month’s announcement that women were immediately barred from attending universities and working for nongovernmental associations.

In the midst of this troubling Taliban action, my dear friend Shabana Basij-Rasikh keeps me updated about her mission to educate Afghan girls in middle and high school. Basij-Rasikh is the co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), the country’s first and only girls’ boarding school.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh runs a school for girls in Afghanistan. She celebrates the power of a family’s decision to believe in their daughters — and tells the story of one brave father who stood up to local threats. (Filmed at TEDxWomen 2012)

In the autumn of 2012, Basij-Rasikh, then just 22, stood on the TEDWomen stage in Washington, D.C., and challenged the world to dare to educate Afghan girls—to join her in her life’s work of creating the best educated generation Afghanistan had ever seen, one that would help her nation rise above the desolation of years spent under Taliban rule.

She founded SOLA in 2016, fulfilling her dream and vision of a boarding school in Kabul that would offer girls an education and a residential life experience that was unparalleled in Afghanistan. In addition to being an acronym, sola means “peace” in the Pashto language. “This word is our vision, and this word is our goal,” Basij-Rasikh said.

In the summer of 2021, Basij-Rasikh stood at the airport in Kabul as the Taliban roamed the streets of her hometown once more. She helped to coordinate the evacuation of nearly 250 members of her school community, including nearly 100 SOLA students, away from Afghanistan and into Rwanda.

In this deeply moving talk, educator Shabana Basij-Rasikh shares the story of evacuating Kabul after the Taliban took power in 2021.

She returned to the TEDWomen stage in December of 2021 to recount that harrowing evacuation experience and to share the story of the new school that is now flourishing in Rwanda.

I want to share an update on Shabana Basij-Rasikh’s vital work. She and her staff and students made it out of Kabul, but so many women and girls remain in Afghanistan, denied an education and all the opportunities that come with it.

Dearest ones,

I remember talking with my father, the two of us in Kabul during SOLA’s early days. A few of you reading this have met my father, and I wrote a story for The Washington Post last year that starred him pretty prominently—I’ve introduced him to all of you, literally and figuratively.

My father’s always supported me. Always. And I remember talking with him in those early days, and I remember him telling me: “Your school is a date tree, and you’re a young woman planting it. It can take decades to bear fruit. You won’t be young when it comes. You might not even be alive.”

My dad’s honest. I understood what he was saying, and I’m sure you do too. He was telling me to take the long view. Change takes time, and he was right.

Last October, the world marked the 10th anniversary of International Day of the Girl. SOLA has been a part of my life for every one of those 10 years. It’s been profound seeing the world change, seeing more and more communities and governments and individuals honoring and celebrating girls and their accomplishments.

And then there’s Afghanistan. The only nation on Earth where girls are barred from secondary school and higher education, with a ban on women attending university following last month. A nation where girls struggle for the dignity that comes with education, and find new ways to pursue their dreams, and are targeted for it, and die because of it.

I’ve written about this too. I cannot tear my eyes away from the faces of the Hazara girls murdered in their tutoring center in Kabul, attacked only because of who they were and who they could become.

SOLA stands alone, the only physically functioning school where Afghan girls can receive secondary education. A transplanted tree, rooting down in new soil. Admissions season is over. From 180 applications, we’ve offered enrollment to 27 Afghan girls from five nations, and they’ve begun arriving in Rwanda on a rolling basis.

As they come, I think back on October and International Day of the Girl. This was our second celebration of IDG in exile. Last year, our girls centered the day around their commitment to their Afghan sisters back home. This year, we made an effort to expand the definition of sisterhood to include girls in Rwanda. We invited students from local schools to campus, and I watched Rwandan girls stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan girls, laughing and playing games and listening to guest speakers and having discussions of their own.

I wish you could have seen it.

The long view is optimism in the face of agony. It’s commitment to the potential of educated girls, because educated girls become educated women who change the world. And maybe even save it.



I watched Rwandan girls stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan girls, laughing and playing games and listening to guest speakers and having discussions of their own.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh

We must all keep the women of Afghanistan in our hearts and minds, and continue to support them in whatever ways we can. I’ve included a list of organizations, like SOLA, that I hope you will follow and support.


Up next:

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Pat Mitchell is the editorial director of TEDWomen. Throughout her career as a journalist, Emmy-winning producer and pioneering executive, she has focused on sharing women’s stories. She is chair of the Sundance Institute Board, the chair emerita of the Women’s Media Center board, and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and The Woodruff Arts Center. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to the American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council.