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A year later, former Afghanistan education minister reflects on her country

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The choice to flee Afghanistan was not an easy one for Rangina Hamidi. When I spoke with her last year, she was still in Kabul, debating what she and her husband should do as Taliban forces captured city after city in the country. She described the fear that she felt as she watched her daughter play with a friend outside.

RANGINA HAMIDI: But me, as a mother, sitting in my home, feeling the unease, it struck me to think and look at them and say, God forbid, but something can happen any minute. And these joyous little girls playing in the garden may end in a second.

CHANG: Rangina Hamidi was Afghanistan's minister of education until last August. And today she joins us from Arizona, where she and her family have started their life anew. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HAMIDI: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. You know, when you and I spoke a year ago, you knew you would have a chance to leave Afghanistan with your husband if it came to that, a chance that you said you knew so many others did not have. May I ask you, how did you manage to leave the country?

HAMIDI: Finally, after one week of debating in the head, really, emotionally whether we should leave or not, I think finally, my motherly instincts and then the fact that my immediate family - my mother and sisters and extended family members who are living in America - were pleading with me to please not allow the opportunity for them to suffer yet one more time because, if the audience or if you remember, my family did lose my father...

CHANG: Yes.

HAMIDI: ...To a suicide bomber in 2011.

CHANG: In Kandahar.

HAMIDI: Exactly. Finally, I think we had no choice but to look at the deadline that was in our face. The clock was ticking. Literally, August 31 was going to be the last planes to leave. Ultimately, we had to.

CHANG: And you were one of the lucky ones. You're a U.S. citizen, right?

HAMIDI: Absolutely.

CHANG: Well, I understand that your daughter is in seventh grade right now. Is that right?

HAMIDI: Yes.

CHANG: And I ask this because the Taliban has barred education for girls between seventh and 12th grade back in Afghanistan. So if your daughter were still there, her formal education would essentially be over, right? Do you ever think about that as you watch your daughter now do her homework or go to class?

HAMIDI: You know, Ailsa, this was the main reason why I ultimately had to make the decision to leave because I knew Zahra would not have - at least immediately, she would not have a future under that administration. And, of course, dropping her off to school, picking her up from school, you know, listening to her little mind growing and learning and debating - this is an experience that I'm privileged as a parent, as a mother in particular, to witness and watch. And I know that millions and millions of parents today in Afghanistan, particularly with girls Zahra's age, are not able to provide that...

CHANG: Right.

HAMIDI: ...Opportunity for their girls.

CHANG: And what are you hearing from people back home about how girls there are still trying to continue their education despite the new rules? How are they doing that?

HAMIDI: You know, it's really a case-by-case basis. Parents who were educated or who are educated and still remain - they're trying their best to get the books and continue on homeschooling. Some areas in the northern part of Afghanistan - there are about six or seven provinces - nobody really exactly knows which provinces exactly, but what we're hearing is that schools have continued for girls up until 12th grade in those provinces. I've had families contact me and asking whether these families should consider sending their girls to Pakistan across the border to complete their schooling. Now, what are the implications of going and starting a new system and then completing it?

CHANG: Right.

HAMIDI: And even when it's completed, the credentials or the - you know, the diploma that these girls...

CHANG: Right - may not transfer.

HAMIDI: ...May not transfer. And so there's just a lot of logistical problems. And then ultimately, the question comes to, if the ministry of education of Afghanistan does not recognize the forms of education we are providing to girls through all these alternative pathways, what can the girls then do with that knowledge other than use it to their best advantage but without any official paperwork to...

CHANG: Yeah. Well, let me ask you, as someone who was a leader in Afghanistan in making sure that girls and women received an education there, what is it like for you personally to picture all of these efforts, these lengths that these girls have to go to to continue learning?

HAMIDI: I mean, it breaks my heart as a leader, as a woman, as a mother because I don't know if you remember, Ailsa, but I myself was stopped from going to school in grade three when I was a refugee living in Pakistan, an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan. And one of the reasons why my parents made the decision to come all the way to America back in 1988 was to be able to enable their five daughters - or, at that time, four daughters when we came to America - to continue school. And so, of course, this is very personal and a very emotional issue to me. I'm not surprised that, in the areas where girls' education has continued today in spite of the Taliban wanting to stop it, the regions that continue to provide education to girls are the regions that were the most served and the most invested in. And so that fact needs to be considered when we're making policies and programs because areas that do receive attention and consistent service...

CHANG: Yeah.

HAMIDI: Those are the areas that flourish. And now we're seeing results of that.

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah. You know, the last time that you and I spoke, you said that when you were younger, when you returned to Afghanistan after finishing college in the U.S., you said that there was this, quote, "magnetic force" that kept you in Afghanistan longer than you had originally expected. And I'm curious. Do you still feel that pull now? Do you think you will ever return to your country?

HAMIDI: Ailsa, I'm ready to return tomorrow if I can. I know my heart, my soul, my mind is all in Afghanistan. I'm physically in America right now, in my adopted home, and I'm forever grateful to this opportunity. And, you know, Zahra, my daughter, is the reason why I'm still here.

CHANG: Yeah.

HAMIDI: But I'm ready to go back tomorrow if I know that my daughter can have an opportunity to grow in the manner in which I want her to grow and that I can also be able to survive. And I'm not afraid of death. You know, I've accepted death as part of reality. And having lived in Afghanistan for 20 years and the risks that we all took on a daily basis, I consider service of my people, of my women, of my girls as an honest spiritual duty where I know that I can be far more beneficial to them when I'm closer to them than when I'm afar. But I'm ready to go as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

CHANG: Rangina Hamidi was Afghanistan's minister of education until last year. She is now a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Thank you so much for joining us again.

HAMIDI: Thank you for having me, Ailsa - always great to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN JACOBY'S "TOMORROW'S SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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