YES alumna dedicates her life to empowering young Afghan women

As a direct result of her experience as a participant in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, a young Afghan woman has dedicated herself to educating and empowering women in her home country, Public Radio International reports. Shabana Basij-Rasikh was just 14 years old when she applied for the YES program, and now, 10 years later, she is putting the skills she honed during the YES program to use at the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), which she co-founded several years ago.

Established in response to the events of September 11, 2001, the YES program provides scholarships for secondary school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend one academic year in the U.S. Among the goals of the program, participants like Shabana are encouraged to “acquire leadership skills, and help educate Americans about their countries and cultures,” the State Department describes.

Shabana attended one year of high school in Onalaska, Wisconsin where she became “a one-woman ambassador for Afghanistan,” according to Public Radio International. After fielding a question from a classmate about whether she knew Osama bin Laden, Shabana took the initiative to counter stereotypes and foster cultural exchange, speaking at local Scout troops, Rotary Clubs, and universities:

"If they could not come here [to Afghanistan], I wanted to bring Afghanistan to them…I wanted to give something back for this chance I had been given."

After returning to Afghanistan, Shabana put her leadership skills and passion for education to work in her home community. The year after studying in Wisconsin, she raised enough money to build six classrooms, in response to people in her father’s village donating land for a girls’ school. Shabana returned to the U.S. on a scholarship to attend Middlebury College and became the recipient of a $10,000 Davis Peace Prize, which she used to build nine wells in Kabul one summer. Shabana co-founded SOLA while still a student at Middlebury, and in the following years has given a TED talk, joined Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush at a symposium at Georgetown University, and has been interviewed by CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

This year, SOLA has 34 students from 14 provinces, who attend classes taught in English, a reflection of the importance Shabana puts on her own English language skills, which she acquired during her time in the U.S. on the YES program. She explains:

"English is the language in which a wealth of knowledge is available, and I want the future leaders of Afghanistan to have access to that world."

Furthermore, as President and Co-Founder of SOLA, Shabana continues to be a voice against ethnic discrimination:

“When students come to SOLA they are required to sign an honor code that they will respect the different qualities that every single person brings to this community…We have zero tolerance for ethnic discrimination."