The plight and promise of the girls and women of Afghanistan have attracted advocates as high profile as former First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, journalist Christiane Amanpour, and feminist Gloria Steinem. But for pure staying power, few can rival Suraya Sadeed, MA ’12.
Beginning in 1993, Sadeed has funneled money she has raised to relief and educational programs that have benefited an estimated 2 million Afghans to date, with girls being particular targets of her efforts.
Working through the non-profit organization she founded and continues to lead, Help the Afghan Children (HTAC), Sadeed has provided food, medicines, tents, blankets, clothing, school supplies, hygiene kits, and other necessities to the millions of Afghans displaced and otherwise affected by war.
Under Sadeed’s supervision, HTAC has built or renovated 14 model schools in three Afghan provinces since 2002. More than half of the 120,000 students who have studied at HTAC schools have been females. Nearly 3,000 females have received computer instruction and over 12,000 have gone through a literacy program with HTAC-created picture storybooks called “Read Afghanistan.” In addition, HTAC estimates that 4,000 teachers (about half of them women) have been trained and passed teacher competency tests.
From her home base near Washington D.C., Sadeed spends months each year raising money in the United States for HTAC-supported educational programs and humanitarian aid. She then returns for extended visits to her native country of Afghanistan to ensure that the money and supplies are being properly dispersed where most needed.
During the Taliban’s brutal rule from 1996 into 2001, women were expected to remain cloistered in the home, even in the capital city of Kabul, and to be fully covered in a burqa if they had to step outside for any reason. Sadeed donned a burqa (also called a chadri) and continued to bring desperately needed aid. She backed 17 home-based schools, where girls forbidden to go to school could be secretly educated.
In some ways, Sadeed’s work sounds like the work of Greg Mortensen, who gained global recognition for his 2006 bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, and who then fell from his pedestal in April 2011 when the TV news show “60 Minutes” questioned his financial practices, his organizational oversight, and the veracity of some of the stories in this books.
It is a source of dismay to Sadeed that in public presentations since that broadcast she is almost always asked about Mortensen.
“I have never met Greg Mortensen, who did most of his work in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, according to his books,” says Sadeed. “But it frustrates me that HTAC’s 19 years of work may be viewed less favorably because of his stories and actions. I have always been transparent in my financial reports and my schools are regularly visited by representatives of the donor agencies and Afghan’s Ministry of Education. We have done exactly what we said we’ve done, and nobody is becoming rich from any of it.”
One of Sadeed’s long-time financial supporters has been the church-based relief organization Mennonite Central Committee, which indeed monitors and evaluates how its dollars are spent.
Sadeed’s own story—written in the same fast-flowing, warmly personal style as Three Cups of Tea and Leymah Gbowee’s Mighty Be Our Powers—is contained in Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse, published in 2011.
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, gave this testimonial for the book jacket:
For years, Suraya Sadeed has worked tirelessly to help the people of her war-scarred homeland. This terrific memoir is the story of her struggles, her sacrifices, and her hopes. It is the moving life story of a remarkable woman who has overcome personal tragedy [early widowhood] and has made it her single-minded mission to bring hope, relief, and a measure of happiness to the brutalized women and children of Afghanistan.
Though Sadeed lives in the United States, she is quick to point out that “all of our in-country operations officers and staff are Afghan professionals living in Afghanistan. We know the culture; we speak the language, we are in touch with the country’s ‘pulse’ and what people want and expect in bringing quality education to their respective communities. . . .
“We believe that investing in children is the best long-term strategy in ending Afghanistan’s continuous conflict, poverty, ignorance, fear and neglect and to establish peace, stability, and prosperity in Afghanistan and beyond its borders,” she says.
One of the hallmarks of her schools is a peace education curriculum. “It is a psychosocial program that could be defined as the process of acquiring the values and developing the attitudes and behaviors to live in harmony,” Sadeed explains. She is lobbying Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education to get this curriculum adopted by schools throughout the country to reach about 5 million students.
(Above photos courtesy of Suraya Sadeed.)
Other Grads Working on Behalf of Afghan Women
Nilofar, a former Fulbright student who graduated from CJP in 2007, was the founding chairperson and executive director of Women Activities and Social Services Association (WASSA) in Afghanistan, until she came to EMU for graduate studies. Upon graduation she returned to Afghanistan where she was the Country Director for the Open Society Foundations until August 2011. She is now pursuing a second master’s degree through Johns Hopkins University, this one in International Public Policy.
Farishta, who has an MBA, replaced Nilofar as executive director of WASSA before relinquishing the position at the beginning of 2009 to earn her own master’s degree at CJP. She graduated in 2010 and is now back living in the family’s home city of Herat, Afghanistan.
For its work of building the capacity of women to shape the future of Afghanistan, WASSA has received support from Norwegian Church Aid, four agencies of the United Nations, the United States Institute of Peace, and USAID, among other funding agencies.