By Mena Abedi

In war-torn Afghanistan, education is not a top priority.

The southern California-based Afghan Women’s Association (AWA), however, is focusing on boosting education of the women and children in Afghanistan in order to ensure the country a successful future.

The non-profit organization’s president, Kawky Anwar, and the other seven female core members that include a UCLA graduate, Afghanistan’s first beauty queen, and a gynecologist working for Kaiser Permanente, were born in Afghanistan and eventually found themselves situated in southern California.

“We all noticed that the minority communities around us were getting together and starting associations,” said Anwar, a former teacher and administrator at Malalai High School in Afghanistan. “We wanted to do that for our community because our people needed help too.”

Before forming AWA, the women were entranced by stories of Afghani women and children living under the rule of the Taliban.

“Women couldn’t leave the house,” Anwar said. “Women couldn’t go to school. A woman couldn’t go anywhere without men. We knew that we had to fight to defend both women’s rights and human rights.”

Jamila Niazi, another founding member of AWA, emphasized the importance of these programs in working for a stable future.

“The core of the problems are rooted in being uneducated,” Niazi said. “We would like to see Afghanistan stand on its own feet—economically, socially, and politically. Health and education are both necessary in order to get us someplace someday.”

Due to a budget reliant on fundraising, AWA can only work on small-scale projects. The group has donated $10,000 toward drinking water purification programs in addition to funding toward women’s hospitals, schools for children and for the deaf and mute, as well as coordinating seminars for local Afghan communities.

AWA’s most recent project was the improvement of Qalai Zaman Khan, a school for first through ninth graders on the outskirts of Kabul.

The AWA members visited the school in 2002, when the school’s 4,000 students had no books or school supplies and were atteding classes in tents.

“The kids were all begging for us to build classrooms because of the trouble during the cold winters and harsh summers,” Anwar said.

After organizing local concerts and community events, AWA raised enough money to build 10 classrooms and purchase school supplies.

“When we returned in May 2006, there were 9,000 students who had to go to school in three shifts because it was so crowded,” Anwar said. “In each classroom, there was a range of 56 to about 70 students.”

AWA also encouraged the members of the Afghani Ministry of Education to step out of their offices and see the reality of the situation in Afghanistan. According to Anwar, they pledged to work on improvements in the future.

Realizing the political priorities of the country, many organizations are working to help countries such as Afghanistan rebuild schools and get their lives back together. However, many find it is difficult to keep politics out of the picture.

“It is the political circumstances in these nations that are fueling the problems and stereotypes we know today,” said Mahmoud Fadli, a representative of the Muslim Student Alliance at UC Santa Cruz. “Islam itself is a very progressive and practical faith; it stresses the importance of equality, education, faith, unity, peace, and tolerance.”

Niazi also stressed the importance of fighting stereotypes associated with Islamic cultures.

“We get grouped with all of these negative aspects that are shown of the television, so many people who are not familiar with our community get the wrong idea,” Niazi said.

A bright future still seems dim, however, especially when radical groups—some who have burned down newly built schools—are attempting to instill fear into aid organizers.