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Social Justice Series: The Extraordinary Power of Education

Social Justice Series: The Extraordinary Power of Education

Canterbury was pleased and grateful to welcome a visionary leader and advocate for women’s education to campus for a special Social Justice Series session. Shabana Basij-Rasikh, Co-Founder and President of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), shared “A Journey of Courage and Resilience” with students during a riveting presentation in the D’Amour Center for Faith, Service & Justice.

Shabana told the remarkable story of how she founded and operates her groundbreaking boarding school for Afghan girls. Our Saints in attendance heard about the challenges and triumphs she faced while leading an educational institution in a conflict zone and the courageous evacuation and relocation of her school community to Rwanda just days after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

Her motivation for doing so stemmed from her experiences growing up in Afghanistan at a time when the first Taliban regime was in control from 1996 to 2001. “Those were formative years for me, between the ages of six and 11. The Taliban had banned education completely for girls,” she recalled. “I was lucky that my parents at that time decided it was riskier to raise daughters without an education than to risk our lives by sending us to underground secret schools—which is exactly what they did. And these amazingly brave Afghan women opened their homes secretly to educate girls. They invited risk to their families and to themselves on a daily basis so they could continue to keep that light of education and hope for girls in Afghanistan.” 

That backdrop led Shabana to dedicate her entire adult life to educating Afghan girls. The Taliban was overthrown in 2001, and she eventually came to the United States and earned degrees from Middlebury College and Oxford University. It was during her time at Middlebury, as a 17-year-old freshman in 2008, that the idea for SOLA began to take root. “I found myself in this place of incredible privilege, especially as a young Afghan woman, and it did not feel okay that I would look at this as something for me only. I was lucky. My father was in the military all his life…my mother was an educator…and both of them instilled in us that the purpose of our education was to serve others. So it was natural for me to think of what I could do to maximize this education, not just for me, but for others.”

Eight years of planning and hardship later, SOLA opened on a March morning in Kabul, when 24 Afghan girls made history by walking onto the campus for the first time. As the SOLA website describes it: “These girls, the inaugural class of sixth graders, had chosen a path that under the Taliban’s regime just 15 years earlier would have been unthinkable. They had chosen to attend Afghanistan’s first and only all-girls boarding school. They had chosen to lead the way.”

But in August 2021, “to all of our shock,” the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, and SOLA was forced to relocate to a new home in Rwanda, where it continues to serve as the only school anywhere in the world that operates on behalf of Afghan girls. “Today, for an Afghan girl to legally and openly study in high school, she has to figure out a way to get to Rwanda,” Shabana said. “And so much is wrong with that.”

Shabana urged students to make the most of their educational opportunities. “There is so much power in education,” she told them. “Make sure that you as individuals are highly educated, that you understand you are working towards a future in which you will live a responsible life. Consider the global impact of whatever you decide to do.”

The students in attendance took her words to heart. “This Social Justice Series session resonated with me the most out of all the ones I have attended,” said Kylee Henderson ’25. “Shabana is a brilliant and powerful woman who is giving the gift of education to so many. I admire her drive and bravery and how she puts others before herself. Her talk made me grateful for my education at Canterbury and helped me understand how the power of knowledge can change the world. I will remember it for the rest of my life and hope that, someday, I can give back to my community like Shabana does every day.”

The presentation also had a significant impact on Zeba Ahmed ’26. “I was envisioning what those young girls—especially girls my age—must have gone through to get an education,” she said. “They had to leave their families and everything else behind just to have a future for themselves.”  

Despite all that has happened in her country, Shabana remains hopeful for the future. “Just look at what these girls and women are doing in Afghanistan. Girls who have been pushed out of schooling by the regime, by circumstances, or by COVID left Afghanistan to become refugees in hostile environments of neighboring countries—then came back, having not given up looking for opportunities to study online or in secret,” she shared. “Professional women who never taught a day in their lives became educators, saying, ‘It is all about transferring what I know to the young generation of girls.’ And women who protest and demand their rights, knowing that doing so can get them killed or imprisoned—there is a sense of strength that comes from that.”

Today, SOLA endures as a beacon of hope for young students, and Shabana continues to draw inspiration from those who came before her. “I am here because those women were so brave to open their homes every single day to educate us,” she told her rapt audience. “I am not alone. I stand on the shoulders of these incredible giants in Afghanistan.”