TAPPAHANNOCK, VA - They’ve known the terror of having a gun pointed in their faces, the crushing sorrow of having their rights taken, the heartbreak of having their futures stolen.
Yet, some way or another, these four intrepid girls from Afghanistan found the courage and a way to escape their troubled homeland, leave their families and seek the opportunity of a better life in a most unlikely place half a world away.
“Little Tappahannock, Virginia,” said Colley W. Bell III, head of school of St.Margaret’s School, a small, independent, all-girls boarding school an hour northeast of Richmond, on the banks of the Rappahannock River. There, the Afghan girls have found refuge.
As difficult as it is to be so far from home in such a different place, the Afghan students, through remarkably good English they have sharpened in their months at the school, brim with gratitude, knowing full well the restrictions the Taliban have placed on girls and women in Afghanistan. The four recently gathered during a break between classes to discuss their lives.
“Girls our age cannot go to school, cannot study,” said Shaima, 17, a junior, who along with the others asked not to be identified by their full names or to have their faces shown in photographs for fear of retribution against their families back home. “It gives us the feeling we should work as hard as we can because we have the opportunity in school that the other girls don’t have.”
Wrote Sadia, 18, a sophomore, in an essay she handed me when I arrived, “I feel like I’m the luckiest girl in the world that I study in this school and fulfill my dreams again. St. Margaret’s gave me the strength to stand on my feet again.”
‘It’s a war on women in Afghanistan’
“We are trying to establish an endowment and not limit it to a certain country,” said Edwina Bell, director of advancement and wife of Colley Bell. “We want it for anywhere girls are being persecuted for being girls. We want to be the school to take care of them.”
And right now, the country that has their attention is Afghanistan. “It’s a war on women in Afghanistan,” Colley Bell said. “It’s an open war on these girls.”
The school year comes to a conclusion with commencement on Friday, but none of the Afghan students is a senior, and all will return for the next session. They will spend the summer with host families or relatives who live elsewhere in the United States. The girls have received generous support from local churches and the community, the Bells said.
St. Margaret’s, which offers grades 8-12 as well as a post-graduate year, has long had an international component within its student body. This most recent year, 20 of its65 students — Colley Bell hopes enrollment will grow to around 80 next year — came from 14 other countries, including England, Italy, Poland, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine.
Annual tuition, room and board for international students is just under $60,000; theAfghan students are “pretty much” on full scholarship, Edwina Bell said.
That the girls were able to even find St. Margaret’s illustrates just how small the world is.
Shaima has an aunt who attended St. Margaret’s years ago, and she had helped set up a connection between St. Margaret’s and the school Shaima attended in Kabul. However, just before the Zoom sessions could begin, the Taliban swept to power in August 2021, and Shaima’s school was shut down.
Through her aunt’s connection, Shaima was already in the process of applying to St.Margaret’s, though the Taliban takeover delayed the process, and she didn’t arrive until the following year. The other girls came to St. Margaret’s in other ways. They learned of it through a teacher after schools were shut down, through a brother-in-law’s sister who lived in the United States, and through something as simple and random as an online search. They all applied, and St. Margaret’s offered admission.
Shaima was the first to arrive at St. Margaret’s in April 2022; the last of the four to come was Sadia, who showed up last fall.
‘It’s a different world for them’
All tell harrowing stories of encounters with the Taliban or of family members who worked with U.S. forces and are now on the run. They also discussed what might have happened if they had remained at home.
Kasool said she likely would have been forced to marry by now, as two cousins —neither yet 20 — are now married and one already has children.
“My mom said, ‘This would be your life if you were here,’” she said.
For women and girls, living under Taliban rule is little more than a life of captivity. The Taliban expect girls and women to stay home or, when they do venture out, to wear head-to-toe clothing that reveals only their eyes.
Now, though, in Tappahannock, the four Afghan students wear St. Margaret’ssweaters and plaid skirts, play softball, soccer and volleyball, and go tubing on theRappahannock.
“It’s a different world for them,” said Colley Bell, who came to St. Margaret’s almost two years ago with a goal of reinvigorating the school, which had experienced declining enrollment over the years.
The Bells like to say St. Margaret’s offers a STREAM approach to education — adding an “R” for river to the usual acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. It’s all a welcomed opportunity for the girls, who spoke of how their own education — and lives — came to a sudden halt when the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.
Sadia remembers arriving at class that day, ready to take a math exam, and being sent home because school officials said the Taliban had arrived in Kabul and “danger is expected. Leave the place as soon as possible before the school is attacked.”
The other day, they spoke about making the painful decisions to leave home, navigating the labyrinth of bureaucracy required to enter the United States, fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid detection, crossing the Pakistani border in order to reach the nearest U.S. embassy in Islamabad, waiting for months — often alone — in Pakistan, awaiting approval to come to America.
Because their families’ money is tied up in Afghan banks, they had to rely on the help of others to get here. One of the four said an uncle living in Australia and working as a taxi driver provided the money for her airfare — twice when she missed her first flight to the United States.
She recalled that he told her, “Promise when you graduate from college and find a job, you will give me my money.”
‘The voice of Afghan women and girls’
All keep in touch with their families as best they can, though one girl’s father is being hunted by the Taliban for his past work with Americans, so she cannot even text him for fear it could be intercepted and tracked. One told of the younger sister left behind who was stopped by the Taliban as she walked to an aunt’s house wearing a backpack. The Taliban searched the backpack, thinking she was going to school, but it contained only clothes. They let her go.
All are glad they are here, though Kasool said she still regrets not saying “a proper goodbye” to her mother — she was in a hurry at the airport — or visiting her late father’s grave one final time.
They would all like to go home eventually — “Who doesn’t want to go back home?” said Shaima — but it would not be safe to go now. Maybe, Shaima said, “when they allow the girls to study and girls have their rights equal to the boys.”
For now, there is much work to do. All hope to continue to college once they graduate from St. Margaret’s. Though their interests are constantly shifting, as happens with high school students, they all have big plans.
Shaima thought she wanted to be an astronaut at one point, but now is thinking about working as a construction engineer or maybe an architect or in marketing. Kasoollikes international relations and economics. Another student, who is 18 and a junior but did not want to give even her first name, said she’s interested in computer science and business.
Sadia said, “I’d really love to be a journalist.”
And then she offered a most eloquent reason: “I want to be the voice of Afghan women and girls in all of the world.”