Malahat Mahazer, 20, a native of Kabul, Afghanistan, and a sophomore at Lafayette College, still remembers when she was attending Forest Hills High School in 2009 and a student in her Spanish class pointed out the window, toward Manhattan, and asked, “Do you remember when you attacked us?”
“It was so personal,” Mahazer recalled. “She asked if I remember when I attacked her. It’s hard for even educated Americans to understand, but the Afghan people suffered for so many decades because of our own problems. Because of the wars, because the people are uneducated, it’s hard to do anything. We were under the oppression of the Taliban. People left because it was so hard to live in Afghanistan.”
Her own family fled to Pakistan when she was two so she and her siblings could get an education. They returned in 2004 when she was nine. “Some people couldn’t leave. When 9/11 happened, and the U.S. attacked, they also suffered. In this way, we were victims, too. I feel it’s very hard for regular Americans to see that,” she said.
Malahat first came to the United States at 15 for one year of high school, competing against 4,000 students for one of 40 slots in a State Department-sponsored program known as the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program, for students from predominantly Muslim countries. After that year, she knew a taste of American education wasn’t enough for her, and she managed to return to a boarding school in Maryland for the rest of high school before continuing on to college.
On Friday, Jan. 10, at kabalat Shabbat services, Mahazer will share her experiences and discuss women’s education in Afghanistan and the future of the country at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. She will also give a more extensive talk at a dessert reception following services. The program is free and open to the public.
It won’t be her first experience in a synagogue. Her host family that first year in Queens was Jewish, and she accompanied them to services. “At the time, it was Ramadan and I was fasting. When I told people I was from Afghanistan, they seemed to know. They said, ‘Happy Ramadan.’ It was very nice. I felt very welcomed.”
Her experiences that year defied her expectations.
“I thought everyone would be tall and blond,” she said. But when she got here, she found that there were “a lot of ‘exotic’ people, especially in the city. Everyone is so different!” She had to get used to sleeping in a bed rather than on a mattress on the floor, and she eventually got used to the idea of eating in restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world. Although she missed home so much she cried every night for a week, she fell in love with New York City. More than that, she fell in love with the education she was receiving.
“When I was in school at home it was mostly memorization. It’s not like here, where you are forced to apply your knowledge of things you have read and studied, and to think critically,” Mahazer said, pointing out that textbooks in Kabul were often outdated. “There was no modern history beyond the 18th or 19th centuries.”
One of five children, Mahazer said all her siblings are being educated in Kabul, both in university and high schools. She added that while it is more unusual for people in rural areas, both girls and boys, to receive an education, most people in cities like Kabul do go to school. However, she said, many girls get married while they’re in high school, including some of her own friends. “That’s where the problems start,” she said. She added that people in the southern part of the country were least likely to get an education. “The fighting is still going on there, and it’s an issue of safety more than anything else.”
When her year in New York was up, Mahazer went back to Afghanistan, but she knew the education there just wasn’t challenging enough. Through the help of the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund, she secured a place at a boarding school in Stevenson, Md., where she spent the rest of her high school years. AGFAF continues to help her with her education at Lafayette, in Easton, Pa.
Although she said would have it no other way, she acknowledged that because of her education, she is perceived as a foreigner wherever she lives. Mahazer no longer wears a headscarf, but when she goes home, she dresses more conservatively, and she knows that not all her views will be well received.
“In the U.S., people see me as the girl from Afghanistan who wants an education; when I go back home, they see me as different because I received my education in the U.S.” While not ideal, she is resigned to this no-man’s land of her identity. “It’s my life,” she said.
Mahazer is studying economics and international relations and hopes to work for an organization that will enable her to share her passion for education, the passion that first brought her to the United States.
Her parents have yet to visit her here. “It’s hard for anyone from Afghanistan to get a visa to come to the United States,” she said. “I hope they’ll be able to come for my graduation in 2016.”