The following is a conversation between Shabana Basij-Rasikh, Founder and President of the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: My next guest has dedicated her life to providing a safe, inclusive learning environment for Afghan girls, fostering cross-cultural understanding, and empowering the next generation of female leaders in the face of unimaginable adversity.
She orchestrated the daring evacuation of her students from Afghanistan to Rwanda, ensuring their safety and continuity of education. She is Shabana Basij-Rasikh, the founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan or SOLA. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Shabana.
Shabana: Thanks so much, Denver, for having me.
“…that was one of the first moments that, really, I had this experience in which I realized myself… without someone else telling me… what the power of education was like, especially for girls, and what that meant for me.
It was so clear for me, even at that young age, to look at my education as my ticket to freedom, to a life of dignity and independence. And, ever since, I could not see it any differently.”
Denver: You know, this has been a remarkable journey, both inspiring as well as challenging, and it’s one that you started while still a student. What motivated you to establish SOLA, and how did your personal experiences shape its mission?
Shabana: Well, there were, I think, a series of experiences that motivated me to start SOLA. And I think, you know, some of them date back to my childhood. But, really, up until my teenage life… you know, I was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan. Grew up during the first Taliban regime.
And, as you know, at that time, education for girls was considered illegal. They had banned education for girls and work in the public spaces for women. And so… I say this all the time, I got incredibly lucky. I had to be born in a family and to have the parents that I have, who valued education deeply and who found it riskier to raise daughters without an education than to risk our lives to send us to the secret underground schools.
And, at that time, I didn’t quite appreciate it until 9/11 happened. And, soon after that, the Taliban regime collapsed, and girls were able to go back to school. And, for me, it was going to school for the first time, to a public school. And I found myself in a classroom where the majority of my classmates were much older than me… in most cases at least six years older than me.
And, to me, that was one of the first moments that, really, I had this experience in which I realized myself… without someone else telling me… what the power of education was like, especially for girls, and what that meant for me.
It was so clear for me, even at that young age, to look at my education as my ticket to freedom, to a life of dignity and independence. And, ever since, I could not see it any differently. And so, as I continued on, I think another experience that really kind of served as a foundation for my getting so deeply committed to this work was coming to the United States for the first time at age 15.
And I found myself in a society where, for the first time, I experienced what it was like to be in a society where girls could take their education for granted and wouldn’t have to live ever with the fear that they would lose access to their education. And that, to me, was new. It was refreshing. It was different. It was something I hadn’t thought about.
I thought that any girl who got lucky enough to be able to go to school also lived with this constant fear of losing access to their education, no matter where they were from. Then, that was not the case here, and I wanted that for Afghan girls.
I wanted Afghan girls to feel the same way about their education someday. And I wanted that to happen in my lifetime. And it’s one of those things that I always keep in the back of my mind that, you know, it may not happen if I’m lucky enough to live a long life if I can.
And I know that it may not happen in the next 20 or so years. But if I can live to see young Afghan girls feel the same way about their education, that is a future that I dream of and work hard towards and build towards every single day.
And, I think, the final experience, if you will, that really did it for me was when I started my freshman year of college as an undergraduate student in this small but incredibly prestigious liberal arts institution in the US in the state of Vermont, called Middlebury College. And, I quite randomly and accidentally ended up there. Well, at least, I talk about it.
And during orientation, I was learning more and more about where I had ended up. And, you know, as the year unfolded and the UN published a report indicating that only 6% of women in Afghanistan have an undergraduate degree, that was really it. I knew how privileged and lucky I was.
And I was increasingly more privileged and luckier. It felt like it day by day. And so, it overwhelmed me. It made me feel guilty. It made me feel very lucky, and I wanted to make sure that I did something where the benefit wasn’t just personally for me of this education that I had access to, but that I shared it back with people in Afghanistan.
And so, I co-founded SOLA at the end of my freshman year of college, initially as a scholarship program with the intention of bringing young Afghan girls, and some boys, to the United States to attend a few years of high school and then go on to colleges and universities and pursue professions and careers that they aspire towards and get great education.
And then go back to Afghanistan at the end of their education, where they would often be the first highly-educated Afghans in whatever profession they chose to focus on. And then, over the years, as the security situation in Afghanistan evolved and the US government announced in 2011 a timeline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2014, things were changing.
The dynamics on the ground were quite impacted by that, and a lot of Afghans who were associated with Western countries did not feel safe to go back. And so, I really didn’t want SOLA to become a vehicle for brain drain, and decided that instead of sending young Afghans to access quality education outside of Afghanistan, why not bring quality education to them in Afghanistan.
And that process took a few years because we were setting up our country’s first and only all-girls boarding school. We finally were able to do that in 2016. We admitted our first cohort of girls from several different provinces with the intention that they would start with us at sixth grade.
So, in middle school, give them enough years in middle school years to address academic gaps and any foundational gaps in their education because they came from several different provinces… and until they reach high school and where they can pursue a more robust, international curriculum.
And then, that group would be the first to graduate from SOLA High School in 2022. And you know, we started gradually growing the school. And by 2021, SOLA was a school of nearly a hundred students in grade six through 11th, representing 28 of the 34 provinces.
Denver: That’s diversity.
Shabana: Yeah. And our students came from some of the most remote communities in the country. We were on schedule to graduate our first cohort from SOLA High School in 2022. But as you know very well, things changed quite dramatically in Afghanistan.
“Our carefully planned study abroad program turned into an incredibly traumatic evacuation out of Afghanistan.
I say that, and it was really horrifying, but I immediately feel so grateful that everyone in our community who wanted to get out of Afghanistan during that time managed to get out and get out safely.”
Denver: Quite dramatically is right. You know what’s really interesting about that story is that how things occur in our life, different points. And then there is another juncture where you connect all those different dots, which is exactly what you did. And all of a sudden, the clarity of a mission for your life’s work becomes apparent.
And as I’ve listened to when we first started, I always was amazed at the level of courage you had. And I now can give a tip of the cap to your mom and dad because that’s where you get it. It’s in their DNA and the bravery they had to send you to school as a child, even dressed as a boy sometimes.
I mean, all of it is just an amazing backdrop, and I think it was Steve Jobs who said you can never really connect the dots looking forward… it’s only looking backwards. And as I listen to you, I look backwards and I say, aha, this happened and this happened, and then the 6% and all the rest of it, and all of a sudden, you have this mission.
Well, let’s get to that point when the Taliban did take over in 2021… to the surprise of many, including and especially the US government, tell us a little bit about what you did to get the girls to safety and where you went.
Shabana: So, before August of 2021, our planning really started in April of 2021 because that’s when the US government announced to unconditionally withdraw troops, and it really was from the very beginning I’d been following, ever since the US government engaged in direct negotiations with the Taliban, I’d been following that very closely and what that meant for our school and our operations as an all-girls boarding school in Afghanistan.
And then, that was really it. I knew that it was going to be a matter of time before it would be so responsible to operate an all-girls boarding school, especially because we just didn’t have access to information about what those closed-door conversations and negotiations meant. And we looked at contingency planning for our organization, looked at many different options.
And the one that really made sense for our community was to engage in a study abroad program for our entire school because we wanted to ensure two things: safety of our students during this time during …it was still COVID. And, second to their safety was continuity of their learning.
Again, COVID disrupted learning for all students in Afghanistan and, you know, the world as we know. But, in Afghanistan, in that first year, all over the country, the schools were shut except for two weeks when students came to take finals. But because we were a boarding school, we managed to bring our students much earlier during that time, quarantine them, create a COVID bubble, if you will, and educate them throughout that time.
But, still, you know, we felt for our students probably at SOLA… were one of the two, three, schools in the entire country that operated during that time, but we already felt the disruption to learning for students was devastating. And so, we couldn’t have that continue. And so, that’s why the priorities were safety and continuity of learning, and that study abroad made sense.
As we try to gain some answers about this withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and what that’s going to mean for the country politically, let’s engage our students in a study abroad program. It will be wonderful, exciting, safe. And then, we’ll have them come back when we have some clarity. And we had hoped for that clarity much sooner. And, you know, during this time, we had started construction of a campus.
Denver: I know. Yeah.
Shabana: We broke ground on the construction of a campus in 2020. And some part of the thought process was that as our students come back to Afghanistan from the study abroad program, instead of bringing them back to a rented facility, we will move into our own campus. So, that was the idea.
And so, we planned, and we were looking at where we would take our study abroad program. We looked logistically and logically. It made sense to look much closer to Afghanistan and to our neighboring countries. But the reality was that our neighboring countries were so overwhelmed by the number of Afghans who were pouring into those countries in anticipation of a deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan.
So, we didn’t make much traction or have proper leads in terms of going to one of these countries. And, in this time period, we had quite an unexpected option that presented itself, and that was this idea of taking our entire school community to Rwanda in Africa.
Denver: Yeah. 3,500 miles away.
Shabana: Yeah. And, quite frankly, a country where I knew before even engaging with our student families that none of our student families knew where that country was located. So, initially, I worried and hesitated that it may not work because the families will not allow their daughters to go to Rwanda.
But we pursued the option because we really didn’t have any other option at that time. And once we had the approval from the government of Rwanda to bring our community, and this was all, again, days before the collapse of Afghanistan to Taliban control, we had everything planned in great detail to quietly engage in a study abroad program.
And that was interrupted by like just literally a few days, when on the 15th of August, Kabul fell to the control of Taliban. Our carefully planned study abroad program turned into an incredibly traumatic evacuation out of Afghanistan.
I say that, and it was really horrifying, but I immediately feel so grateful that everyone in our community who wanted to get out of Afghanistan during that time managed to get out and get out safely.
Denver: It’s a remarkable story. It really is.
Shabana: It was.
“I knew that there were young students as young as 10 years old who were part of our community, and their parents trusted us blindly with their safety, and it was mostly the weight of that responsibility… making sure that they are safe.”
Denver: How did you manage your emotions and fears during that time? I mean, you’re at the airport; you get a number of the girls into the airport, but a number of them are still outside. You go out and retrieve them; you get all 256 of the students and the staff. Just an incredible story. How did you manage your emotions, your fears during that time?
I mean, you know, we always talk about leaders in a crisis having to do that, but I don’t think many leaders have faced a crisis of this magnitude. What did you call on, or dig deep to well up in order to handle that situation and lead your team?
Shabana: I think, in the immediate, during that time period, you know, there are emotions and fears that are personal, and then there are emotions and fears that you feel as a leader, and I focused on the latter. I kind of put a pin on the personal one.
And I had to because I knew that there were young students as young as 10 years old who were part of our community, and their parents trusted us blindly with their safety, and it was mostly the weight of that responsibility… making sure that they are safe.
And the situation was so chaotic and so out of control and so unexpected, so that we walked into the airport expecting that it would be somewhat orderly, you know, entry into the airport because all of the names on our list, our community, was confirmed and shared and communicated. So, we initially thought it would be the very first day we would get out, and then three days later, we’re working around the clock; we were still trying to get people out.
But, in this time, I’m really grateful to many people who were quite involved in making sure that our community members were able to get out safely. My colleagues did an incredible job, people who are supporting us from all over and including people at the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Doha and Qatar, and they were communicating all the time.
And there are many, many more people that I won’t mention here, but just the Marine officers at the airport, who walked with me to all the various checkpoints around the clock, daytime and midnight, and at one in the morning, or three in the morning, or five in the morning to bring more members of our community.
And, I felt very grateful for all of their support that enabled our members of our community to get through the checkpoints and make it out. But that was only part of it. Yes, you know, there were times when in between these successes of getting a group of people in, where I would sit down and think to myself like: What is going on? What have I done?
You know, I made it through in the very first group and refusing to get on that flight and instead choosing to stay until every member of our community got through.
Denver: What a leader does.
Shabana: It did not feel enough. It felt like at that moment, of course, that’s what you do. But then I just, you know, was really consumed with our community members and especially our young students who were still stuck on the other side and were trying to get them through.
And, that was, you know some of it, I mean, I can’t go into quite detail… still feels so fresh, but I think back and, at the moment, what I reflect on mostly is a sense of gratitude to people who were so willing and helpful.
“We’re a non-profit school, but we’re a school, and we are in the business of educating the next generation of Afghan leaders. And our primary focus is the safety and learning and education of our students and these young women. And so, I feel very strongly about our operations reflecting that.”
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, sometimes NGOs have a reputation of being slow-moving. We hear that all the time. But then, if I have this timeline right, I think, it was August 1st that the students come back from semester break, as you just mentioned a moment ago; the Taliban take over Kabul on August 15th. And on August 30th, you were at your second class in Rwanda. I mean, that is speed like I’ve never heard in terms of how fast you really moved this entire enterprise.
Shabana: I always, whenever I have this opportunity on this topic to talk about it, on this topic of NGOs, I think, I look at SOLA, and I operate and run it as a business, as an enterprise, and I give myself and my team permission to think in those terms and not be bound by the limitations or standards that, a lot of times NGOs are held to. And, I think, ultimately, we are a school.
Shabana: We’re a non-profit school, but we’re a school, and we are in the business of educating the next generation of Afghan leaders. And our primary focus is the safety and learning and education of our students and these young women. And so, I feel very strongly about our operations reflecting that.
Denver: Oh, they certainly do. How has the move to Rwanda been in terms of the impact that it’s had on the students and the staff? And how do you maintain a connection back to Afghanistan for them?
Shabana: You know, Rwanda has been amazing. Rwandans are just such kind and welcoming people, and there’s a dark history, recent history in the country. And people in Rwanda remind us… many, many of them who remind us that they themselves were refugees or were born as refugees outside of Rwanda because of the history.
And, you know, here they are; they came back, and they came back to Rwanda and their home. And where Rwanda is today, it serves as an inspiration for our community. It certainly inspires me every single day.
And so, I feel very grateful that we are in Rwanda, and so are our students and our community members. And our students are able to speak with their families. They connect almost daily… not all of them, but most of them, and the girls are just remarkable.
They are focused on their studies. They’re brave. They are wonderful. Obviously, they’re, you know, troublemakers and funny and curious, and they’re all of that stuff too, of course.
But the thing that I always think about, especially right now, is how they have older sisters and younger sisters who are back in Afghanistan; they have best friends, and they have neighbors, daughters, and classmates, and other girls who are in Afghanistan that they’re in touch with, and those girls are at home and not in school.
And these girls, our students, are in school. And, I know they think about that a lot, and I know that they feel guilty because of it. And that makes me worried about them, and I wish they didn’t have to. I understand what that feels like. And so, you know, I think about that daily.
“…it breaks my heart. It is inspiring. It is deeply inspiring to see that Afghan girls, nearly two years after being denied their access to their most basic human right, they have not given up. And that doesn’t surprise me.”
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s quite a network of sisterhood and remarkably resilient, but also aware of the whole situation and not just of themselves in terms of what others are going through, and that strikes them.
Where are you drawing your students from now? And I do know you have a partnership with the International Organization for Migration. Tell us a little bit about who’s populating this SOLA in Rwanda currently.
Shabana: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that because right now, we’re in the thick of our second year of admission season.
Denver: All right.
Shabana: And, our first year, which was last year, which was a process that we started six months after our arrival in Rwanda– we announced that we would be taking more students from the Afghan community. And we received 180 applications from Afghan girls, 10 different countries.
Denver: That’s impressive.
Shabana: It was remarkable. And, this year, we announced our admission season on March 23rd, so a little over a month. And, as of today, we have more than 750 applications from Afghan girls across many different countries, and more are pouring in every day.
I think by the time we close our admission season in the middle of June, I anticipate that number will change dramatically. And, you know, it breaks my heart. It is inspiring. It is deeply inspiring to see that Afghan girls, nearly two years after being denied their access to their most basic human right, they have not given up.
And that doesn’t surprise me. And that they are continuing to look for ways and opportunities to be able to study and get educated, and I recognize that we cannot bring every single one of those girls to Rwanda to study at our boarding school.
And so, we’ve been looking at ways for the past year and a half… we’ve been looking at SOLA’s strategic priorities for the next five years and are well under way in terms of planning for: How do we bring education to girls who cannot come to Rwanda, and increasing that access?
“And so, within this challenge, there is a great opportunity, I believe, and an amazing opportunity to be able to do more to disrupt the very outdated curriculum in Afghanistan, to be able to make the education of this young generation of Afghan students, especially girls, more relevant to the realities of our world.”
Denver: What’s happening in Afghanistan now? I mean, are the secret schools opening again? What’s happening to girls’ education? We know what the Taliban has done. I just wondered what else might be occurring under the surface.
Shabana: You know, what probably people don’t hear enough about is that people in Afghanistan are so incredibly resilient. And I don’t say that in a sense for it to be romanticized about the bravery of Afghan people, especially Afghan women, but it exists.
And for those people who sometimes wonder, gosh, you know, progress in Afghanistan is not possible because those people don’t believe in women’s rights or girls’ rights to have access to education, et cetera, but they’re not true. Look at me. I’m a product of the bravery of Afghan women. It is entirely thanks to, yes, my parents, but also these amazing women.
I went to several different secret schools, not just one, who opened their homes to secretly educate girls, inviting risk to themselves and their families. And I know that’s continuing today, and that’s continuing today and much more. Lots of effort to get education to Afghan girls through various online platforms and means and through TV and so on, and those efforts are well under way.
Many people are engaged in making sure that girls in Afghanistan at least have some form of access to education. And I, you know, feel hopeful that even with the current limitation imposed by the Taliban, that this drive to provide an alternative solution for Afghan girls to access education online will also disrupt how we, in Afghanistan, look at access to education, and how we deliver, and what kind of curriculum we deliver to girls and boys in Afghanistan.
And so, within this challenge, there is a great opportunity, I believe, and an amazing opportunity to be able to do more to disrupt the very outdated curriculum in Afghanistan, to be able to make the education of this young generation of Afghan students, especially girls, more relevant to the realities of our world.
“SOLA’s mission was, is and always will be to educate Afghan girls. Nothing has changed that, and nothing ever will.”
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s very inspiring and hopeful. And, as I’ve read about this, I have just been amazed myself at the workarounds that these women have put into place in terms of getting done what they need to get done through unconventional means. And it has been so ingenious and innovative, it really is. It just stops you in your tracks.
How has your approach to leadership changed over these last couple years? Or has it? But, you know, this is an extraordinary experience for any leader to have gone through. I was wondering, as you look back and reflect, how have you, as a leader, changed?
Shabana: You know, that’s a great question. And, I think, when we left Afghanistan, there’s just so much emotion that came with that. I was finally able to process some of the personal sense of loss and emotions that I felt leaving Afghanistan.
And, while for so much of it, being in exile, it’s a deeply painful feeling. You know, I don’t consider myself a refugee… I’m not. US is a home for me as well. But this being denied my access to my homeland is something that has got me thinking quite a lot about what my responsibilities are towards Afghanistan and as a global citizen.
And everything that we have done since we have left Afghanistan, including resuming classes four days after we arrived in Rwanda, to things that we have accomplished in between, to what we are focusing on for the next five years, all of that is under this umbrella that we… I cannot submit to Taliban’s vision for Afghanistan… simply cannot accept what they believe in and how they view Afghanistan, and the potential of our country and our people.
And it’s under that that I operate and work. And so, my resolve to respect the possibilities and potential that Afghanistan and Afghans hold is just deep and has gotten deeper. I’ve always been committed to SOLA’s mission and vision. And I put it very simply, explain it very simply: SOLA’s mission was, is and always will be to educate Afghan girls. Nothing has changed that, and nothing ever will.
“This era will come to an end, and I don’t know how and when, but what I do know, and what I can control is that when that time comes, I want to make sure that I have invested myself in the service of educating the next generation of an incredible army of highly-educated Afghan women– whether they’re in exile, or as refugees, or in the larger Afghan diaspora community, who will be ready to return to Afghanistan and be at the forefront of building our nation.”
Denver: That is a North Star. You know, one of the hopes as well as concerns that you have expressed, relates to the world not looking away from the tragic situation of Afghanistan. Shabana, do you believe that the international community remains focused, or have they started to look away and turn their attention elsewhere?
Shabana: I think, there’s a little bit of both. It depends on whose focus you talk about. I know there is political convenience and, you know, I always worry that when Afghanistan is used in political discussions either way, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t benefit the situation in Afghanistan; it doesn’t help the situation in Afghanistan in any way.
But I also know and recognize that there are people who are quietly working and not looking away. There are a lot of people, in fact, both in the realm of policy-making, people who are influential in those arenas, and then people who are working through private sectors as well.
But generally speaking, you look at the Western attention, especially, particularly the United States, when so many people have forgotten about the situation in Afghanistan. And when it’s not on the front pages of your newspaper, it almost at times feels like it’s not happening at all.
But the issue is that the situation in Afghanistan has not improved; it has actually gotten worse, and it needs real solutions, and I think about that a lot. There needs to be a really clear commitment and focus on Afghanistan.
But in the day-to-day, where I come from in all of this, is that I need to, and we at SOLA as an institution need to remain so incredibly laser-focused on educating the next generation of Afghan women leaders.
What I envision is that right now, Afghanistan is going through an incredibly dark period. And the darkness that has taken over Afghanistan is just too suffocating for it to sustain itself.
This era will come to an end, and I don’t know how and when, but what I do know, and what I can control is that when that time comes, I want to make sure that I have invested myself in the service of educating the next generation of an incredible army of highly-educated Afghan women– whether they’re in exile, or as refugees, or in the larger Afghan diaspora community, who will be ready to return to Afghanistan and be at the forefront of building our nation.
And I know the girls of SOLA, our students, who are now, as they’re progressing through their education and then are soon becoming young, professional women, will have that deep commitment to Afghanistan and will be the next group of leaders in our country.
Denver: Absolutely. When that moment arrives, they will be ready. Finally, Shabana, what is your most pressing, current need right now, and how can the international community, as well as our listeners, become involved to support your efforts both financially and otherwise?
Shabana: At the moment, at this very moment, I am really focused on building a permanent home, a school and a home for our students in Rwanda. And to be a little more clear about that, and what I mean by home, is our students can’t go back to Afghanistan to visit their families.
So, as I’m building a permanent campus in Rwanda to expand our student body in the next couple of years, I want to make sure that our school is also a home for these girls and our alumni, this network of Afghan sisterhood that we’re building.
And so, that is one of the most pressing needs. SOLA is a non-profit organization here in the United States, and we are committed to building that school as fast and as quickly as we can so that we can bring more students and Afghan girls to Rwanda, where they will have access to quality education.
And honestly, beyond that, I encourage your listeners and anyone else interested to visit our website and check out my blog post and updates on our social media and our website for more information on ways that they can be part of the SOLA Global Village that makes everything possible for our students.
Denver: It’s a great thing to be part of. And if your applications are any indication, you need to build that fast. Girls from around the world, Afghan girls, certainly want to come. Thanks so much for being here today, Shabana, and for a really inspiring conversation. It was a delight to have you on the program.
Shabana: Thank you so much, Denver, for having me.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.