By: Catherine Gelband
My involvement with Ayni stems from my 26 year relationship with a Montessori school in Seattle. My experience on its Board cemented my lifelong belief in the value of education. My father, my first hero, is the quintessential self-made man. From his example, I believed as a child and still believe that an education is the root to all that is possible.
Ten years ago, I began thinking about how I could apply my dedication to education to a more global effort. A chance meeting in a Seattle grocery store with Ayni’s founder, Julia Bolz, a law school classmate of mine, gave that interest a direction. I agreed to help Julia form the 501c3 that is Ayni.
I have chaired Ayni’s Board since 2010. I am awestruck by what our organization has been able to accomplish. Annually over 15,000 children, mostly girls, attend the schools that Ayni has built.
Like the rest of the Board, I contribute hundreds of hours each year to Ayni. I have a particular fondness for numbers, so the financial oversight of the organization is a particular passion of mine. I helped lead the organization’s transition from its remarkable founder to our first paid executive director. My partnership with our ED Ginna Brelsford reflects our shared optimism for what is possible in Afghanistan and our sustained belief that education is absolutely the answer to the future success of the country and its people. Ginna’s leadership of Ayni has been pivotal in helping us remain nimble and innovative as an organization.
I have never visited Afghanistan. That could make connecting to our work challenging, but as an organization we are devoted to collecting stories—through interviews, videos and photographs to inspire all of us that support Ayni. What these stories show me time and again is that the girls of Afghanistan believe passionately in their own potential, are certain of their abilities to overcome any obstacle and are aware of their integral part in the future of their beautiful country. I believe in these girls and the power of the education we help them to receive.
My mom teaches at a school where they have a new building but have also kept some of the old classrooms that are now ruined, dusty and have no doors or windows. Mom says, usually the reason for her students who miss school days is because they don’t want to study in a muddy and dusty room. Mom says she doesn’t want to teach in that classroom either, but she doesn’t have an alternate option. Girls, who went to older Gawhar Khatoon building, told me a similar story. They say their old classrooms had insects like snakes and scorpions or mice and they were always afraid to enter classrooms, as they were scared something would bite them or hurt them. With this new building, the students will start a totally new experience in their academic lives. I see both the old and new Gawhar Khatoon in this picture. I see the new home for all the girls who are waiting to sit in these classrooms and be able to study with fearless mind and not worry about any destructing object coming out of the walls. I believe this new school will bring a significant change in both the teaching process and students’ works which can lead to a better future for all young girls attending this school.
Last fall, I joined the Ayni team and have enjoyed interning here ever since. Ayni’s mission of creating quality educational opportunities that empower and inspire girls in Afghanistan has stayed with me since I started my internship here, and keeps me motivated to do whatever I can to help these girls.
Growing up, the importance of education has always resonated with me. I am a child of Chinese immigrant parents who dreamed that their daughter would achieve more than they did. Both of my parents grew up in middle class families in southern China, and shared a great deal of financial struggles. They couldn’t afford college and constantly searched for work. After they got married, my parents pledged that they were going to start a family and establish careers. They have fulfilled their dreams higher than they had expected. My parents are my heroes and huge inspirations to me. They’ve sacrificed so much for me, and I’ve always been so thankful for them.
I recently graduated from the University of Washington, earning my bachelor’s degree in international studies, with a track in international human rights. My interest in international studies piqued when I joined the Amnesty International club at my high school. I’ve always been compelled in learning about different cultures and wanting to make a difference in developing countries. That’s one of the main reasons why I chose to intern at Ayni—to help girls in Afghanistan earn an education, and ultimately gain a better future. My parents provided me these incredible opportunities, and I want to do the same for these girls.
Afghan staff member Farkhonda recently visited the Gohar Khaton construction site in Mazar-I-Sharif and posted this update:
Because of the Eid holiday, construction workers had a few days off, but they have returned to work and are busy with the project. They just finished bricking the blocks for the building, and have begun the pastering elements of the project. Workers will also start bricking the blocks for the office rooms next week.
Continue to check back on this page for more news on the progress of construction and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to receive regular updates.
A month ago I joined the team here at Ayni. Since becoming a part of this unique group I have been inspired by the dedication each member commits to promoting the goal of access to quality educational experiences for girls in Afghanistan. As a recent graduate of Seattle University the importance of education is increasingly apparent—leading to greater household decision making power, lowering fertility rates, and giving women more economic independence.
Education is often pushed to the back-burner in periods of extreme conflict, yet it is an essential component of achieving long-lasting peace. Recently our Afghan intern Airokhsh sent a short email describing the current situation in Mazar-i-sharif, the town where our new school is being built. In it she described a shocking environment, an environment that has recently seen violence and brutality used where peace was once prevalent. It is in this lens that I approach the dire need to emphasize increasing access to quality education. It may seem like a small role in the larger scheme of development, but education creates widespread positive change and meaningful impact. In Afghanistan specifically, education has the ability to raise the status of women, reduce the occurrence of early marriage, and engage a historically disenfranchised population in a countrywide conversation about their common future.
It’s easy to feel disconnected when you’re sitting in an office in Seattle, but hearing Airokhsh depict the on-the-ground situation stimulates reflection and action toward our mission. I’m happy to be at a place that is directly impacting the lives of girls and hopefully we can only improve and enhance that mission.
This week one of our Afghan associates Farkhonda visited Gohar Khaton and sent us some construction updates. They may see small from over here, but we are fast approaching the opening of this one-of-a-kind school and excitement is building in the Ayni office!
Workers are busying putting plaster on the walls and putting the final touches on the principal and administrative offices.
The brickwork is moving quickly and looking good. The second block will be finished this week and 99 percent of the brickwork is done on the entire building.
Ayni Education International is hosting an artist competition to select artwork for the new school. The competition is open nation-wide to Afghan women and girls of all ages, with the aim of promoting and encouraging creativity in and outside of the classroom. The competition will take place over six weeks, with the winners’ work being exhibited during the opening ceremonies. Three prizes will be awarded and twelve honorable mentions noted. A workshop will be conducted for all 15 artists to learn how to install their work on the walls of the Gohar Khaton Girls’ School.
The architecture of the Gohar Khaton Girls’ School is the brainchild of architect Bob Hull and Janet W. Ketcham with input from the University of Washington’s Assistant Professor Elizabeth Golden and her design studio students. Gohar Khaton’s emphasis on community engagement started with young Afghan girls gathered in a small classroom drawing their dream school on pieces of paper. From that small dream an even bigger dream emerged—Gohar Khaton is the first of its kind. A school designed to work with the elements to regulate the sweltering summers and harsh winters of northern Afghanistan, while also fostering curiosity and learning through its unique design.
The artist competition is a part of Ayni’s new emphasis on innovation in education. We want to move beyond merely supplying education, by trying to empower girls by giving them a voice. For us this starts in the classroom, but quickly moves beyond when girls are given the opportunity to express themselves creatively. We have seen firsthand the power of these efforts—girls are able to join the public sphere like never before by voicing their opinions and experiences.
The artist competition kicked off this week when young female artists were shown around Gohar Khaton to get a better feeling of the space. Here are some photos highlighting this trip.
Stay connected with the competition through our blog and stay tuned for more information about our fall fundraising event focused on the importance of artistic expression in shaping girls’ education.
When I was a kid, a fortuneteller told my mom that later on what I do for a living would have to do with saving lives. My mom guessed I would be a doctor. I used to dream of being a teacher one day. But neither doctor nor teacher worked out.
I know how fortunate I am. My parents gave me the best education one could have. They sent me to college to study management in France. But I always knew there was one thing they could never help me with: finding a career that would fire me up everyday. My whole time in college felt like climbing up a ladder without knowing where I was heading. I was so unsure about my future career.
Then came business school. It opened up my world so that I had exposure to different areas that I never had before which, ironically, brought me to the non-profit sector. I realized how fascinated I was listening to people from Path talking about vaccine delivery in Sub-Saharan Africa, how passionate I feel watching the TED talks of Melinda Gates about empowering women around the world. It was an epiphany to me that what I cared so deeply about wasn’t the profit a company makes a quarter, but the number of lives saved in the wake of a new vaccine development, the number of girls getting an education in the most remote areas in the world (it’s still numbers anyway since I study business J). I was deeply touched and inspired by the film Girl Rising that tells the stories of girls from different countries and backgrounds who face the greatest barriers but strive for a better life. A calling flooded over me after watching the film. I need to do something for these girls. And that was when I first met Ginna, the executive director of AYNI Education International who happened to be in the panel leading to the film screening. Her speech was inspirational.
And that was how I end up spending the summer between my 2 years of MBA with AYNI. AYNI’s mission of empowering girls and bringing education to them really resonates with me. I didn’t know much about Afghanistan before my internship but I have learned so much about the country and its people over the last 5 weeks. I just finished reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The book gripped me of how much suffering Afghan women experience in their lives, which I never imagined could happen in a person’s life. And for the last five weeks, the first thing I did in the morning while having breakfast was read a piece of news about Afghanistan, and as one can imagine, it was all about war, conflicts and women struggling. My days start a little bit heavy like that, but when we were stuffing envelopes to send out appeals, I learned about how much money has been given by donors to our organization, I realized the world we are living in is still a blessing place. There are still a lot of people who care about unfortunate lives. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy what I’m doing so much.
This internship is only my first step into the non-profit sector. I don’t know what the future looks like, but I know for sure that I will keep nurturing my passion for helping and empowering people and pursuing a career in international development. And if everything turns out as I expect, I guess the fortuneteller was right.
Ayni Education International works in the space of empowering girls’ education in Afghanistan. To most this means providing access to school buildings, including teachers and texts from which to learn to read and write. To me, it has come to mean that as the executive director I must keep our international NGO nimble, innovative and responsive to the ever changing on-the ground needs of the more than 28,000 girls we serve in a post-conflict zone. This means different things at different times.
This year has already seen a number of new innovative programs and projects—from our new school, Gohar Khaton, that combines environmental initiatives with artistic expression, to new approaches to learning such as our short story competition and a recently announced artist competition, that encourage girls to creatively use their voices to affect change in their local community. Education has the power to go beyond the classroom and empower girls to engage in their nation’s culture and politics.
Afghanistan has seen increased violence around the recent elections and emphasized the increased need for widespread education of both boys and girls. We are more committed than ever in providing education as a pathway out of violence and into peace.
In the spirit of engaging in conversation with our donors, readers and students, Ayni is re-launching our blog as a platform of communication. Come here to learn about our projects, and watch for pieces that allow you to connect more deeply with the Ayni team in the U.S. and Afghanistan. You’ll hear from board members, our interns—who keep the organization moving forward operationally, to our Afghan partners and Ministry of Education interviews to the very girls whose stories capture that elegant edge between hope and war zone realities. Our blog will represent as best as we can a platform for Afghan Girls’ Voices.
Welcome to our team. We hope you will become as passionate about the potential of education as we are.
Ginna Brelsford, Executive Director
July 16, 2014 Airokhsh Faiz
Every time I go to visit the girls in any school, there are always obstacles on our way which makes me disappointed for a while but what gives me more hope and energy to make sure and return to talk with these girls is the courage and thirst of these girls to education and exchange of ideas. When I talk with them, it is like no one has ever asked about their dreams before. They are full of love and joy, they each have stories to tell and a totally different world they live in. They are working hard for their future. They say I inspire them, but to tell the truth they inspire me, with their fullest smiles and the kisses they throw at me, with their motivation and continuous effort regardless of the harsh situation life has brought upon them. If you look at the first and second picture, you can see the difference. In the first one, the janitor is not allowing the girl to come close to us. But then she runs, towards us, to tell us she is free, to tell us she wants to run towards her dreams and that she can achieve anything she wants.