By Cristina M. Ros
Cristina M. Ros ’08 attends Harvard College and is a Comparative Study of Religion concentrator (with a focus on Islam and Christianity) living in Quincy House
Most Harvard students agree that the best education comes from classmates. On a late Thursday night in March 2006, B. Britt Caputo ’08 and Clotilde Dedecker ’09 sat in a dorm room and discussed how they could make a difference. They brought a powerful combination of ideas: Caputo wanted to use the bountiful resources available to Harvard students to benefit society; Dedecker had previously founded the Buffalo School Coalition, which helped build a girls’ school in the rural town of Wonkhai in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province, while she was in high school.
After learning about Caputo’s enthusiasm and Dedecker’s experience, I dove into the effort. I am a child of Cuban immigrants and I have been raised to value education as the one asset that no one can take away. Dedecker and Caputo both attended girls’ schools through high school, and credit their successes to the leadership, confidence and competence that these institutions foster. We have all enjoyed vast educational opportunities we know from experience how precious those opportunities have been.
Through the course of our discussions, finding a mission became simple: improving girls’ education. We decided to do what we could to improve girls’ formal schooling and so equip girls with the self-reliance, knowledge, and skills they need to enhance their own lives and to become active, contributing members of their changing societies. Based on these ideas, “Circle of Women: Reach and Teach Across Borders” was born.
Circle of Women aims to build a second elementary school for girls in Wonkhai on charitably donated land near the school Dedecker previously helped to establish. The question most people ask us is: why Afghanistan? Because of Dedecker’s previous work and established contacts in the area, Afghanistan made logistical sense. But more importantly, we felt that young Americans have an obligation to aid the women of the Wonkhai community because of the events of September 11th. This tragic day provided tangible evidence that the world no longer consists of isolated societies, but rather houses a global community, which features a cycle, or circle, of exchange. This has illustrated both the positive effects of intercultural sharing and the disastrous consequences of misunderstanding. Promoting education for girls around the world will give us greater freedom to build our own futures and improve our societies. By expanding girls’ education, we hope to encourage the development of a world devoted to mutual learning and understanding.
A friend recently joked that we chose Afghanistan as our first focus country because we are working in alphabetical order. Despite the obvious silliness of this offhand comment, he has a point: we aim to promote women’s education across the world through global exchange, which requires every country’s involvement, in alphabetical order or otherwise.
Today, Circle of Women is run by twelve dedicated Harvard College undergraduates. In our first year, we have already made significant progress in raising funds and planning the school’s construction in Wonkhai. While we await 501(c)(3) status, we are working with the nonprofit organization Kids4AfghanKids, whose director, Khris Nedam, has been central in securing the construction site. After extensive research, we also decided to collaborate with Fahima Vorgetts, a board member of Women for Afghan Women and director of the Afghan Women’s Fund. Ms. Vorgetts, an Afghan woman who lives in Washington, D.C. and travels to Afghanistan regularly, serves as our contact inside Afghanistan. The building plans are set, and we plan to begin construction in March 2009 and complete it by July 2009.
We have also sought the counsel of many advisors. We have, for example, met with Mohammad Sadiq Daudzai, Afghan Consul General in New York; Socorro Reyes, director of the Asia-Pacific and Arab States programs for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM); Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM; Sarah Chayes, former National Public Radio (NPR) Afghanistan correspondent; Rita Henley, founder and editor-in-chief of Women’s eNews; Greg Mortenson, Asia Institute director; and several Harvard University professors, among many others. We have also received generous help from a logo designer and web designer who have worked with us pro bono. The combined efforts of our volunteers, collaborators, and mentors are an inspiring testament to the possibility of large-scale, cross-cultural cooperation.
We soon realized that we had a lot to learn beyond our empirical appreciation for the power of education. Partly to educate ourselves, and partly to reach out to others, we decided to integrate awareness-raising campaigns into our project. We developed a publicity model that features a circle of exchange—exchange through dialogue, actions, inspiration, and mutual understanding—that will allow Circle of Women to open more channels for positive cross-cultural learning in an increasingly global community.
In November 2006, Circle of Women participated in “Global Girls Day,” a world’s fair organized by Strong Women Strong Girls, a student group at Harvard College that exposes local girls between the ages of eight and eleven years to foreign cultures. Eighty girls from the Greater Boston area attended the fair, where Circle of Women hosted a booth featuring “Strong Women of Afghanistan,” including Sima Samar and Dr. Massouda Jalal. We introduced our mission statement and displayed pictures of the elementary school that exists near the future site of our school. Our booth also included an interactive mural of the Afghan flag, which participants colored in with their handprints and signatures. The mural will be sent to our future school with the message “Hello from Cambridge, USA.” The eager and inspired attendees were quick to offer their opinions on the lack of girls’ schools in Afghanistan. Responses ranged from “That ain’t right” to “Well, you should tell them to come to my school.”
As we move forward with our project, we are combining our fundraising and awareness-raising efforts. We chose yellow as our signature color, to represent the hope of a new day and the light of knowledge, and we are currently selling yellow ribbon bracelets imprinted with the Pashto proverb “Drop by drop you make a river” in local stores. Attached to each bracelet is a card translating the saying and briefly describing our mission. We also held a lecture and silent auction at the Harvard Club of New York this past April. Through the generous encouragement and support of over one-hundred individual donors we raised one quarter of the funds needed to construct our first project and furnish two of eight classrooms with desks, chairs and chalkboards. We are planning similar events for the future, including a movie screening near Harvard and an informational dinner for students at the Harvard Square Creperie.
We recognize how young we are, and how lofty our goals seem. We do not pretend to have any radical solutions, or the ability to change the world overnight, but we take pride and pleasure in knowing that our school will change the lives of hundreds of girls in a distant community. We see ourselves as examples, in that our own educational experiences here at Harvard have inspired the members of our Circle to devote our skills and efforts to learning—both for others, and for ourselves. With the energies of our dynamic classmates to assist us, we know we can engage an international circle of women to promote women’s education, and to create a world that values women as critical assets and allows women’s full participation.