Sultana's Fight for Education
Sultana was forced to end her formal education at the age of 11 after men threatened to burn her face with acid.
Sadly, these threats were far from hallow; in fact, acid-burning is a common attack for women pursuing education in conservative parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At the age of 13, Sultana decided she would not be confined to a life of ignorance. She began by teaching herself English from a newspaper.
After she learned English, Sultana could access education through websites like Khan Academy and Coursera. She discovered her love of Physics and Calculus, and decided she wanted to become a physicist to study dark matter. She was especially interested in String Theory and the work of Dr. Lawrence Krauss, who she was able to meet via Skype in December.
Sultana's journey of self-education is a testament to the power of marginalized women with access to the internet, but also an embodiment of the challenges of a higher education system with admission based on high school transcripts and standardized test scores.
Sultana demonstrates the burqa she must wear when outside her compound
Sultana faced countless challenges in attempting to apply to US higher education institutions:
- She does not have high school transcripts and there is no GED testing center within 20 hours of her hometown
- There are no ACT or SAT testing centers in Afghanistan nor arrangement-based testing options
- Sultana's only option for testing was to make the dangerous trip 20 hours to Karachi, Pakistan
- She needed a passport to take the test, but it had not yet been approved by the time she left for the trip
-Once her passport was approved, it had to be smuggled across the border to Pakistan so it could be sent to her; Afghanistan has no mail system
-By the time she was able to successfully cross the border, the SAT test spots were full (thanks to the kindness of management at College Board, she was able get off the waitlist and into the test)
Now, here she is. Sultana has applied to several schools and has high enough scores to gain admission... if she can prove she has enough funding to attend.
This is where you come in. For the last seven years, Sultana has fought to achieve her dream of becoming a physicist. Now, we need you to fight with her. Please contribute whatever you can-- in the form of financial contributions or words of encouragement-- to help Sultana make the final steps to realize this dream.
***A quick note on Sultana, Emily, and the disbursement of funds: As many of you know, Sultana and I met through a Skype-based language exchange program and became instant best friends/sisters. We've had a crazy ride through the college application process, through which I've acted as a defacto guidance counselor. The funds will be collected in a special savings account set up for Sultana in my name. Once she arrives in the US, we will set up a bank account in her name and have the funds transferred to that account, from which she will pay for tuition and education-related expenses. All donors will receive monthly updates and photos of Sultana and her educational/cultural adjustment progress. Thank you for your support!
A Letter to My Past Self
To the girl who is just beginning to dream about the stars and galaxies in a corner of the world where dreaming is forbidden to her. To the girl who does not know yet what her existence means to her and everyone else. To the girl who wants to run, who wants to fly, who even wants to fall, but never wants to stop. You will get your wings.
I know it’s hard to imagine a life of self-esteem and respect now, but I want you to know it is possible. They will ruffle your feathers, try to get you to stop learning, but you will learn how to ignore it. I know you hear now, “Your X’s and Y’s won’t help you if you mother-in-law asks you to cook.” Your wings are clipped by your three year-old nephew, so arrogant of his gender that even at that age he asks, “Why are you studying? You are a girl!” It hurts, I know, and you might not have the answer today, but you will. Someday soon you’ll answer that little guy’s big question: “I am studying math and science to temporarily liberate myself from a life of bigotry and difficulty-- from a life reduced to just cooking and assimilating into a society where I am told ‘woman’s place is in the house or in the grave’. I am studying to travel the world and read about enlightenment.”
You give off incredible light in a part of the world is still enshrouded in darkness, where people fear becoming blind by the brightness of the light. You will be warned, too. Keep challenging their lies. Stare them in the eyes and show them that your brain has more than enough capacity to understand infinities and integrals and think about the universe. Every equation you learn will take you one step closer to the understanding a universe full of wonder, to finding your own meaning. I have to tell life will reward your struggle, even if you don’t see it now. I know you don’t expect anything in return in the pursuit of learning other than a temporary mental freedom, but you will be emboldened by strangers who appreciate the struggle of your flight. You will make friends and share ideas. You will leave the nest, flying to heights you never imagined possible.
To my younger self, keep growing-- the effort is worth it. In the words of Ovid, “Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.”
- Emily and Sultana
Thanks for giving her wings!
Sultana likes Sprite and Little Bites cupcakes. She likes to ride her bike, and often laughs while doing so—a full laugh—like the bursting laugh of a child. She likes the voice of Carl Sagan. She likes to walk, and always chooses to do so when given the option, even when the bags we’re carrying are heavy and it will be more than a mile back from the store. Walking, she says, is a sign of freedom. She likes the Facebook blog “I Fucking Love Science”, Adele’s song “Hello”, and the movie the Hangover. She likes to serve people Afghan-style meals, complete with tea made with milk, sugar, and cardamom, and she loves to discuss her culture over them. She likes to dance to Indian music and to make fun of me doing likewise. She likes to take selfies and them to her family members back home, who she talks to via videochat every day. She likes ducks, and was intensely excited the first time she saw them, telling me that she’d always dreamed of seeing ducks in person—they don’t have ducks in her region of Afghanistan.
She’s learned about toll roads and fire hydrants, about walking on the right side of the sidewalk and the American courtesy of tipping 20%. She’s learned how to tie her shoes and give directions. She’s learned a lot of unspoken, unacknowledged rules: leaving an empty bathroom stall between you and a stranger when there extra open stalls, avoiding conversations of politics and religion with strangers, eating rice with a spoon (instead of pinching it with a naan-like bread, as she’s accustomed to). She’s learned that with a lot of opportunity in the US comes a lot of pressure to achieve. She’s learned how to create a schedule for her day, how to take notes in class, how to send formal emails.
She’s learned that people all over the world care about her success, and she’s overwhelmed by that. She told me yesterday that she's going to start waking up before 5 am every day to study, because she wants to prove to all of you, her rescuers, that she was worth betting on.
I’m so happy to announce that last week, Sultana began her studies at Arizona State University with a full-ride scholarship, covering tuition, room, board, and books. The funding provided by her GoFundMe page has covered her flight to the US, her living costs for her first 2 months here, her flight to Arizona, and the furnishings for her room. You’ve provided her with notebooks, pens, a laptop, and bicycle to get to and from class. She couldn’t more excited.
Because of the scholarship, Sultana will have some remaining funds, which she’d like to use to help other girls take the SAT and follow in her footsteps. We’ll be setting up a 501(c)(3) fund and depositing the remaining money there. We’ve started the foundations of that work already, and we’ll have updates on that in the coming months. We’ll be working on a video message, which she’ll caption for us in Pashto, to encourage other girls to follow in her path. We’re going to need your help—stay tuned.
In the meantime, please enjoy these pictures of the life of freedom and study she's begun.
The State Dept., under pressure from the NYT article and given the high priority of her case, denied the second attempt at the F1 Visa and passed her case to the Department of Homeland Security, who granted the humanitarian parole. This has two very important implications:
1. As the system currently exists, it is VERY DIFFICULT for a female (even someone as bright and wonderful as Sultana) to obtain an F1 (student) visa if she is from a conservative region of Afghanistan as Sultana is. Why? Well, F1's require that you prove that you'll return to your home country, which can be done in 3 ways: 1) Most/all of your family (or husband/kids) live in your home country 2) Large amount of cash/property ownership 3) Hold a job in home country. In most conservative areas, none of these are possible, making the F1 exceedingly difficult to obtain. (Though we're not done trying!). Sadly, other girls also can't easily take her route-- humanitarian parole is very rarely granted, and even then it's typically only granted for short periods of time in high-profile cases.
2. The battle is far from over. Since her parole is only for 6 months, we're working with a fabulous pro-bono lawyer to help her obtain a more permanent visa solution. Keep the good vibes coming our way!
We've already used some of the funding you provided to pay for her flight, clothes (she arrived with 1 suitcase), and her move-in expenses. We're really excited to announce that she's received a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University, where Dr. Krauss teaches.
We'll keep you updated on her adjustment (she said she's overwhelmed by her freedom at present!) and on how we can leverage her story to create change for women like her. Upward and onward!
(PS- thanks to all of our Canadian friends, etc. who offered to help... sadly, Canada doesn't even have a visa-granting office in Afghanistan...)
PPS- We realize we still haven't responded to your lovely messages. We are reading them and loving them... and we'll be following up when she's a little more settled.
To all those in the UK, Canada, and Australia who encouraged her to try there-- thanks! She has considered many options and will continue to do so if her US visa is again denied. Unfortunately, some of those countries don't have embassies in Afghanistan that grant visas. Additionally, many schools in those countries don't accept the SAT, and so she'd again have to make a long journey to another country to take the appropriate college entrance exam (as most standardized tests don't have centers in Afghanistan). In her area of Afghanistan, nothing is an easy process. She appreciates the love from all over the world, though, and will consider those as options if necessary.
A few of you suggested creating a petition; while we love the idea, following the NYT article, we have to limit Sultana's publicity/social media attention to be conscious of her safety. In that light, we cannot release any information about progress on the visa until she is out of Afghanistan. As soon as we can, though, we'll let you know. The social media campaign (#letsultanalearn) on June 14th has been cancelled. Never fear, though, she's in good hands! Several members of Congress and US Senators are advocating on her behalf. If you'd like to continue to help Sultana, please encourage your senator/congressperson to do the same (you can have them contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org).
We'll keep you updated as often as possible! Here is one of her favorite songs; thanks for singing it along with us. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xo1VInw-SKc
Keep in mind that if all else fails, Sweden also has English-language university programs, scholarships for South Asian students and a progressive open approach to migration, especially if there is a case for asylum. I'd be happy to put you in touch with the right people at the Swedish Institute (www.si.se) if it doesn't work out in the US.
@Jason Smith... She has been accepted to both a community college and a 4-year state university pending funds. International students studying in the US must be able to demonstrate "proof of financial stability" before officially gaining acceptance. At the community college, proof of financial stability means proving that there is an account with $17,900 in it; at the university, it's $40,000. That's why these funds are so important! In order to use the funds responsibly and make them last as long as possible, Sultana will start by attending the community college.
This is awesome news that Sultana is settling in her new home and has gotten full scholarship to ASU. I am an immigrant myself who feels blessed to be in this country. Keep your focus Kiddo. Don't get distracted with all the noise and negativity out there. You are one of the incredibly lucky ones. Earn this. Go, be the next Carl Sagan. :)
Sultana, Try not to feel too much pressure. Take it slowly this first year. Take fewer, easier classes until you are more comfortable with English. If you are having trouble in a class, go and talk to the professor. Don't worry about silly rules. I didn't even know some of the rules you know (walking on the right side and not using a stall next door - who cares?). Find other Afghanis to hang around with sometimes so you feel less homesick. Take your time and don't worry about proving anything to us. We want you to be happy. It's in our Declaration of Independence!
Can't she receive a scholarship? If she did she will not be asked to provide financial stability evidence. This route sounds easier especially in STEM fields..The professor you mentioned might be able to help her by finding her an undergraduate research position in his university in my opinion that might be easier. She got accepted into the Community College but if she wanted to transfer to 4 years institution she will need to provide the 40k evidence again..maintaining international student visa costs a lot might hot 250k easy. Good luck!