Former refugee's Fulbright project will help Afghan women become entrepreneurs
Fulbright scholar Najla Sabri is on leave from the World Bank to pursue her master's degree at the UO.
Najla Sabri was at home in Kabul with her parents and four younger siblings when a Mujahidin rocket destroyed half of their house. Miraculously, they all emerged unhurt, but the 1993 attack on their middle-class neighborhood meant nowhere in Afghanistan was safe. They fled to Pakistan. Within a year, much of Kabul was reduced to rubble.
The Sabris would struggle for eight years as refugees. Though she was only a junior in high school, Najla became the breadwinner because her parents could not speak Urdu or English. Her rise from dental office receptionist in Pakistan to operations analyst at the World Bank in Kabul is a testament to her close-knit family's drive to pursue education no matter what.
Now, as a Fulbright scholar, Najla is on leave to study gender and development at the University of Oregon's international studies program. She hopes her research on female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan will aid bank projects that encourage Afghan women to move beyond traditional roles.
"My passion is to empower women to advance in life because they have suffered a lot," she said. "We need to involve women at all levels. This is quite new for my country, especially in the rural areas."
In this brief video, World Bank President Jim Kim refers to UO graduate student Najla Sabri while describing efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. "He asked each of us about our challenges and how we feel about our work in Afghanistan," Najla said. "I am proud that he remembered my words because I spoke from my heart."
Najla chose the UO because it is research-focused and emphasizes interdisciplinary approaches. She already sees benefits.
"My courses help me understand gender and development issues," she said. "On a personal level, I am meeting students from different cultures, which allows me to learn about development in their countries. There are amazing people in my cohort."
Like all international students, Najla brings invaluable perspectives to the UO community.
"I was lucky to have a loving and educated family," she said. "I consider it a privilege because Asian countries are very famous for being patriarchal with girls having little choice."
In contrast, Najla's mother enjoyed a prestigious banking career. Her father, a civil servant, took his four daughters' educations into his own hands early on, buying schoolbooks a year in advance so that nothing could derail their studies.
"In the sixth grade, I realized how much turmoil my country was in," she said. "Schools often were closed because of security concerns."
The Mujahidin crises followed by the emergence of the Taliban closed schools permanently for girls. Najla's family joined thousands of Afghans fleeing to different cities in Pakistan where they established schools that charged minimal fees. In the school and university where Najla studied in Islamabad, teachers were unpaid aside from stipends for transportation.
Meanwhile, some of the women who stayed in Afghanistan risked everything to help girls stay on track in their studies.
"During the Taliban era, our women were very brave, including my own aunt," Najla said. "She established a secret school for all the girls in her community and taught every subject, 14 hours a day, with help from a few other women."
In Pakistan, Najla worked split shifts in order to study English early each morning and take college courses in the afternoons. Her father walked her home from work every night without fail because it was unsafe for women to be out alone.
Five years of sacrifice paid off when the Swedish Embassy in Pakistan hired Najla for four times what she earned at the clinic. "It was fantastic," she said. "I was so happy. That job made my career because I learned about international organizations."
Two years later, in 2001, the Taliban regime was overthrown. Refugees closed their schools in Pakistan and hurried home to rebuild. For Najla, this meant giving up a job she loved, one that provided a pension and medical benefits.
"Here I give the credit to my parents," Najla said. "They wanted to go back so that we could all continue our schooling. With a lot of uncertainty, we decided to go."
They arrived in Kabul to find nothing remained of their house. From experience, Najla knew what she had to do.
"From the second day, I started looking for a job," she said. "I contacted the ministry of education to get myself and my sister back to university."
She would finish her bachelor's degree while working in the office of the European Union Special Representative for Afghanistan, see her father through double-bypass surgery in India, receive a fellowship from the UN Institute for Training and Research, change careers to join the World Bank, and—on her third attempt, win the Fulbright.
She looks forward to applying what she's learning at the UO to her work in Afghanistan.
"Now I have a broader vision for the future and a better idea how I can help," she said. "I look forward to rejoining my work and family, and being at the service of my people."
Najla Sabri is a Jean Negus Malmo International Peace Scholar.
By Melody Ward Leslie