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Giving Afghan girls a first: opportunity

December 2, 2007 (Boston Globe): From comfortable Duxbury to provincial Afghanistan comes a gift from the heart, and from the head: A girls' school is rising in a village outside Kabul where no girls have been educated in years. It's all thanks to the Duxbury Rotary Club, and a resourceful woman named Razia Jan of Marshfield.

Jan is an Afghan who came to the United States for her own education in 1970 and never left. She became a US citizen, had a son - now a film and theater director in Los Angeles - and opened her own business, a dry cleaning and seamstress shop in Duxbury.

She has also, over the past two years, been raising money to build the girls' school in a village outside Kabul. In August, she was in her native land to watch the first floor of the two-story school building go up. When it is complete this winter, the school will have eight classrooms. "We'll start from 4 or 5 years old but might get a 16-year-old who has never been in school," says Jan.

Girls' schools in the Afghan provinces are rare; under the Taliban, more than 700 schools were burned, and fear remains in the countryside. So aside from raising funds and the roof, Jan will be raising hopes as she goes door to door begging parents to send their girls to school.

"We'll assure them this is a safe place," says Jan. Already, the mayor of the province has promised that his daughters will be the first to enroll.

In January, Jan will return for two weeks and start moving furniture into the Zabuli School, named after an Afghan banking pioneer who died a few years ago at 102. His wife, a key donor to the cause, will attend a fund-raiser in Duxbury today for the school.

The keynoter at today's event is best-selling author Khaled Hosseini, who wrote "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns." Hosseini, who lives in Los Angeles, appeared in Duxbury two years ago and helped raise nearly $50,000 for the school. He was born in Kabul, where his mother taught at a girls' high school.

The Rotary Club hopes to raise $60,000 to $70,000 today to finish the school, which will open in March. "It's a beautiful school, all concrete, with electrical wiring, computers, six bathrooms, and filtered water," says Jan. Because villagers are helping build it, she says, "they would never let anyone destroy it." There's already a boys' school nearby.

"Most people support girls' being educated. They are so smart, I can't tell you. Just give them the opportunity, and they learn so quickly," she says.

The Zabuli School is only Jan's latest humanitarian effort. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, she made two large quilts, each one bearing the imprinted photographs and a short biography of every person killed during the attack on the Pentagon, and presented them in the new chapel there. She made fleece blankets with the American flag pattern and organized Duxbury residents and schoolchildren to buy and cut fabric for hundreds more blankets, which she made. She drove down to New York, to the firehouses near ground zero, and delivered many herself.

She also made a huge quilt - 30 feet long and 12 feet wide - with 356 squares, each containing a photo and a bio of the dead firefighters; she had taken the images and biographies off the Internet, enlarged them, and scanned them onto a special canvas before sewing them together with batting and lining. Then she did the same for the Port Authority and New York City rescuers who died.

In the past couple of years, she has been sending boxes of shoes, toys, quilts, clothes and other goods through the US soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. It's the best way she knows to help her people: Afghan citizens and American soliders. The items, she explains, are for the troops to distribute to the villagers: a good-will gesture.

Apparently, it works. "Before, the soldiers say, the people would run like ants going to their hole when they saw them. Now, they run to the soldiers and thank them. It benefits our soldiers," she says. She also makes sure the soldiers themselves have care packages.

A couple of years ago, Jan accompanied soldiers to a village the troops had adopted after US bombs had partially destroyed it. At a hospital, a man sobbed that he didn't have money to take his dead wife home and asked the soldiers for help. Jan told him the soldiers didn't have money to give him.

Outside, she handed a sergeant the equivalent of $100 in Afghan money and told him to give it to the man. "There were old and young people lying there without limbs, and this man tried to kiss the sergeant's feet, hands, face. The sergeant was crying," she recalls. She told him: "These 20 men lying there might like to kill you but now they'll never put their hands on you."

She concludes: "That's how you have to work. Our soldiers come first."

This isn't all this people's ambassador has done. Over the years, with the help of the Duxbury Rotary Club, she has provided more than 30,000 pairs of shoes to Afghan children. A month ago, she was honored as a Woman of Excellence by the Germaine Lawrence School, a residential school for at-risk girls in Arlington.

Her latest dream, about to become reality, is to help girls in wartorn Afghanistan, where by definition all are at risk.

Today's fund-raiser at the Duxbury Performing Arts Center, which starts at 1 p.m., will include a silent auction, remarks and book-signing by Hosseini, Afghan folk dancing, and food.