Published May 23, 2023
5 min read
Two children carrying shopping bags left their home in Taliban-occupied Kabul. The older one wore a burka, the short-haired one wore pants—a sister and brother running errands, any observer would think. They took a different route each day. When they reached their destination, they made sure no one was watching before they ducked through a doorway.
They were going to school.
It was the fall of 1996, and girls’ education had just been outlawed; teachers and parents risked death if they were caught allowing girls to attend school. The younger child, six-year-old Shabana Basij-Rasikh, dressed as a boy to pose as her sister’s mandatory male chaperone. They’d hidden books in their bags for classes taught in secrecy. One day, suspecting they’d been followed, the sisters begged their parents to stop sending them. The parents refused: Education was worth the risk.
Two years ago, when Basij-Rasikh was 31, the Taliban seized Afghanistan again. She was by then the founder of the nation’s only all-girls boarding school, the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), and she’d been planning her escape for months. She burned the school’s records and spirited 256 staff, family, and students through Kabul’s chaotic airport and onto a plane leaving for Rwanda. It was the only country that agreed to take them.
Girls’ education has always been among the first things the Taliban shut down when they take power. Today in Afghanistan, girls are barred from school beyond sixth grade; fewer than 20 percent of school-age girls attend class. New laws have slashed the rights they once held, even down to the ability to visit public parks.
(As the Taliban return, Afghanistan’s past threatens its future.)
Women and girls are slowly being erased, says Basij-Rasikh, who was named 2023’s Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year for her courage, leadership, and tireless efforts to ensure that Afghan girls and young women have access to education.
Now Basij-Rasikh and her staff run SOLA in exile from a campus in Rwanda, a country whose people have lived through their own long years of war and displacement and know what it means to seek refuge. SOLA’s faculty teaches 61 students, some newly arrived from Afghan refugee communities in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
(How women are stepping up to remake Rwanda.)
But one physical school, Basij-Rasikh decided, is not enough. Displaced Afghans—including her husband, Mati Amin, who grew up in a camp in Pakistan—have become the third largest refugee population in the world. The average refugee is displaced for 10 to 15 years. Basij-Rasikh and Amin, who welcomed their first child in 2022, want to help make up for that lost time.
“In our house and in our personal relationship, SOLA starts from when we wake up to when we go to bed,” Basij-Rasikh laughs.
In SOLA’s third year of exile, there are plans to launch SOLA X, a mobile curriculum that allows children to study on their phones through WhatsApp. SOLA’s lo-fi system will offer chats that function as classrooms, where teachers can post lessons and assignments. Classes will be accessible anywhere in the world—including inside Afghanistan. SOLA X will provide each student with a certificate of completion. Basij-Rasikh thinks back to the school records she burned—these students won’t need to worry that evidence of their education will vanish.
In the meantime, SOLA is putting down roots in Rwanda, purchasing land and building a campus that will house and educate more than 200 children, from sixth through 12th grade. When, someday, the school returns to Afghanistan, this new campus will remain open—a faraway home, and a sanctuary, should extremism rip Afghanistan apart yet again.
Across the globe, education is being interrupted by war, climate change, and politics. An estimated 244 million school-age children worldwide are not in class. Basij-Rasikh sees her mission as building a model to educate students who’ve been displaced from home. “SOLA is not just a school,” she says. “It’s a movement.”
Staff writer Nina Strochlic’s most recent story for National Geographic magazine looked at the legacy and resurgence of New York’s Catskill Mountains.
Pari Dukovic is an award-winning photographer working across the genres of portraiture, fashion, and reportage. His story on COVID-19 appeared in the November 2020 issue.
This story appears in the July 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.