Against all odds
Afghan women find hope in the freedom to dream big
They call it a graveyard of empires.
The forbidding peaks and deep river gorges of Afghanistan have witnessed the collapse of five tumultuous regimes in four decades. The most recent coup, in August 2021, saw a U.S.-backed republic dissolve like snow on the base of Noshaq mountain. As feral Taliban jihadists descended, women suffered the loss of their dignity, their access to education, their ability to leave home without a male chaperone, on penalty of death.
While a horrified world watched this nightmare unfold online, Scott Stevens found himself transported through time. The longtime director of UD’s internationally recognized English Language Institute (ELI) returned to 1979. On the east bank of the Nile River, a disheveled little girl held a baby goat and tugged on his camera case. The young entrepreneur would allow Stevens, then 21, to take her photo. Stevens did not have much to give in return—he’d spent all his savings on this trip—but as he handed over the last few dollars in his pocket, the girl’s expression relayed one thing: You owe me.
I am learning as much from these women as they are from me. They will change the world.
“This interaction has haunted me, because I did owe her,” Stevens says now. “I knew that this girl, in that part of Egypt, would grow up with no more than a sixth-grade education. Her photo has been on my desk ever since, reminding me of the debt we owe half the world’s population, to ensure that girls and women have opportunity for education, opportunity for a future.”
Last summer, Stevens recognized one potential pathway for making good on this debt. In a news article, he read about 148 female college students who’d engineered their own escape out of Afghanistan, evading bullets and bombs before boarding a Spartan military transport. With the full support of UD’s administration, Stevens spearheaded an effort to help, establishing a collaborative of new academic homes around the country for those with the least English language ability.
Now, 14 of these students, the largest cohort, are reclaiming their lives as Blue Hens. Since arriving at UD in December, they’ve participated in a year-long program meant to prepare them for undergraduate matriculation. While the ELI has facilitated language and cultural education of students from 150 countries over the course of 40-plus years, this effort marks the first intentional focus on displaced war victims.
Known as the Women’s Initiative in Service and Education, the WISE program includes intensive English-language coursework, individual tutoring and specialized workshops on financial literacy, time management and more. For everything else, there is Rebecca Boyle, WISE program coordinator. On call 24/7, she liaises with a partnering resettlement agency and counsels students, providing companionship, rides to the doctor, even personalized shampoo recommendations.
“I strive to convey: You are safe here, you are welcome,” Boyle says. “But I am learning as much from these women as they are from me. They will change the world.”
In the following pages, three of UD’s Afghan students share their stories—of fear, faith and, perhaps most crucially, freedom.
For Stevens, these stories speak to a mission 43 years in the making.
“I think of her often,” he says of the child from his picture. “I can imagine her children cheering on our UD Afghan scholars. And I can imagine their mother grumbling, with a wry smile: ‘About time’.”