The inspiring story of how a former Iranian refugee, based in the US, started the first coding school for girls aged between 15 and 25 in Afghanistan to provide free after school education in gaming, web development, graphic design, mobile applications, and full-stack development--all from a collaboration platform.
Born in Iran as a refugee during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I understand the challenges many people face there to get access to formal education. I was one of eight children in a progressive, yet financially limited, family. We left everything behind in Herat to move to a new country. To make ends meet, my mother sold handmade clothing. She invested what little she earned in my education, which made it possible for me to finish high school.
While opportunities for education in Afghanistan have increased over the past few decades, there are still many barriers that stand in the way of education for Afghan women—familial expectations, socioeconomic circumstances, cultural stigmas, societal norms and even safety issues. These circumstances make it challenging for women to find work and explain why only 19 percent participate in the workforce, 84 percent lack formal education and are often illiterate, and just 2 percent have access to higher education.
2001 marked the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and many Afghan families, including my own, found hope in their motherland again. The next year, I returned to Herat. Seeing my peers —women just like me with so much potential—I felt compelled to do something. But I knew that in order to help others, I first needed to further my own education. I earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, and later a Master’s degree from the Technical University of Berlin in Germany.
When I returned to Afghanistan after school, I hoped to share my newly-minted tech skills with Herat women by teaching at the local university. At the time, few women were participating in the public workforce and there were still many extremist, conservative views in the country. I was vocal about inequalities and faced backlash from the community; because of these threats, I came to the United States as an asylum seeker in 2012.
After arriving in the United States, I was inspired to start Code to Inspire, the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan between the ages of 15 and 25 that provides free after school education in gaming, web development, graphic design, mobile applications and full stack development. Our goal is to empower women with the skills they need to program so that they can drive change in their communities and gain equal access to opportunities and financial independence.
Determined to make this coding school happen, I found myself faced with an interesting obstacle: how could I build an education center in Afghanistan without ever leaving the US?
To make this possible, I turned to technology—just as I had hoped my future students would. I took a side job teaching Farsi to pay my bills, and built the blueprint for Code to Inspire from a laptop in Brooklyn. I managed everything from my computer working from cafes in New York: fundraising, shipping equipment, recruiting mentors, registering applicants, and developing the curriculum.
To move things forward day-to-day, I use G Suite to communicate and collaborate with my team. I use Hangouts Meet to connect with students remotely during weekly calls and monthly check-ins. We use Google Docs, Sheets and Slides to create essential documents and keep track of our operations. We even used Slides for our first pitch deck, which I shared with my board to get their feedback. This power and connectivity enabled a refugee to make her dream come true, and built up the digital literacy of the women I was working with back home!
Since opening its doors, 150 girls have studied with us, and the students have created so many interesting projects. One inspiring example is the popular mobile game, Afghan Hero Girl, which has taken off in Afghanistan and abroad, and was even recognized by the local government. The girls developed the game to show a female protagonist dressed in traditional Afghan garb, who undergoes obstacles that are relatable to them.
Over 50 women have graduated from Code to Inspire, and 20 have secured remote full-time employment and freelance projects. Many of these women are even out-earning their male relatives who have become huge supporters of the program.
By 2030, we hope to open two additional schools in Kabul and Mazar that can serve up to 500 girls and provide employment opportunities within six months of graduation. From the ruins of a shattered nation and shattered lives of refugees can come treasure, if we know where to find it. For me, the girls in Afghanistan are the treasure and investing in their education is the future of a peaceful Afghanistan.