From a Secret Housing School in Afghanistan to George Mason University

Nov 15, 2022 / By Steven A. Harris-Scott, Ph.D

Wida Saber is a student in INTO George Mason University's Academic English and a refugee from Afghanistan. Her life today is very different from a year ago when she was working as a senior advisor for the U.S.-aligned Afghan government's Ministry of Justice in Kabul on the eve of the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan.

Now that she is here at Mason to improve her English and pursue another degree, Saber wants to raise awareness of the plight of women and girls back in her homeland where the repressive Taliban has retaken the country. In particular, she wants to support what she refers to as "secret housing schools" that have sprung up around Afghanistan to provide basic education and humanitarian assistance for women and girls. 

In fact, Saber herself began her schooling in a secret housing school run by her parents out of her childhood home when the Taliban was last in control of Afghanistan in the late-1990s. In an interview, Saber spoke of the "many" beatings her mom received from the Taliban and the several instances where her dad was arrested because of their secret school.

For Saber and the millions of girls in Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—which were traced to Afghanistan as the Taliban had allowed al-Qaeda to train and equip—opened up huge opportunities, few bigger than the ability for them to attend schools out in the open. As such, Saber and her friends call themselves the "9/11 generation." 

By mid-2021 as the new Biden administration mulled pulling out of Afghanistan after almost 20 years of war, Saber's life was about to change radically again—this time for the worse. Security guards at the Presidential Palace where she worked had to help her evacuate as the Taliban entered Kabul, telling her to cover her face so she wouldn't be recognized.

Saber said she remembers “seeing the Taliban enter Kabul and was shocked by their scary faces." Soon after, Saber and her family made plans to evacuate, but when the day came, they got separated in the mad dash at Kabul airport. Saber and her husband ended up in Qatar for over a month and then at a U.S. army base in Wisconsin for about six months.

“The things I left behind, my entire soul, my identification, my everything,” she said of the evacuation. “I only had my tears and the clothes [on my body] at that time." 

Saber quickly realized that she had "to do something for my people on that military base [in Wisconsin] as we had more than 13,000 Afghan evacuees."

Just like her mom did 20 years earlier, Saber began teaching several children at that army base. It was at the army base where she heard about Mason from a friend who had just enrolled. After several attempts, she was able to enter Mason through INTO Mason's intensive language program. 

She now has a title for her journey: "From secret housing school in Afghanistan to George Mason University." To support those secret schools in Afghanistan now that she is here at Mason, she wants to bring together experts to discuss the current situation and the future of female education while raising money to support those schools. She is clear-eyed about the danger involved—"I know it's not secure," but she is committed to helping women in her native Afghanistan.

"[I want] to work and fight for the other girls and other women around the world." 

On Thursday, November 17, from noon to 1 p.m. Saber and several panelists will discuss their stories, experiences, and hopes for the future of Afghanistan in an event sponsored by INTO Mason, Global Affairs Program, and the Carter School for Peace and Resolution.

When proposing this event series, Saber spoke of the "millions of Afghan women and girls [who] have received an education over the last two decades," but whose progress "is [now] jeopardized. Thousands more girls and women may be denied a complete education, forced to marry, and live a life governed by harmful traditional practices. Those who oppose the [Taliban] may face violent retaliation."

Saber wants to use her new home in Northern Virginia at Mason because she believes "the international academic community such as the U.S. universities and schools can play a critical role in ensuring Afghan girls have access to quality education."

In a defiant tone, Saber declares that "Afghan women are not waiting for the Taliban government to change its mind...[and] their teachers aren't either." 

Thursday’s panel discussion is just the first of a series. Learn more on Instagram at @into_mason