Born in 1966, I had a happy childhood in rural Afghanistan including in Baghlan, Paktia, Jawzjaan... and waking to my father’s melodious chants of the Quran and birds singing. My father, who was a police chief and loved Rumi poems, would teach my mother poems and my mother despite being an illiterate women, would in turn recite them to us from memory and ask us to write them before my fathered returned from duty. From an early age I was taught about the importance of values and education. Everything changed when I was 16. My father did not come home. His post was ambushed by the rebels during the soviet occupation of Afghanistan and he was killed.
My mother was left alone with10 children to take care of. Life was tough, but I was determined to complete my education and in 1986 I graduated from the faculty of agriculture at Kabul university. After my graduation, that same year I married Hashim and by the end of 1988 we were gifted with two sons, Kiomars and Naweed.
Life went on and with the departure of the Soviets there was even a short period of peace, but this was shattered by the breakout of war between the Mujahidin factions. Kabul became the battlefield and after too many close calls from rocket attacks from Gulbudin Hekmatyar (the leader of Hisb-e-Islami [one of the Mujahidin factions]), in1993 I sought refuge with my two small boys in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in the north of Afghanistan. My husband followed once we had settled and I found work with Oxfam to help other refugees, like myself, in the North. When that project came to an end, I moved on to work for UNHCR. For a short period of time I worked as a personnel officer, and was then promoted to work as a program officer for women. I found it frustrating to see funds released to NGOs with little chance to influence how the money was spent.
While trying to tackle this challenge, I was invited to join UN Habitat who were just starting a programme to rehabilitate the urban areas, and wanted to engage women in the process. I realised this was the opportunity I was looking for and could possibly make real difference; So, I accepted the invitation and joined UN Habitat in 1995.There, through a process of consultation with people we developed a programme strategy which we called the Community Forums. This became the key means by which people were able to access resources to rebuild their neighbourhoods and systems of local governance.
Over a period of ten years we developed a strategy that survived the Taliban siege of Bamyan, The fall of Mazar the spread to already occupied cities and continued through a grassroots home based movement. However, the popularity and progress of our program became a threat to the Taliban rule and made me and my family a target. I received numerous threats from the Taliban to stop my work but I overlooked those threats and continued to help local communities become self sufficient. Eventually, In 1998, when I was 4vmonths pregnant with my third child, my home was attacked and my husband was nearly choked to death. They took everything we had and wanted to kill us all, but perhaps because of that one good deed somewhere, we survived. It was after that night that I decided to take my children to Pakistan and my third son Elham was born there. 5 months later, I left my two eldest sons in the care of my sister and went back to Afghanistan to continue my work. Too young to be my Maharam (male companion) and too young to leave at home Elham travelled with me on training missions into Afghanistan, crossing frontlines to support the women and men who were starting fledgling programmes in Bamyan and Panjshir, this time without external funds.
After 9/11 the US invaded Afghanistan and replaced the brutal Taliban regime with a democratic system. The new Afghan government asked us to design the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) based on the Community Forums' concept. We worked to scale up the programme, developing training manuals, operational manuals for the new programme which was to cover over 20,000 villages across the country.
After handing over the management of NSP to the government, I established an NGO called RASA (Rasa Advocacy & Skill building Agency) to provide much needed support in building the capacity of social organisers to implement the NSP across the country and provide training to many of the facilitating partners.
I was very lucky to be offered the opportunity to study for a masters at Reading University in the UK and left in 2003 to study Rural Development. I also had my fourth child, a daughter, Rasheell, in London.
Awareness raising session for over 200 women in Darai Foladi, Bamiyan, Afghansitan 1997
Inauguration of Balkh Province Administrative Reform at Mazar Municipality Hall, Balkh, Afghanistan 2008
In 2005, after completing my masters degree I returned with my family back to Afghanistan. I decided I could best serve the country by working for the civil service commission. From 2006 to 2011 I worked as the senior advisor to the head of the Civil Service Commission of Afghanistan. Based on the many years of experience, putting in place merit based systems in the Community Forums, I was able to develop sound recruitment and management systems in the commission.
Unfortunately due to the deteriorating security situation in the country, repeated threats to mine and my family's lives for working against corrupt elements in government, and my charity work for women's rights advancement in rural areas (some of which controlled by the Taliban) I was forced to make the difficult decision to seek asylum in the UK. There was an attempt to kidnap my second son Naweed, but the Afghan security forces intervened in time to save his life, for which we are forever grateful. Leaving Afghanistan after all the work I had done there was devastating, it was also hard for my children and husband to adjust to refugee life.
Thanks to some of the greatest people and dearest friends here in the UK, I found my way to continue to work for the greater good of Afghanistan and beyond.
In 2015, I founded a Charity called the Rahela Trust for Afghan women's education www.rahelatrust.org which provides higher education scholarships and mentorship to talented & disadvantaged Afghan girls and women in Afghanistan. As of today we have provided scholarship & mentorship to 36 scholars at different universities. 20 of our scholars are at university and 16 scholars have graduated, many of them working in good jobs.
Rahela Trust - Second Annual Lecture, London, UK 2018. Photo Credit: iNex Studios
In 2019 I founded Governance and Reform Advisory (GRA) www.globalgra.com with the aim to enhance performance in public and private sectors and ensure good governance, accountability, transparency, and trust, which leads to improvements in living standards. I believe more attention should be paid to process rather than structure; it is important to assess how governance really operates, and not merely how it's described on paper. At GRA, until August 2021 we were working closely with the Afghan ministries of Women's Affairs and Foreign Affairs to advise, provide capacity building programs, and MA and PhD scholarships for the department of Transboundary Water and Boarder Affairs. All this has been stopped with the Taliban takeover of the capital on 15th of August.
Witnessing the current situation with the Taliban takeover and their continuation of atrocities, I have founded this non-profit organization to try and directly help women and young people who are most at risk: financially through the provision of humanitarian assistance; and emotionally with morale building and mentoring to keep their spirits alive through this difficult time.
Join me! let’s work in solidarity to save those women and children of Afghanistan who are at greatest risk today and who desperately need our immediate attention!