Teacher: At Tora Bora, ‘beautiful flowers will bloom’

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Instead of suicide bombers, it is possible to groom "nurses, teachers, beautiful housewives and good husbands" at Tora Bora, one of the "scariest" areas of Afghanistan and where Osama Bin Laden was long thought to be hiding, Mina Wali, founder of a private school in the disadvantaged area, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Mina Wali has lived in the US for 28 years and returned to Afghanistan in 2005 to contribute to the reconstruction effort underway in her home country. In 2006, she opened the first 'Hope of Mother' school, which has 400 students.

She was speaking to EURACTIV's Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You were only 17 when you left your country, Afghanistan, which was then occupied by the Soviet army. You have spent 28 years in the USA, but one day, in 2003, you left sunny California and came back to Afghanistan. Why did you do that and what happened?

First of all I would like to thank you for the opportunity that people could hear my voice. I would also like to thank the European Foundation for Democracy for inviting me to Brussels.

As to why I left sunny California and why I came back to Afghanistan, I'm very proud to say that I am an Afghan American. I lived 17 years, the best of my time, in Afghanistan, until my father was taken up. He was an air force general at the Bagram base and vanished. We don't know if he is alive or not. Other members of my family have also been captured. And then, we had no other choice but to leave the country.

My family settled in California, which has similar weather to Afghanistan. For many years, I never dreamed of coming back to Afghanistan one day. But with the help of the international community, there was a hope that we could come back. And in 2003 I visited my country, to see how it looks.

It was my curiosity, my love, my passion, everything was in Afghanistan, and especially my lost father. I always was in search of him. So I came to search for my father, because the pain I had was unbearable.

When I came in 2003, I realised it was not just me, so many other people had the same pain, even worse than me. There were people who had lost all members of their family. Then I decided: we have to be a team, we need to give each other support. When I went back to America, I decided to come back. My background is teaching, so I decided that there were enough teachers in America, but I could bring some changes in Afghanistan.

You run a school in Tora Bora, a region famous for the caves where American forces were trying to locate Osama Bin Laden. We are speaking one day after his demise. The fact that he is not there any more: what does it mean for the people of Afghanistan? By the way, what is Tora Bora, it's not only caves: there must be hope in Tora Bora as well, since you run a school there?

That's why the school is there, to bring hope to people. Thanks to the school the people start moving in that area. My school is close to Tora Bora, which we call Torghar, that means Black Mountain. At the bottom of the black mountain is my school, and except the mountain and the farming, there is nothing else. And the first rocket against the Soviet Union was fired from the area where I built my school.

And that's why I built the school, so we won’t need weapons any more. We need pens, we need to start our revolution with education. People are very traditional in that area, but they accepted me very well. It's different from Kabul, which gets a lot of attention. But I decided I should touch the untouched area. That was my goal, and that's the reason I went to a rural area. And my plans for the future are in the same way – I don't like to work in big cities where everyone is focusing. So I put my life in this line.

How much do you change people's lives? How much has your school influenced the life in the community? Do you teach school material only, or do you also teach pupils to be citizens and to be skilful in their households?

We do both. We reach them to be good at school, but also to be mannered, about social life, we also work with the families.

I personally go to the family hold and I talk to them, see what their problems are. We create jobs for them, for women who are not allowed to go out of their home. And this is not because their husband is very bad, it's because of their culture.

People believe that if a woman gets out of her home, the man is not good enough to care for the family. This is a Pashtun area. So I take stuff for them in their home to do it, and buy it back from them and sell it. It's because I want to work on the sustainability of the programme. We cannot be always dependent on the donor's help.

How many such schools are needed in Afghanistan? Maybe thousands?

More than thousands. I don't want to brag about myself, but I can say that my team is working very hard to make people become somebody. So that from that area, which always had a scary name, beautiful flowers will be blooming.

Not producing terrorists?

No, not producing suicide bombers. I want to produce nurses, teachers, beautiful housewives, good husbands, and to see them with a smile and cheery life.

Can the EU help in this effort?

Even right now they do it, but they could do more and we would love to have their support. Portugal is a member of the European Union, and even though it's a relatively poor country, it offers help trough AMI [AMI – Assistência Médica Internacional; International Medical Assistance], and I'm grateful to its president Fernando Nobre and his wife, who supported me and trusted me. We are a very good team and we work very well together.

Is this your first visit to Brussels, and do you plan to come back and build on the contacts you establish today?

I love Brussels, I love the people, and I hope they love me too. I would love to come back.

Will the demise of Osama Bin Laden change things in Afghanistan and maybe in the region?

I think this is good news for everyone. I don't know how much will change, because I'm not a politician. But definitely, there will be a lot of changes, because Bin Laden has been as a hero for those people, but now the hero is gone.

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