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Jewish World Review March 27, 2006 / 27 Adar 5766

John H. Fund

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If Yale's president wants to educate a deserving Afghan, I've got just the woman for him | NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The BBC calls Malalai Joya the most famous woman in Afghanistan. On Thursday the 27-year-old women's rights activist, a member of the Afghan Parliament, mounted a stage at Yale and turned her fire on the university's decision to admit a former Taliban official as a special student.

"All should raise their voice against such criminals," she told a crowd of 200. "It is an unforgivable insult to the Afghan people that he is here. He should face a court of law rather than be at one of your finest universities." The Yale Daily News reported that the large attendance at her speech showed that the former Taliban official "continues to be widely controversial." Last night the Yale College Council, the undergraduate student government, began debating a resolution urging the university's administration not to admit Mr. Hashemi as a regular sophomore in the fall.

Ms. Joya has standing to speak for Afghan women. She ran an underground school for women during the Taliban's rule and today receives frequent death threats after giving speeches in Parliament against "fanatical warlords." She is strongly critical of U.S. support for her country's new government, which she claims is increasingly influenced by warlords, as evidenced by the now-abandoned attempt to try an Afghan named Abdul Rahman for the capital crime of converting to Christianity. "Why has $12 billion in foreign aid not made it to my suffering people?" she asked me during an interview. "Fraud and waste have largely diverted your aid to others."

But it was her criticism of Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, the 27-year-old Taliban ambassador-at-large turned Yale student, that stuck in the minds of some audience members at a reception afterwards. "Before I was like, who cares if the guy was Taliban or not?" Yigit Dula, a sophomore from Turkey, told the Yale Daily News. "But it means a lot more to [Afghans] to have someone like Hashemi educated at Yale." Aisha Amir, a physician who fled war-torn Afghanistan, told me she sympathized with the difficult choices people had to make to survive under the Taliban, but added that "there are so many more deserving Afghan students who belong in Hashemi's place."

I met one of those students at the reception. Makai Rohbar, an Afghan student whose family legally immigrated to New Haven in 2002, served as Ms. Joya's translator for the evening. After Ms. Joya's speech, I asked Ms. Rohbar what she was studying. She told me she was taking classes in chemistry and biophysics in the hope of someday becoming a physician. I then inquired how long she had been at Yale. She blushed. "I don't go here," she said. "I attend classes at Gateway Community College," also in New Haven. She had never imagined that she could be accepted into Yale or ever find a way to pay for it.

Intrigued, I later called her up to get her full story. She left a refugee camp in Pakistan with her mother, Maroofa, and her four younger siblings in 2002. Like Mr. Hashemi she has only a high school equivalency degree, because schooling in the refugee camp was limited. Her mother can't work and knows only basic English, so she and her sister Rona are the only means of support for the family beyond food stamps and $600 a month in housing assistance from the state.

I asked her what her life was like. "It's hard, but certainly better than Pakistan," she told me. "I am very grateful, but I must work 50 hours a week and also go to class. Sometimes, I am so tired I can't attend." She earns $8 an hour as a clerk in a local retail store.

I asked what she thought about Mr. Hashemi attending Yale with the help of a Wyoming foundation and a discount from Yale of 35% to 40% on tuition. "It's like a nightmare that you can't believe when you wake up," she told me. "This is a good country, but I think some people in New Haven are so complacent they don't know what officials like Hashemi did to my people."

Asked what part of the Thursday evening event most impressed her, she said it was the film "Afghanistan Unveiled," which was shown just before Ms. Joya spoke. A documentary that aired on PBS in 2004, it is the work of young female Afghan video journalists working with a French director. While acknowledging progress in the capital of Kabul, it depicts the enduring lack of women's rights in many rural provinces. The heart of the film is a searing journey to Bamiyan, a place that made headlines in March 2001, when the Taliban blew up giant 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha there. That month Mr. Hashemi visited me and my colleagues at The Wall Street Journal to launch an impassioned defense of the destruction of the monuments, which had been declared a world heritage site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

At the time, no one knew what else the Taliban were doing in Bamiyan beyond blowing up Buddhas. Nearby, the Afghan video journalists found the remnants of the Hazara tribe. One survivor told them the Taliban had "tried to exterminate" the entire tribe, starting with the men.

Zainyab, a Hazara woman so thin and wrinkled that her age was indeterminate, was found by video journalist Marie Ayub living in a cave "like an animal." She told the filmmakers that "from hundreds of women here, not one has a husband. From 100 children, maybe just one still has two parents. They bulldozed houses with women and children inside; they cut off women's breasts." But despite the devastation, she hasn't given up hope. "Bring us looms," she tells the filmmakers. "Then we can be paid to weave rugs."

A small effort to help build a modern economy in Afghanistan was launched by Paula Nirschel in 2002, when she founded the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. Her goal is to match qualified women with at least a GPA of 3.5 or more with U.S. colleges, where they can pursue a degree. The initiative grants all its women full four-year scholarships. They come to college prepared; none need remedial classes. (That's something that can't be said of all U.S. students. Last year, only 52% of entering freshmen in the California State University system passed the English placement test.)

As The Wall Street Journal reported in an editorial Friday, Ms. Nirschel sent a letter to Yale in 2002, asking it if wanted to award a spot in its next entering class to an Afghan woman. Yale declined, as did many other schools. Today, the program enrolls 20 students at 10 universities.

After four weeks of growing controversy, Yale refuses to answer any questions about Mr. Hashemi's case, citing privacy concerns. It continues to defend his admission with a single 144-word statement that raises more questions than it answers.

But a rising tide of alumni and student concern has already compelled Yale's president, Richard Levin, to take some action. Last week, he agreed to a request for a meeting from Natalie Healy, the mother of a Navy SEAL who died in Afghanistan last year after the Taliban blew up his helicopter. She was driving down from her home in New Hampshire and wanted to tell President Levin that Mr. Hashemi's student status is an insult to U.S. soldiers currently fighting the Taliban.

Ms. Healy was tied up in traffic and arrived 15 minutes after Mr. Levin had to leave the office for the day. A Yale public affairs officer heard Ms. Healy's complaint. But a Yale official tells me that Mr. Levin has wrested control of the decision as to whether or not his school's prize diversity catch will be admitted as a sophomore next fall away from the admissions office. He will now make the final call.

While he ponders that choice, he could also dust off Ms. Nirschel's 2002 letter and perhaps reconsider her suggestion that another truly worthy Afghan student be admitted. Ms. Rohbar, the aspiring physician, may be someone he could invite over for a chat. After all, she lives only four miles from his office. On days when she doesn't have homework, she is free after around 6 p.m., when her shift as a clerk ends.

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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©2001, John H. Fund