For the first time, said Hakima Ameri and Mah Begum Atimadi, they know what freedom feels like.
The two Afghan teenagers, both from the Hazara ethnic group, arrived in Santa Fe in early January as part of Desert Academy’s efforts with United World College in Montezuma to offer women from rural parts of Afghanistan the opportunity to learn skills and concepts — inside and outside of the classroom — that they can one day use to help implement change in their communities back home.
Coming from a place where women have fewer rights than men, and where violence against Hazara people — a group native to central Afghanistan — has been the norm since the 16th century, Hakima and Mah Begum said they want to use their experiences in New Mexico to help women in their country who have been victims of discrimination.
“I want to be in a position to prove that women can and should be heard, valued, respected and appreciated,” wrote 15-year-old Hakima in her scholarship application to the private Desert Academy last year.
“Being a woman and being Hazara, when you combine them … you live a very limited life,” she said.
Hazara people, many of whom are Shia Muslim, have been persecuted for years, most recently by the Taliban and al-Qaida. Hakima and Mah Begum said they remember a time in Afghanistan when “bombs were everywhere,” targeting Hazara people, especially women.
Mah Begum, 17, wept just thinking of the past.
“I cannot talk about it,” she said, choking back tears.
Several days later, however, she wrote about her experiences.
Mah Begum said in an email that her family had tried marrying her off when she was just 13 to a man at least seven years her senior. After she learned about their plans, she said, she attempted suicide by overdosing on drugs she found around her home.
“I rather die than get married at 13,” she wrote in the email, adding she had to flee her village in order to survive. Many of the girls she grew up with, she said, are now married with several children.
As they study in the U.S., the two teens said, they can finally put the past behind them and move forward — free of fear and full of confidence.
“The ideas and thoughts I have in myself, I can be able to loudly and clearly say,” Hakima said. “You cannot do that [in Afghanistan].”
Girls don’t have the same learning opportunities as boys in her native country, she added.
Since they arrived in the U.S. — an opportunity made possible by grants and donations at Desert Academy and United World College — the girls have had many firsts: Hakima’s first cellphone; Mah Begum’s first time at a movie theater; their first experience eating “weird” American food; a first time wearing blue jeans.
More profoundly, they now walk in public without head scarves, and they can openly discuss sex and romantic relationships, learn about philosophy and evolution, and occupy a classroom with male students.
In Afghanistan, Mah Begum said, girls and boys are separated at school. But at Desert Academy, “We can share our ideas with the boys.”
Hakima is learning to play basketball, which she said would have been discouraged — even prohibited — in Afghanistan.
Every experience, they said, has allowed them to feel independence like never before.
After her first week in the U.S., Hakima wrote in a personal essay to her family, “I can FEEL my freedom. I feel like I am like a free bird and can fly.”
It’s an experience she said she’s envisioned since childhood.
“I would dream of listening to my favorite song, the wind will blow, and I won’t have to wear my head scarf,” she recalled. Just recently, “I was listening to my favorite song, the wind was blowing. … It was my dream.”
It’s the kind of experience some in the U.S. might take for granted. But the two girls from Afghanistan see everything as the chance of a lifetime.
Both said they have reveled in the teacher-student relationships they’ve developed at Desert Academy. “They are so kind. They’re patient and always there for you,” Hakima said of the teachers.
Mah Begum — who as a child would walk four hours round trip from her village in the Daikundi province to get to school — said for girls in Afghanistan, teachers “didn’t care about what you write; they didn’t care about your ideas.”
Yann Lussiez, Desert Academy’s principal, said it’s been fascinating to watch the girls grow in just a few weeks. He’s overheard multiple “rich conversations” that serve as a window into the girls’ simultaneous innocence and strength, Lussiez added.
Iza Konings, a friend of Hakima’s, said despite cultural differences, “she’s just like any other teenage girl.”
“It’s not like she’s some alien,” added Konings. “We were just raised in very different situations.”
Riley Fisher, a junior at the school, agreed.
“I’ve never known anyone from Afghanistan before, so learning their culture is really important,” he said. “They’re both extremely nice and fun to be around.”
When Hakima and Mah Begum’s one-year visa and school year at Desert Academy end, they hope to reapply for another visa and attend United World College in Montezuma, near Las Vegas, N.M.
Hakima said one day she would like to work with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and perhaps become a lawyer or judge.
Mah Begum is interested in becoming a lawyer, teacher or policy analyst. Her priority, she said, would be to play a role in eliminating gender and ethnic discrimination in Afghanistan, by “changing the young generation’s minds.”
Regardless of how the next couple of years unfold, both girls said they will return to Afghanistan after their time abroad.
“We have to go back. … There are changes that need to be made,” Hakima said.
She sees Afghanistan “as a diamond” waiting to glitter. “We are responsible to go back and bring those changes,” she said. “That’s our number one responsibility.”