Bella English

Outside war-torn Kabul, a school soldiers on

Zabuli Education Center founder Razia Jan, left, and executive director Patti Quigley at a fund-raiser in 2015.
Zabuli Education Center founder Razia Jan, left, and executive director Patti Quigley at a fund-raiser in 2015.(Handout)

The news from Afghanistan is grim. Suicide attacks are frequent, and in January the Taliban and ISIS launched attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and offices of Save the Children, killing and injuring hundreds.

Sixteen years after a US-led effort overthrew the Taliban, the insurgents are believed to still be active in more than half the country. The US Department of Defense has spent about $2 trillion in Afghanistan, and the number of our troops there is expected to double this spring.

But in a village not far from war-torn Kabul lies a rare success story, and it’s the work of two women with Boston-area roots. The Zabuli Education Center is celebrating its 10th anniversary of doing what has long been unthinkable. It educates Afghan girls, from preschool through high school.


Razia Jan, an Afghan native who has spent decades in Marshfield and Duxbury, started the school with about 100 girls. It now boasts 650 and is forced to turn away many others because of space and funding. The executive director of Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation is Patti Quigley of Wellesley.

The two women met in the wake of 9/11. Jan, who owned a dry-cleaning and seamstress business in Duxbury, was horrified over the attacks, and made hundreds of blankets for first responders at the World Trade Center. She made enormous quilts bearing a photo and short bio of every person killed in the attacks on the Pentagon, and of the firefighters killed at Ground Zero.

Patti Quigley’s husband, Patrick, was killed when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Center. The couple had a 5-year-old daughter, and Patti was pregnant with another.

Overwhelmed with the support they received from all over the world, Quigley and another Sept. 11 widow started a nonprofit to help Afghan women widowed in the ensuing US invasion.


While aiding others, Quigley and Jan met and teamed up to help the next generation of Afghan girls under threat from the Taliban, who have burned girls’ schools, thrown acid at students, and harmed teachers.

The barriers remain formidable. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, many Afghan parents are illiterate. Their children live too far from school to attend. Nearly half the government schools have no buildings. There are too few women teachers -- and many families refuse to accept a male teacher for their girls.

One teenage girl told Human Rights Watch that “the most important thing is to convince fathers to let their daughters go to school.”

But Jan, who was educated in Afghanistan before the Taliban came to power, knows that the best way to fight extremism is to educate girls. She arrived in Cambridge in 1970 to attend Radcliffe and then Lesley College, where she studied early childhood education. She became a US citizen, had a son, and opened her own business in Duxbury.

“It’s been a long, long journey,” she says of her decision to start a girls’ school. She had to find a site and raise money. But the hardest part was convincing families, and the community, to allow the girls to attend.

“We had a lot of opposition,” Jan says. “But as time passed, it got better and better. Parents saw other children doing well, so they wanted it for their girls. They do have reservations, but they allow them to go to school because it has benefitted them.”


At the first graduation ceremony, the girls had to be separated by a curtain from the men and boys, but now the girls sit wherever they want at graduation, and their faces aren’t covered.

Unlike other schools, Zabuli doesn’t expel a girl who becomes pregnant. “This is a haven for them to have a better future no matter what the circumstances,” Jan says. “Our students are not getting married off at 10 or 11 years old.”

With an education, and job, the girls “have value to the family, so they don’t have to marry them off,” adds Quigley.

Some of the high school graduates have gone on to American University in Kabul, and one was awarded a scholarship to study in Istanbul.

Last year, Zabuli added a post-secondary school for midwifery, with classes in computer science and English as a second language. Besides offering better job prospects, the two-year degree will help with Afghanistan’s stunning birth mortality rate: 40 percent of mothers and babies die in childbirth.

Jan moved back to Afghanistan for seven years overseeing the school, but in 2015 she returned to the United States because of health issues. She’s 73 now and has had two open heart surgeries. But she recently spent a couple of months in Afghanistan and will be going back in March for the start of a new school year.

Quigley, whose career was in finance before she joined forces with Jan, says the main donors are small family foundations, individuals, and Rotary International. It costs $420 a year for a girl’s tuition, which covers books, supplies, uniforms, boots, winter jackets, teacher salaries, safe transportation, and heated classrooms.


Most of the teachers come from Kabul, and the school picks them up in vans to take them to the school in Deh’Subz and return them home.

Both women know that keeping funding going is tough with all the bad news from Afghanistan. But they try to remain optimistic.

“The reason I am so positive about this mission is that I know the country is in terrible shape, and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but I take it one day at a time,” Jan says. “It’s such a joy to see the happiness on these girls’ faces.”

Razia Jan with students on graduation day in December 2017.
Razia Jan with students on graduation day in December 2017.(Patti Quigley)

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Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at