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Anything Is Possible: Rahila Muhibi's Story

Anything is possible.

This may be a cliché, but for Rahila Muhibi, it is her life story and inspiration.

From a remote village in northeastern Afghanistan, she rose against all pressures to become the first in her tribe to get a college degree and the first-ever Afghan to graduate from Methodist University in North Carolina. Along the way, she has accomplished so much more.

During her years as a student at MU, she was able to give back to the people of her village and the college community here in the United States.

Rahila became the elected president of the International Club, an organization of all international students at MU. In her capacity, she organized events to promote awareness of world cultures on her campus. She organized banquets, dances and fashion shows showcasing the cultures of students from about 45 different countries.

Meanwhile, in her country recovering from decades of war, she found a way to give back.

"There are not many activities bringing the ethnic groups together in one house to learn from each other and get out of their own box," she said.

But Rahila herself had lived in one house with people of a different ethnicity in a life-changing adventure. When in 1998 Taliban persecution forced her out of her village in Baghlan, her Hazara family – traumatized and suffering from the grueling escape – was hosted by a generous Pashtun family in a neighboring province.

Ten years later she wanted to replicate the experience of camaraderie for other kids – in a more peaceful setting. She won a competitive grant of $10,000 from the Davis Projects for Peace, a non-profit organization, for a youth camp in Afghanistan. Her idea was simple: Bring the youth from different ethnic groups together to promote understanding and help foster peace in Afghanistan through the young generation.

That summer of 2007 she drove 40 kids – girls and boys, most in their early teens – from their homes in Kabul more than 100 miles to the countryside in Baghlan. There, the kids lived and played together, and learned from each other.

It was not an easy project for Rahila, herself barely 21 at that time. Apart from the logistics, it was the very fact that she was responsible for so many children away from their parents for a week.

"I was sometimes worried the project wouldn’t be successful, but I kept working on it," she said.

But Rahila's work didn't end with the camp. When she went back to her village after about 10 years, much had changed in her life. She had lived as a refugee in Pakistan, attended high school in Canada and college in the United States (both on competitive scholarships). But for the women of her village, many things had remained the same – numerous children, financial difficulties and a lack of education, among other things.

Rahila decided to do something for the women.

She observed that much of the women's problems stemmed from illiteracy. "With an education, they can at the least better manage their income from their embroidery work, become elementary school teachers or nurse assistants."

With the new income they could also take better care of their children and manage the household better, Rahila thought.

Thus, the idea of 100 Mothers Literacy Program was born. In the summer of 2008, she raised about $8,000 selling Afghan dishes she had cooked for attendants at her fundraising event in Virginia.

She used the money on the 105 women enrolled for the first semester of her three-month literacy program in December 2008. Many of the mothers have learned to read and write, and retention rate for the second semester starting July 2009 is more than 76 percent.

Rahila knows the women's lives have changed in ways more than just basic literacy. "They have become more confident, and now can make a difference in their families," she said proudly.

The 100 Mothers Literacy Program (donate here) has won a permanent spot on Global Giving – a charity website run by former high-level World Bank executives – for continuous support. She hopes to recruit some of the women from her program to teach others in the future.

But for now, she herself is looking for a job under Optional Practical Training, a one-year period that allows international students with F-1 visas to work without obtaining a work visa.

But her parents want Rahila to come home and marry a cousin to whom she was betrothed when she was seven. Now 24, Rahila disapproves of the arrangement, facing increasing pressures from her family that says they’d be dishonored if the marriage doesn’t happen.

"I do love my parents and I do respect most of the traditions in Afghanistan but to marry him or not is just a difficult decision to make at this time," she said. "Instead, I would like to focus on my career."

Rahila graduated from Methodist University in May 2009 with a degree in Political Science and International Development. As the first ever Afghan to graduate from that university, she presented the flag of Afghanistan to the university’s president. She was also the first person in her clan to get a Bachelor's degree.

"It was very emotional to carry my own flag across the stage," she remembers the graduation day. Being first is good, she says, but asks, "Why me?" as she contemplates that more students should have had the life-changing experience of studying in the United States.

Rahila also gave a speech at the graduation ceremony. "At MU, not only have I had the chance to learn, but also I have made friendships, which I will cherish for the rest of my life," Rahila said as she thanked the university, her friends and mentors there.

Her college years in the United States weren't exactly easy. She faced cultural differences and linguistic problems. "You don't know what to say and what to do," she remembered her first few months. "This was a big achievement for me considering my background."

The journey had all begun with the escape from her village.

"It was pretty," she said about the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains glowing in the morning sun. But it was a treacherous path. Then a 14-year-old, Rahila and her family traveled for several nights and days in the cold, mountainous terrain without much food or water – and saw bodies of people slain by the Taliban.

Now she lectures about her experiences and women's rights to women's groups, social organizations and churches in the United States. She wants to continue working for the women of Afghanistan and expand the 100 Mothers program model from her village to other parts of the country.

"My goal is to contribute to Afghanistan's reconstruction through educating mothers. Education won't only help mothers but it also helps our society in general, which is good for all us," she said.

And her advice for other students? "Never give up on your dreams. Anything is possible."

The Embassy of Afghanistan seeks to highlight the efforts of Afghans who struggle against the odds to overcome personal and professional challenges and help their country. This is the first in a series of stories highlighting their lives and work.

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