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Just moments before Razia Jan stepped up to the podium to deliver Sunday’s Dorothy Day Lecture, news was trickling in that a suicide bomber outside a voter registration center in her native Afghanistan killed nearly 60 people and wounded more than 100.
"You don't know what tomorrow brings," Jan said. "We have to keep going and hoping for a better day."
That belief has fueled Jan's advocacy for those in Afghanistan for more than a decade. In January 2002, in the wake of the American-led invasion of her home country following the September 11 attacks, Jan returned to Afghanistan after nearly 40 years in the United States. The war-torn country was nearly unrecognizable following the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s and the Taliban occupation of the 1990s. Taliban law had stripped women of their right to work or seek an education without threat of execution.
Jan set out to change their fate, in the form of a destroyed former boys' school in the Afghan village of Deh'Subz. In 2008, she opened the Zabuli Education Center, a tuition-free K-12 girls' school. Zabuli opened with 101 girls, and now educates more than 625 through a rich curriculum of math, science, computer literacy and four different languages, including English.
Though the school is thriving, Jan has long faced detractors. Just before Zabuli opened its doors, she was approached by several men who argued that the village instead needed to rebuild the boys' school, as men are the backbone of Afghanistan.
"I looked him in the eye and said, 'I'm sorry, brother, but you know, women are the eyesight of Afghanistan, and unfortunately you all are blind."
Jan's strength and wit have earned her respect from men in her country. "I know the languages, I know the traditions, and I know how far I can go," she said. "Sometimes I go too far, but I just ask for forgiveness."
More important, Jan said, is changing men's attitudes toward educating their daughters, for good. One of the first things young girls do at Zabuli is learn to write their fathers' names—a great source of pride for their families. She also knows that educating women will set off a ripple effect in Afghanistan, with their knowledge, skills and employability breaking the cycle of poverty, hunger and malnutrition for their families.
"When I see a graduate who is working on becoming a better person, mother or daughter, it brings me so much joy," she said.
Jan's efforts to empower women doesn't stop when they graduate from Zabuli. In March 2017, she opened the Razia Jan Institute, the first women's post-secondary vocational school in rural Afghanistan. The Institute sits adjacent to Zabuli and includes a clinic where midwifery students train alongside doctors and midwives. Students graduate in two years with marketable, much-needed skills and the opportunity to pursue a career that benefits themselves, their families and their community-a severely medically underserved area with no district hospital.
Razia Jan has spoken on women and children's issues at venues around the world. She is a member of the Interfaith Council and No Place for Hate, and a member of the board of directors at Jordan Hospital. She has received many awards for her humanitarian work, including the 2007 Woman of Excellence award from Germaine Lawrence Inc., multiple Rotary Club International Peace Awards, and certificates of appreciation from the Army Corps of Engineers and the American Legion. In 2011, the Duxbury Rotary Club honored Jan with their inaugural Amazing Woman of the Year Award. In 2012, she was named a CNN Top 10 Hero and also received the 2013 Speak for Thyself Award from the Alden House Historic Site and the 2013 American Muslim Women's Empowerment Council Award. In 2014 she was named Social Innovator by the Lewis Institute at Babson College. In 2015, Rotary International honored Razia with a Global Woman of Action award at the United Nations in New York.
Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation is a nonprofit organization that empowers young women and girls in Afghanistan through community-based education in the district of Deh'Subz. Founded on the knowledge that education is key to positive, peaceful change for current and future generations, the foundation provides young Afghans with the opportunity to learn and grow in a safe, nurturing environment, so that they may work toward brighter futures-in their own villages and beyond. Visit Razia's Ray of Hope to learn more about this organization and support Jan's work.
The annual Dorothy Day Lecture Series was launched in 2013 by the Emmanuel College Class of 1971 to honor liberal arts as the foundation and inspiration for meaningful social action. The goal of the lecture series is to encourage ongoing engagement with issues of social justice among students, alumni and the general public. The Dorothy Day Lecture Series features speakers who are role models for contributing to positive social change. The series is named for Dorothy Day, a courageous 20th-century woman of faith who dedicated her life to the struggle for economic and social justice.