Fighting for `the forgotten'

Afghan native Fahima Vorgetts has made it her life's mission to help the women of her homeland

April 21, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

Returning to her native Afghanistan, says Fahima Vorgetts, is "frustrating, heartbreaking and overwhelming."

Yet last weekend, she embarked on another monthlong journey taking her from her blue-shingled house in Arnold in Anne Arundel County to Kabul, the ancient capital city, and the surrounding countryside.

In recent years, she has made it her mission to build schools for girls in the scarred land she left as a political exile nearly 30 years ago. Vorgetts' activism is born out of tragedy. Her father, a political leader, was assassinated in their family home when she was a girl.

"He would be very proud," Vorgetts says of her activism. "I am following his footsteps, doing my duty with all my heart."

Grief and memory, not politics or religion, drive her unpaid human-rights work. She can tell you what it's like go home to a place - a once-beautiful, green city bordered by mountains -and not recognize your neighborhood amid rubble and ruins.

She remembers when Afghan society had more civil rights and freedom, when women's dress was not severely restricted and when warlords were not as powerful as they now are.

When Vorgetts was a young woman, she says, she witnessed the takeover of her society by a regime supported by the United States. That was about 35 years ago, when Afghanistan was a theater in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Years later, that repressive regime was replaced by the even more rigid rule of the Taliban. Though she escaped and now enjoys a comfortable life in the United States, part of her remains in her homeland. Looking back at her activism as a young woman in Kabul, she says, she finds she has not changed at all. "Friends would go to parties, I would say, `I have a meeting.'"

Engaged in empowering women back then, she says, she never dreamed of the nightmare that would follow. After emigrating, she worked with political refugees in Pakistan and Europe, and eventually settled in Northern Virginia, where she owned a small restaurant and raised two children. She met her second husband during that time, and they moved to Maryland.

To help support Afghan causes, the 52-year-old American citizen operates an Oriental carpet shop in Annapolis, near the State House and donates profits to projects on the other side of the world. Last year, she says, she raised about $500,000 from individuals, grants, charities, civic groups and shop earnings.

In the western province of Herat, which she is visiting this week, she planned to witness the dedication of two new schools that she helped fund for girls through the Afghan Women's Fund. She directs the fund, which is under the umbrella of Women for Afghan Women, a New York nonprofit.

At first, the schools were held in tents. Now, buildings are rising in the desert. Classrooms are designed for a total of almost 2,000 girls. The facilities, which cost $230,000, are four miles from each other. A government ministry is taking over the schools' operation, she says.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the ensuing war against Afghanistan, the Taliban regime has been toppled and replaced with a parliamentary government. That opened the way for the international community and human rights activists like Vorgetts to re-enter the country.

Under the Taliban, it was illegal to educate girls, and a generation of illiterate young women was left behind. Women couldn't move freely in public on their own or walk outside to see daylight without covering their faces. She is trying to help repair wounds in a country she calls "a forgotten place."

"Young women tell me, `I am blind, but I want my daughter to see the light,'" Vorgetts says. "They are not literally blind, but they can't read or write."

By contrast, the university-educated Vorgetts, who trained as a chemist and speaks five languages, is as urbane as they come. She and her second husband, Joseph Vorgetts, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, have raised three children.

One financial supporter is Patricia Karzai, a proprietor of The Helmand restaurant in Baltimore. Her brother-in-law is Hamed Karzai, president of Afghanistan.

"The Afghan community here feels almost an obligation, a duty to do whatever they can for their village, town or city," Karzai says, adding that she gave Vorgetts vitamins to distribute on her trip.

Since 2002, when Vorgetts was permitted to return, she has traveled to Afghanistan about a dozen times to negotiate contracts, hire teachers and scout sites for girls' schools. Five more are in the planning stages, she says.

She has also visited Afghan hospitals, jails and orphanages. The private Baltimore girls school, Garrison Forest, is participating in her orphan sponsor program, she said.

Elsewhere, she has mobilized a grassroots network across several states and college campuses, from Maryland to Massachusetts and Minnesota. About 800 volunteers have pitched in with a task or a project, she says.

Vorgetts' talks to groups are powered by personal tales. Mary Ellen Bobb, an Annapolis volunteer, says she finds Vorgetts as compelling as her cause.

"The kind of life and poverty she talks about is beyond our comprehension," Bobb says, "with 11 or 12 people living in a room. The situation in places where she goes, the danger." As Vorgetts prepared to visit Herat, she was mindful it is a place where 200 women burned themselves to death last year.

Her country is still no place for girls to grow up, but she believes her crusade may cross beyond Afghan borders, offering strategies to overcome oppression. "Women's rights is a global struggle," she says.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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