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Unlike other students who can head home to do laundry on the weekends, home for Old Dominion University students Khatera Alizada and Saghar Baqeri is much farther: halfway around the world in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Former political refugees, both students have traveled a long and emotional journey to pursue their education.

When the Taliban assumed control of Afghanistan in 1996, education ceased for women. Shortly after, both Alizada and Baqeri and their families fled to neighboring Pakistan, where limited educational opportunities included finishing high school and enrolling in continuing education programs.

"After the Taliban fell, my family and I were anxious to get home," said Alizada, who returned to Afghanistan in 2002 to find scarce resources and few educational options.

Baqeri agrees, remembering how difficult it was to get basic necessities like electricity, clothes and food, let alone to think about school.

As the country began to rebuild, both women went to work. Alizada served as a personnel officer for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Baqeri worked as an account assistant for the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.

It was through their jobs that they learned about The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a program that awards full, four-year scholarships at U.S. colleges and universities.

Founded by philanthropist and activist Paula Nirschel in 2002, the program provides scholarships to Afghan women who had been forbidden to pursue higher education under Taliban rule.

Currently, 20 Initiative to Educate Afghan Students are studying at 14 universities and colleges across the United States, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Meredith College, University of Montana, Mt. Holyoke College, Randolph-Macon Woman's College and University of Richmond.

Alizada, a freshman majoring in international business, and Baqeri, a sophomore accounting major, chose to enroll at Old Dominion in fall 2006 for the university's East Coast location and program offerings.

"I have felt very welcome here, it just feels like home," said Baqeri.

Although the girls did not know each other before coming to Old Dominion, they quickly bonded and room together on campus.

Living the American experience has been the best part of Alizada's time here. "I've been able to meet so many diverse people that I would never have known," she said.

For Baqeri, it is the educational system. "Teachers provide you not just with theory but with tangible real-world examples. It makes learning fun," she said.

The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women requires scholarship recipients to return to Afghanistan upon graduation to serve as role models in their communities.

Alizada plans to pursue a career in women's rights. Someday, she hopes to return to the United States for a master's degree in international relations.

Baqeri has plans to become an accountant and one day hopes to train other women in the field. "Knowledge is so important and our country desperately needs educated professionals," she said.

"For the first time, women in Afghanistan now have a chance to enter the work force. I just feel so fortunate to be able to return with the best education possible," Baqeri said. "It's a dream come true, I still can't believe it."

This article was posted on: November 9, 2006

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