Born in Kabul and brought up in Orange County, UCLA Islamic Studies alumna Parisa Popalzai says that war-torn Afghanistan needs the help of those who had to leave it. She applies skills learned at the Anderson School and the International Institute to two issues: giving Afghan kids with special needs a chance and training managers for a new economy.
Tens of thousands of Afghan children, too curious for their good, have lost limbs, eyes, and lives to landmines and unexploded bombs left since 1979 by Soviet occupiers and by others including the United States since 2001. About 10 million such hazards contaminate nearly every Afghan province.
In a way a whole country was disabled while members of Parisa Popalzai's family, descended from kings and therefore in danger at home, were living in exile "on almost every continent."
After adding a UCLA doctorate in Islamic Studies to the Anderson School MBA she earned in 2002, Popalzai in August of this year returned to her country of birth to work for two fast-growing and very different educational institutions: a school in Kabul for about 65 boys and girls living with physical, sensory, and mental disabilities, and a private university in Jalalabad that offers degrees and certificates in business, English, and information technology to more than 500 students.
"I always felt like the non-profit world needed the business world's skills," Popalzai says. Although she now holds the title of president of Khurasan University in eastern Afghanistan, she works out of her Costa Mesa, Calif., home, on fundraising and curriculum planning.
This summer's trip to Afghanistan was not quite her first. That came during a break from work on her UCLA doctorate in 2005. Popalzai then witnessed a degree of poverty that neither her Southeast Asian study-abroad experience nor her earlier volunteer work for families living near landfills in Tijuana, Mexico, had prepared her for fully.
"While I knew things were really bad there, it didn't really hit me until I saw it with my own eyes," she writes of the 2005 trip in an email message. "I felt like I had gone 200 years back in time."
She decided that as an Afghan American she had to do something. And for Popalzai, who is driven by more than her heritage or her memory of the Afghanistan she left at age 5, "something" means a heap of things.
First of all, she looked for a way to contribute to her Aunt Nazifa's cherished cause, one that several members of the extended family donated time and money to, the school for disabled children in Kabul. The Sarahim Center of Special Education was started in 2005 with three students.
With the help of her mother, who was a medical doctor in Afghanistan, and sister, a student of Dari literature, Popalzai produced a guide for teachers on special-needs education in Dari translation. She won a $2,000 Children in Crisis grant for this project from the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.
On this year's trip, Popalzai gave copies of the guide, which is based on multiple U.S. sources, to teachers and the ministry of education. She also visited the school, which currently holds classes up to the fourth grade and teaches skills such as bead work, sewing, and watch repair.
"They get physical therapy and fitness once a week and regular medical exams. We also provide them with a hot meal each day with meat, which is the only one they get all day," says Popalzai.
Published: Tuesday, December 23, 2008
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