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Female Afghan Teachers Learn Computer Skills in New Jersey - 2003-07-22

Some of Afghanistan's top female teachers are learning new techniques for teaching math and science, in a special program at a technology institute in the New York City area. The women will return home to Afghanistan, equipped with the latest computer technology resources, and renewed energy to share what they have learned.

Nine Afghan women are spending six weeks in a computer laboratory, on the campus of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. They come from five different Afghan universities. But they share one common experience, during the six years of Taleban rule, they were forbidden to teach.

Sabera Halim is a mathematics professor at the Polytechnic, in the capital city of Kabul. The mother of six quietly admits she ignored the Taleban's prohibition and continued to teach in secret, one hour every day.

During the Taleban regime, she had some students in her own house and she taught them there. She taught them math. She had between 10 and 12 students in her house. She taught different ages, from age seven to 13 or 14. She wasn't very afraid because the people who came to her house, she knew them, and they knew her too. Basically it was a trust.

A grant from the U.S. State Department has enabled Mrs. Halim and her colleagues make up for lost time. The Stevens Institute's Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education, sponsored the program and is hosting the women.

"During the period of the Taleban, they were unable to teach in their usual capacity for periods of four, five or six years," said the Center's director, Dr. Edward Friedman.

The goal of the program is to jump-start the women's professional development in math and science education. They are learning to use video teaching aids, translated into their native language of Farsi. They will bring these teaching aids home, along with knowledge of the Internet. They are also each receiving a new laptop computer, donated by two relief organizations.

Gulalai Babak is once again teaching at a pharmacy college in Kabul. Mrs. Babak is particularly pleased with the computer training.

"The most important thing that I learned in the U.S.A. and that I want to apply in Afghanistan is the computer skills," Mrs. Babak said. "Computer skills, as you know, are so important for all of the world, especially for Afghan people, because the people don't have so much knowledge in computers, especially the women."

Wahida Rahim also teaches mathematics. She says that life during the Taleban was very, very hard.

"We had a difficult time because we didn't have enough facilities to go to college and teach, we didn't have food, and we were supposed to wear scarves... Even in elementary school, the girls weren't allowed to go to school," she said.

Dr. Friedman says the women have gone through an extremely difficult period, but are generally hesitant to talk about it.

Instead, says Dr. Friedman, they focus on the positive, like the July 4th U.S. Independence Day celebration they experienced with his family at his upstate New York home. They saw an old-fashioned town parade, a fireworks display, and had a picnic.

"One of the things that they found really astonishing, in addition to meeting the people and having discussions, were the trees in [our town] Woodstock, because Afghanistan is such a barren country and has been so devastated by war, that it was almost unbelievable to them to see all the forests and trees of the Catskill [mountains] region," Dr. Friedman said.

The women instructors participating in the Stevens program were chosen by Kabul's Ministry of Higher Education, as leading teachers in the country, whose professional development will have an impact on large numbers of other teachers.