“God, no,” John Campbell ’09 blurted after being asked if he ever imagined visiting Kabul. “If you told me that, a year and a half out of college now, I would be more or less self-employed as the executive director of a nonprofit that brings students from Afghanistan to the United States for high school, and college even, I never would have believed that.”
But as executive director of the Afghan Scholars Initiative (ASI), which he cofounded with Qiamuddin Amiry ’09, what was unthinkable has become Campbell’s life.
Since the program began in 2007, seven ASI scholars have enrolled at top-flight secondary schools in the United States and India. The first two, Meetra Ameni and Sikandar Ahmadi, won scholarships to Smith and Williams, respectively, after graduating from Gould Academy last year. Now there’s a steady pipeline.
ASI is a collaboration forged during the four years Campbell and Amiry spent together on Mayflower Hill. “Qiam lived across the hall from me freshman year, in West Quad,” Campbell said. “He was more or less the first person I met at Colby.” Campbell’s parents, impressed by the neatness of the room across the corridor, pulled Amiry into their son’s room in hopes the tidiness might rub off. The two also ended up together on COOT.
It was Amiry, a Davis United World College Scholar grateful for his educational opportunity and hungry to pass his good fortune forward, who conceived a program to bring top Afghan students to U.S. secondary schools and prepare them for college. Campbell, an English/creative writing and government double major, wrote an essay about Amiry’s idea, and the gears started to engage.
Amiry, now finishing a master’s at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, dreamed up the scholarship program; Campbell went to work to create a formal structure. “By the end of senior year it was a big part of what I was doing every day,” he said. “I spent … way longer than it should have taken incorporating as a nonprofit organization.”
Last June Campbell travelled to Kabul to join Amiry and recruit this year’s incoming ASI scholars. Just getting his visa almost broke his spirit. It required an 11th-hour, one-day round trip from New England to Washington, D.C., to visit the Afghan consulate, which had held his passport for a month and a half without granting him permission to visit the country. Assured by a consulate staffer that he would have to reapply, which meant his nonrefundable plane ticket for the following day was no good, Campbell recalls that he simply put his head on the counter in despair.
Only after the staffer engaged Campbell’s girlfriend in conversation did events take a productive turn. The visa was granted, and two days later the Colby friends were reunited in Kabul.
But that wasn’t the hard part, Campbell says.
“It actually took more time and effort to get my girlfriend okay with the idea of me going over than it took to get there or to get the clearance or anything else,” he said. “That was a full-time job.” Then there was the family at home in Braintree, Mass. Campbell had travelled with his family to Canada as a kid but had never been further abroad, much less to a country at war. “My mother was not happy about me going over [to Aghanistan],” he said. “She was very worried. My dad thought it was okay. He understood.”
Campbell’s trip was successful. He recalls walking sleep-deprived through ranks of empty parking lots at Kabul’s airport, passing a guard post, and embracing Amiry, who was waiting for him. “The only time I was afraid for my life in this whole span was in the 15 minutes that [my girlfriend’s] sister’s boyfriend was driving us back from the Providence [R.I.] airport to her house,” he said.
Thanks to ASI’s partner organizations in Afghanistan, a steady stream of students is available without Campbell and Amiry having to arm wrestle Afghan government officials, who in the past were more eager to help the politically well-connected. “Now there’s no authority from Afghanistan telling us what to do,” said Campbell. On the receiving end for these students are six elite secondary schools.
As they refined the selection process, Campbell and Amiry observed the dilemmas encountered by their first two students, Ameni and Ahmadi, as they navigated a new school in a new country. The ASI founders focused on how to prepare future students for challenges they would inevitably face.
A tutor in the United States is now assigned to each incoming student. “The tutorial program took on a life of its own and became much more robust,” said Campbell. After six months in a rigid curriculum, “Things get more interesting; students start writing personal narratives. You can’t believe where these students are at fifteen or sixteen years old.”
Maihan Wali, 16, is one of six students (three girls and three boys) currently in the tutorial program. She helped establish a national women’s basketball league in Afghanistan that now includes more than 400 women, and she spoke at a conference for Women Deliver, a global advocacy organization, in Washington, D.C.
“Students like Maihan are exactly the kind we want to empower,” said Campbell. “Imagine what she can do when she goes home with a college degree.”
Asked about future travel to Afghanistan, Campbell replied: “We’re planning on going back this summer. The main purpose would be to select our next group of students and start them in our tutorial program.”
Then, after a long pause, “And to get some of Qiam’s mom’s food.”