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Alumni Profile: Zala Ahmad

Fulbright Scholar and State Department Guest of Honor

An image of Zala Ahmad MA ’12, Fulbright scholar, honored by the State Department for her efforts to improve primary and secondary education for young Afghan girls

Zala Ahmad, MA '12
Farah Province, Afghanistan

Zala Ahmad, MA ’12 was honored at the State Department for her efforts to improve primary and secondary education for young Afghan girls.

Ahmad, the founding director of the Humanitarian Organization for Local Development (HOLD), the training and resource center for women and girls in western Afghanistan, spoke at the State Department’s 10th anniversary celebration of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council. Created in 2003, the Council is a Washington, D.C.-based public-private partnership that develops programs to support Afghan women and children.

Before an audience that included members of congress, ambassadors, former First Lady Laura Bush, and then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton—who introduced her—Ahmad gave a speech about her work. “It was a very proud moment for me especially because it brought attention to a cause I believe in,” said Ahmad, who studied at Brandeis International Business School (IBS) on a Fulbright scholarship.

“Through providing educational and practical life skills opportunities to young girls, we are bringing positive change in their lives. But at the same time, we mustn’t become complacent. There is much more work to be done.”

Ahmad is from the rural and remote Farah Province. Her father, a professor, believed in the power of education and instilled that in his seven daughters and two sons. “My father always told us that education is such an asset that no one can steal it from you,” said Ahmad. “He never said, ‘You’re a girl so you shouldn’t study.’ Instead, he provided me and my sisters with every opportunity.”

But many of her friends were not as lucky: most girls in her province did not have access to education as a result of decades of war. The literacy rate for women in the Farah Province is a mere 8 percent. Many girls are married by the time they are 14 years old.

Determined to change that, Ahmad—who has worked with UNESCO, the Afghan Ministry of Education, and for USAID—took $4,000 of her own money and founded HOLD in 2008. Then it served 50 girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 25. Housed in a basic two-room structure, the center had a modest library and a part-time health counselor.

Today the center is housed in a two-story building with eight rooms. It serves more than 400 girls, and offers classes in English, computers, mathematics, science, and business management. It also provides civic education for rural women in four districts of Farah Province. The center has become a symbol of hope and women’s empowerment in a province rife with poverty and high unemployment.

Ahmad plans to return to her home country to design and implement national programs similar to HOLD. “I want all Afghan girls to get educated and be economically independent. Education and economic independence brings respect and recognition to women at family and societal level.”

She says her time at Brandeis IBS has changed her both personally and professionally. “There is such a mix of cultures at this school, and it has broadened my perspective about people and tolerance towards various cultures. I understand that while we may have differences—in our language, our religion, and the color of our skin—we are all human.

“Before we can build bridges between cultures and countries, we have to consider everyone as humans first.”