The Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS) honored Shabana Basij-Rasikh, the 24-year-old co-founder of a boarding school for girls in Afghanistan, on Friday in Shriver Hall at its first-ever Anne Smedinghoff Memorial Event.
Scheduled to coincide with the start of Alumni Weekend, the event focused on celebrating the life of Anne Smedinghoff, the Hopkins alumna who was killed last April in a suicide attack while delivering books to underprivileged students in southern Afghanistan.
“To know her was to love her and to laugh with her,” Liz Minor, Smedinghoff’s college roommate and longtime friend, said.
Several of Smedinghoff’s friends were present at the event, as were members of the Smedinghoff family. It was Tom and Mary Beth Smedinghoff, Anne’s parents, and her sister Regina who presented Basij-Rasikh with the first-annual Anne Smedinghoff Award.
“I was very moved when Anne’s best friend spoke about Anne and her life,” freshman Danielle Ziegelstein said. “Anne seemed like an amazing, accomplished and inspirational young woman, and it made me tear up thinking about losing someone so special and close to me. I hope to follow in Anne’s footsteps and live a fulfilling life.”
FAS Co-Executive Director Nikhil Gupta said he shared the same sentiment.
“She will always remain a proud alum and a great example for this symposium and our community as to how to better serve others and bring our community closer together,” he said.
Smedinghoff, who was working for the State Department at the time of her passing, was deeply committed to education, economic development and global peace.
FAS invited Basij-Rasikh to speak as a personification of those ideals.
“This year’s entire symposium was in her name, and this event was the culmination of our effort to recognize her efforts, both as a part of FAS and in her efforts with the State Department,” sophomore Adam Eckstein, an FAS staff member, said.
Basij-Rasikh, co-founder of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), is the first of what the FAS staff hopes will be a long line of memorial award recipients.
“The award itself represents the drive and passion of individuals who, even in the midst of disarray, are able to enact remarkable transformations that inspire others around the world,” FAS Co-Executive Director Will Szymanski said.
Basij-Rasikh was considered a natural choice for the award.
“I think it is really fitting that the first recipient of the Anne Smedinghoff Award is Shabana, as she really has done so much and has lived through so much in Afghanistan,” Tom Smedinghoff said.
Students in the audience were equally impressed by what Basij-Rasikh has accomplished in such a short amount of time.
“She is a contemporary of Anne’s coming from a completely different perspective but working towards a very similar goal, albeit in different ways,” Eckstein said. “Her strong drive to make a difference and her dedication to her work make them similar.”
Raised in Kabul under the rule of the Taliban, Basij-Rasikh was forbidden from attending school. Her parents, however, defied the law by sending her to school disguised as a boy.
“Every single day, my parents knew that the possibility of us not returning home was real and that if we were caught by the Taliban receiving an education, we could be killed and our teachers could be killed and our parents could be punished,” Basij-Rasikh said.
With her family’s commitment to education, she was able to come to the United States for high school through a prestigious State Department program, and she ultimately graduated magna cum laude from Middlebury College with degrees in both International Studies and Women and Gender Studies.
“Every day, I was around people where I smelled and sensed privilege, and I knew that I was participating in that life; I was one of those people who had access to that kind of education,” she said.
It proved to be a much different experience than the experience of many in her home country, where only six percent of women hold college degrees.
“I was part of two different worlds that had very little in common,” Basij-Rasikh said.
“There were times where I often wondered why I was the one who had access to this education. What if I had been born into a different family? Why me?” she said.
To reconcile those feelings, Basij-Rasikh took action and began work that echoes that of Smedinghoff. During her time as an undergraduate, she started a foundation called HELA, the mission of which was to raise money to build schools near her hometown and empower women through education. The program evolved and eventually became SOLA.
“It was this sense of moral obligation as an Afghan woman being on this privileged side of society that compelled me to start this school,” Basij-Rasikh said.
SOLA, the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan, veers away from the outdated curriculum characteristic of the country, instead teaching young girls the importance of thinking critically. In a region where war and instability have long been the norm, Basij-Rasikh has tried to help young Afghans learn how to deal with social problems by fostering a community that pledges to respect, accept and appreciate differences.
“Although the school consists of only 35 girls, Shabana’s commitment to these girls is clear,” freshman Alexandra Saichin said. “An aspect of her school I really admired was the Skype program between the students and accoladed mentors. These twice-a-week Skype sessions sounded instrumental to the success and inspiration of these girls.”
Basij-Rasikh, who has already witnessed great changes in her country, has high hopes for the future of Afghanistan.
“Much of it can be achieved because of people like Anne, who risk their lives, who have gone out of their comfort zone,” she said.
In addition to the award in her name, a new Anne Smedinghoff Memorial Fund will provide financial support to students pursuing opportunities in international development and diplomacy.
“Anne’s friendship and impact spanned across generations, oceans, land barriers and widely different cultures, so seeing the experience and responses over the past year from the so many lives that she’s touched in some way came as no surprise to those of us that knew her well,” Minor said. “But the efforts and endeavors to continue her legacy have been heartwarming.”