When his son Alex spoke with him in 2008 regarding a fellow student at Blair Academy, Leo Motiuk — former special counsel with Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf in Madison — couldn't believe what he was hearing.
Prior to befriending Alex at school, Shamila Kohestani had been living in Kabul, Afghanistan, as her and her family defied the Taliban by seeking underground education.
Then once the Taliban lost control, Kohestani became captain of Afghanistan’s newly-created national women’s soccer team — setting off a series of events that would define not only her own future, but the Motiuk’s as well.
In 2006, Kohestani traveled to the U.S. to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPYS, and to participate in the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy in Hightstown.
Where Carolyn Conforti-Browse, a counselor at the academy and an English teacher and softball coach at Blair Academy, advocated for Kohestani’s continued education at Blair.
“(But) without financial assistance, she had to return home after one year at Blair,” Leo said.
“So, we made some calls.”
One was to Robert Weisbuch, the president of Drew University in Madison at the time, who offered Kohestani a full, four-year scholarship.
“Shamila thrived,” Leo said.
“And once we saw what we could do for her, we decided to create a program.”
Later that year, Leo helped co-found The Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund in Morristown to help pursue educational opportunities in the U.S. for Afghan women requiring financial support.
To date, AGFAF has assisted 33 other Afghans (including one male) by partnering with students, their families in Afghanistan, host families in the U.S. and secondary schools (such as Blair Academy in Blairstown and the Peddie School in Hightstown) and colleges (such as the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, Drew University in Madison and Rutgers University in New Brunswick) to raise more than $900,000 and generate $5 million in educational scholarships.
The only requirement? All applicants must be committed to working for gender equality and improving life back in Afghanistan.
“These young women want to change the world, and we are helping to empower them by giving them the educational tools they need and the confidence they demand,” said Robert J. Massa, senior vice president of Enrollment and Institutional Planning at Drew University.
And according to Alex, while AGFAF depends on scholarships and donor support which covers costs beyond what it is covered by tuition — such as Visas, airfare, books, computers and more — there are many more ways to contribute.
“AGFAF is also very dependent on donor ‘in kind’ help in areas such as medical, dental, legal and tutoring,” Alex said.
Such as the $100,000 worth of SAT tutoring Inspirica Tutors in New York City has donated thus far.
“(We wanted) to help these girls get a score that would help them gain admission to the best colleges (possible),” Lisa Jacobson, founder and CEO of Inspirica Tutors, said.
“We worked with them in the U.S. and also via Skype when they were in Afghanistan.”
AGFAF also provides assistance in finding summer internships for the young women at organizations such as the Afghanistan Holding Group, the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, the National Democratic Institute and U.N. Dispatch.
“This program is for those who want to be activists in different ways, in politics, in business,” Leo said.
“The common thread is they want to be bold and return home after graduation to contribute to social change in their country.”
Just as Noorjahan Akbar — another fellow student of Alex’s at Dickinson College — did.
At age 11, Akbar created a homemade magazine about Afghan women and spoke at a free-press conference.
While home from college one summer, she led Afghanistan’s first ever march against street harassment.
And after graduating from Dickinson, she helped open Afghanistan’s first women-only Internet café and created Young Women for Change, a women’s rights nonprofit in Kabul.
So there’s no question as to why the Afghan women’s rights activist and prolific blogger was awarded the $20,000 grand prize by Glamour magazine for being a Top 10 College Women of 2013.
“I think it is important to inspire and empower women around the world — in every country and from every walk of life — but Afghanistan is a country where women are treated as possessions, where honor killings of young girls who refuse to be possessions still take place and many of the gains made since 2001 are at risk,” said Betsy Bernard, former president of AT&T, who has donated to, helped raise funds for, networked and taught leadership seminars for AGFAF.
“These young women are risking their lives to get an education, to be independent thinkers and to be committed to making change for their fellow citizens. They also demonstrate tremendous perseverance to get their education — all qualities that make for great leaders.”