When you have been deprived of school and music from age 8 to 13, as Shamila was while growing up in Afghanistan under the harsh rule of the Taliban, this school in northwest New Jersey is as perfect a place as exists on earth.
Shamila, 19, became one of the 440 students at this boarding school last October. It was soccer that brought her here, but that has taken a backseat as she tries to expand her English and make up for five years without an education.
Shamila's list of words to look up grows exponentially by the hour. In a recent world religions class, the teacher writes "absolutist vs. liberal" on the blackboard and asks the students to name the traits of religions that span both spectrums. Shamila raises her hand and speaks from experience: "The Taliban were fundamentalists."
The Taliban, a radical Muslim group, ruled Afghanistan for five years with a brutally strict version of Islam. In November 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban, which had given refuge to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
Banned from School
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Shamila and her six sisters were virtually confined to their small home in Kabul, the capital. Girls were not allowed to attend school or work, much less play sports. When they went outside, they had to be covered in a burqa (a tentlike head-to-toe cloak). Once, Shamila recalls, she was beaten by the authorities for not wearing her burqa correctly. But in defiance of the Taliban laws and at great risk to themselves, Shamila's family sought out underground schools and traded books among friends.
Shamila's first exposure to soccer came three years after the Taliban were removed from power. She was one of eight girls who came to the U.S. to learn soccer as part of a program started by an Afghan immigrant to the U.S. In the summer of 2006, Shamila came back to the U.S. to participate in a sports leadership program in New Jersey. There, Shamila's energy and love of the game caught the attention of a teacher at Blair, who asked the school to find scholarship money so Shamila could attend Blair for a year.
As an athlete in Afghanistan, Shamila is a big deal. Last August, she scored six of the national team's 11 goals as the Afghans won four of five games at a tournament in Pakistan, their first international event. While the team is a long way from qualifying for the Olympics, Afghans follow it closely.
But at Blair, Shamila's athletic prowess is barely acknowledged. She arrived too late for this year's soccer season, playing in only the last game. For her winter sport, she chose basketball, which she had never played before.
Shamila hopes to attend college in the U.S. To do so, she has to make up for a lot of lost school time. A half-dozen Blair instructors are tutoring her privately.
"This was a young woman who had never used a calculator before," says Chan Hardwick, the headmaster. "She had a lot of holes in her educational background, because she had been out of school for about five or six years of her early learning. If there is any great leveler in the world, it's got to be education, and this is what she wants; she wants to be educated."
Shamila is often up past midnight, paging through a dictionary for one of the hundreds of English words she doesn't understand. Of course, there are some words like "crush" that only her classmates can explain. "She asks about everything and wants to absorb it all," says Frances Salaveria, one of her basketball teammates. "She makes me think about all the things we take for granted."
Shamila is an observant Muslim, saying her prayers five times a day in her dorm room. When she plays basketball, she wears sweatpants and long sleeves under her uniform, in accordance with the Muslim tradition of modesty. She talks about her faith when her classmates ask, but mostly, she reassures them that she is tolerant of the ways of American teenagers.
"Some of them think, you don't speak with boys," she says. "You are not friendly with boys. 'We have boyfriends, do we look bad to you?' "
"No, this is your culture," she says she tells them. "You guys were born here, raised here, and this is your culture."
Power of Soccer
One recent morning, the Blair student body gathered and Shamila showed a documentary that outlined the degradations of the Taliban rule and showed how women's soccer has taken hold in Afghanistan and changed girls' lives. There were images of women being executed at the Olympic Stadium in Kabul under the Taliban reign. Now, Shamila and her teammates play matches on that very same field.
When the lights were turned back on, the questions came steadily. Shamila answered them all gracefully.
"Is there an arranged marriage awaiting you when you get home?" asked one student.
"No, I came here to find a husband," she deadpanned to thunderous laughter.
Now, her classmates know Shamila's story. They gave her a long, heartfelt standing ovation.