Welcome sisters.

Do you know what joy looks like?

I do. I see it every spring in SOLA’s courtyard, when our gates swing open and the girls who are Afghanistan’s future step through…it’s the first day of school, and I promise you, it’s my favorite day of the year.

I wish you could have seen it too. This year, our rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders – our first 9th grade class ever – decorated campus with balloons and signs before our new class of 6th graders arrived, and the words of one of those signs touched me deeply. They’re the words you see below.

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“Welcome sisters.”

Those two words mean everything. They’re at the heart of SOLA’s mission. As you know, our goal is to have students from all 34 provinces represented on our campus, and we have this goal because we want our students to build networks that transcend lines on a map. We want each girl, over her seven years with us, to build relationships with her fellow students – with her sisters – so that she leaves us feeling that she has a home in every province of Afghanistan.

We’re closer to that universal representation than ever before. For our 6th grade class this year, we received 179 applications representing 25 provinces, and thanks to the incredible recruitment work done by our staff and our coalition of parents and allies, we received applications from 4 provinces – Daikundi, Ghor, Paktia, and Samangan – from which we’ve never drawn student or family interest before.

From those 179 applications, we conducted 74 interviews. In the end, we accepted 16 students and waitlisted 12. 16 girls – that’s it. If we had the room on campus, we’d have taken all 28.

I’ll say it again – I wish you could have seen these girls when they arrived at SOLA with their families. They hail from 14 provinces: Badakhshan, Bamyan, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Kabul, Kandahar, Kunar, Laghman, Nangarhar, Paktia, Panjshir, Takhar, and Uruzgan. Each new 6th grader gets matched with a 9th grader who guides her around campus and answers her questions, and we call this our Big Sister/Little Sister program, a program that lasts the entire school year.

“Welcome sisters.” Do you see why these two words are so beautiful to me?

We heard such wonderful stories on the first day of school. Fathers stood up in front of our SOLA community and told us how proud they are of their daughters. Mothers told us how they’ve seen their girls mature, and how they’re taking leadership roles within their own families, even helping to drive discussions about why every ethnic group in our country should be treated with respect.

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This story is one of my favorites. Last year, one of our students from Bamyan spent a week-long break staying at the home of one of our students from Laghman. We started our admissions process in July 2018, and all through the summer and winter and right up through the first day of school, I heard from girls from Bamyan who said they were excited to come to SOLA for so many reasons…but one reason was so they could make friends with girls from Laghman.

Why? It turns out that our student from Bamyan had come home and told other girls that she’d had a wonderful time in Laghman, and the ripple effect was immediate: these other Bamyani girls now wanted to meet Laghmani girls. They wanted to build relationships across borders. They wanted to meet sisters they didn’t know they had.

This is a year like none other in our history. We’ve already changed our master calendar no fewer than three times to reflect the repeated postponements of the presidential elections. Meanwhile, the peace talks may lead to an agreement, they may not – but come what may, we are adaptable, we understand the realities on the ground, and there is nothing more important to us than the safety of our students.

I want to leave you with something one of our SOLA fathers told me on admissions day. “My daughter couldn’t sleep last night,” he said. It wasn’t because she was fearful about the future…it was because she was so excited to come back to school.

She was so excited to be back with her sisters.

Here’s to a peaceful school year ahead.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh