The following interview was conducted by ROYA-Bamyan student, Simin Shayan, who is sponsored by Atika Hussain in Australia. Simin just completed 10th grade and has been studying English at Pioneer Educational Center since late summer 2016. The interview was originally published in Pioneer’s monthly newsletter. Simin performs at the top of her class, has excellent leadership qualities, and is determined to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a doctor one day.
Dear Mrs. Kara Lozier, tell me about your career with youth in Afghanistan? From 2005-2012, I was a community coordinator for high school exchange students from around the world who spent a year in the U.S. living with host families and attending local public schools. In August 2007, I started working with Afghan students when four Afghan teenagers arrived at our local airport and became members of our community for one year. My family hosted Asad, a boy from Bamyan. In the past ten years, my work with Afghan youth has expanded and I began mentoring many students online. I founded ROYA – Resources of Young Afghans to make my work seem more official, but it was still really just me. In this time, I have helped many students with academic advising; writing support; personal coaching; applying for grants, scholarships and workshops; supporting their social activism; and more.
Why did you choose Bamyan first to start the ROYA Mentorship Program? Bamyan was the first part of Afghanistan that I learned about and I have had a special affection for it all these years. I learned over the years that Bamyan youth were at a disadvantage in competing for opportunities that required English language skills. Their English scores were typically much lower than the scores of their peers in larger cities. I wanted to help disadvantaged youth in Bamyan to have access to English classes to make them more competitive for opportunities for university studies and employment. The mentorship program matches sponsors from around the world with needy school students and covers the cost of their English classes and weekly internet access.
What do you enjoy most about ROYA? ROYA is more successful than anything I could have imagined. In general, the relationships that have been formed through the program are among my favorite things. I have met some of the most beautiful, kind and generous people in the world through this program. Our sponsors are fabulous. The local coordinators are extremely passionate and selfless. And getting to know the ROYA students has been a true blessing. It’s so heartwarming to watch them grow and see their skills improve. I have already witnessed a huge transformation in many of the students, including you. It’s like watching a whole field of flowers blossom. As the students acquire stronger English and computer skills, their confidence grows. They learn to advocate for themselves, like when you wrote me a letter and asked for opportunities to develop your leadership skills. The students become empowered and feel like they have more control over their futures. ROYA does not make students more talented… it just provides the sunlight and irrigation so that they can become their best selves.
The ROYA Mentorship Program is a dream for everyone to join now. What did you do to achieve these inspirational long-life goals? I feel like the only thing I did was to have the vision for this program. Bringing the vision to life is really to the credit of the local coordinators and the sponsors. It has been a global community effort, combining our efforts to make this dream a reality. Many people are eager to help Afghan youth, but did not have a mechanism to do so. People wanted a way to feel personally invested in the country and connected to a young person who needed a helping hand. With just a few Facebook posts, our appeal for sponsors reached people in Australia, Sweden, Canada, Kyrgyzstan, China, India and more countries. Most of these people were strangers to me. But now everybody feels like members of a large international family.
What is your message for students of ROYA and other school students, especially in Bamyan? Young people in Afghanistan, rich and poor, do not have the same opportunities as other young people in the world. There are so many challenges. Life is difficult. Although the security is better in Bamyan, the services and opportunities are fewer. Young people have to find a way to take ownership of their future. Take initiative. If you see a problem, do not wait for someone else to fix it. Find a way to fix it yourself. Believe in your power to change things. There are many things young people can do that does not require money or special skills… it just requires the will to achieve your goal.
What are your favorite memories from ROYA? The local coordinators in Kabul submitted a proposal to the World Bank Group Youth Summit 2016 on the theme of ‘Rethinking Education: Innovative Ideas to Transform Education’. They used the model of the ROYA Mentorship Program and competed with 875 other proposals from 103 countries. They were chosen among six finalists and traveled to Washington DC to present the ROYA model in front of a live audience, online viewers around the world, and a panel of expert judges. The other five finalists had very big projects, they were older, more educated, and had won other competitions with their initiatives. Some were already receiving financial support from Google, Microsoft and other international organizations. ROYA was really only a few months old at that point. I felt like we were babies compared to the competitors. I was not expecting the panel of expert judges to choose our program. So when the judges announced the winners, I was completely shocked when they said, “And the winner is…. ROYA!!!” I will never forget that single moment and the several weeks that led up to that moment.
ROYA local coordinators always admire you for your hard work for underprivileged kids, not only in Afghanistan but also in other countries. How can you manage all these responsibilities? When I am passionate about something, I seem to have an endless supply of energy. And the more busy I am, the more productive I become. I am also lucky because my regular job is done online and my schedule is flexible. So I can be available to communicate with the coordinators and sponsors at any time of day or night. It also allows me to travel and be away from home while still doing my regular job. For instance, I spent two months in Afghanistan helping students to apply for the Fulbright scholarship. I also ran a weeklong writing workshop for high school girls in a rural village of Uganda, and I spent ten months in Kyrgyzstan providing academic support to Afghan youth. I was only able to do those things because I had a job that allowed me to continue working and earning a small salary while I was away pursuing my dreams.
Apart from ROYA, what is your biggest dream in your life? My life has become so full and rich since starting ROYA. I have not had the time or need to dream of anything else.
What are you most proud of in your life so far? The ROYA Mentorship Program is, by far, the achievement that makes me feel most proud.
What advice do you have for ROYA and Pioneer students? When you feel depressed or defeated, help someone else. When you shift your focus to the pain and suffering of others, you feel stronger and more worthwhile and can overcome the feelings that bring you down. Our greatest gifts are the things we can give to other people. One of my favorite quotes is, “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give it away.” By D. Viscott.