Student strives to be a voice for Afghan women

Zakera Azizi fled Afghanistan and is now earning a master's degree at the Miami Herbert Business School. Photo: Michael R. Malone/University of Miami
By Michael R. Malone

Zakera Azizi fled Afghanistan and is now earning a master's degree at the Miami Herbert Business School. Photo: Michael R. Malone/University of Miami

Student strives to be a voice for Afghan women

By Michael R. Malone
Afghan émigré Zakera Azizi, who was granted a scholarship to earn a master’s degree at the Miami Herbert Business School, recounts her journey to Miami and pledges to use her degree and skills to represent women, especially those in her native country.

As the engines of the U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane rumbled underneath, Zakera Azizi peered down at the runway lights on the Kabul tarmac and then outward to the horizon—to the Afghanistan she was leaving. 

She thought of her parents, grandparents, and eight siblings trapped in the chaos of the collapsing country and tried to imagine what lay ahead for the tens of thousands of Afghan women, hundreds of whom she had helped during the past few years in her role as a program development manager and government advisor. 

Azizi could not know then, nearly midnight on Aug. 17, 2021, all that would unfold in the coming months—the first days in an airport hangar in Doha, Qatar, with 2,500 other Afghan refugees and one indoor restroom; weeks in a tent camp; the arrival in Philadelphia as part of the U.S. resettlement program; relocation to camps in New Jersey and Virginia; and a capricious exchange of emails that ultimately resulted in a scholarship offer and chance to start life anew in Miami—as an international business student at the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School. 

This spring semester, Azizi is one of two Afghan students who received Global Crossing Airlines Graduate Business Scholarships, making her educational pursuit possible. She relies on a small U.S. government stipend for food and housing, along with donations from Afghan friends, among them her former colleagues at the defense ministry, where she worked as a senior communications advisor, advocating for the safety and protection of women in the Afghan military.

"I want to thank the U.S. government, the donor Global Crossing Airlines who established this generous scholarship, and the University of Miami for this opportunity given to me and another Afghan refugee,” said Azizi. “I never could have imagined that I could get this kind of chance to study for a master’s degree. I dreamed of coming to Miami for a visit, and now I’m here to study.” 

Sitting in the outside atrium of the business school on a mid-February morning, Azizi said she feels that she has landed in the right spot. She has made a quick transition to academic life, and she’s preparing for a presentation with fellow students on a fraud case involving Goldman Sachs and emphasized that she’s excited to meet new friends and learn new things in her program. 

“It’s not acceptable to forget my past, but I don’t want to focus on the bad things that happened to me before,” she said. 

That past and Azizi’s story begins with this admission: “I am part of the generation born in the war and that grew up in the war.” 

Born in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the Balkh province, Azizi grew up in a family with three brothers and five sisters. To protect her as a young girl, her mother dressed her in boy’s clothes so often that her grandpa at one point staged a party for her to be sure she was recognized as a girl. 

She dreamed of becoming a doctor and, with the blessing of her mother—a schoolteacher who supported the family—Azizi attended school and eventually entered Balkh University. In classes with just a handful of girls, she did well and took the Concord Career exam that revealed a talent for math. 

To help her family, she got a job as an intern with a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded project working in the revenue department of the local municipality—a place that she soon saw was rife with corruption. 

The job earned the equivalent of $200 a month, which she shared with her family, but also prompted the disdain and anger of her own father and of other men in her family and community who believe that girls or women have no business working outside the home. 

As she studied to earn her education certificate, Azizi thought she might seek to teach in the university. But by the second year, she realized that even the local college was not safe. Harassment was frequent. Because she so enjoyed her work with women in the community, she believed she’d have more of an impact working for an international development project. 

Zakera Azizi at the WPS Conference in Kabul
Zakera Azizi at the WPS Conference in Kabul.

She finished the university in 2015 and moved to the capital of Kabul in 2016. A former supervisor in the USAID project helped her find full-time work with DAI GLOBAL in the Strong Hubs for Afghan Hope and Resilience (SHAHAR) Project, working with the Deputy Ministry of Municipalities. 

As part of her new job, she helped to create a municipality advisory board that conducted training programs for women and aimed to reduce corruption. 

While Farsi was her native language and she had only limited exposure to English in her schooling, she began to learn English in her work environment. Her supervisor helped by bringing newspapers and books for her to read. 

She worked with the DAI project until 2018 and her job often entailed traveling to different provinces to conduct trainings and organize empowerment conferences for women. 

At one conference, 500 women from the country’s 34 provinces were invited to travel to Kabul—though at personal risk because of the Taliban threat. Azizi remembered calling all 500 herself over a four-day period and providing those that would come a secret code to share when arriving—to safeguard against infiltration from the Taliban. 

Through her work, she traveled the country, meeting with women in shelters and listening to their stories. She was offered a position as a program officer with a local organization focused on implementing United Nations Resolution 1325, a landmark resolution passed in October 2000 that affirms the important role of women in peace negotiations, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, and humanitarian efforts. 

Women Security Shura
Women's Security Shura

Through her efforts, she was invited to meet with then-President Ashraf Ghani, whom she tried to convince to allow more women to participate in the peace negotiations with the Taliban. She remembered the ornate meeting room, the chairs made from a special Afghan wood and the walls decorated with artifacts from around the country, and where she sat at the table with a cadre of top Afghan military officials. 

She was offered a position as a senior communication advisor with the government and soon given a second position as the head of Directorate of Martyrs and Disabled Family for the Ministry of Defense, where she worked closely with those who had lost their children and husbands in the ongoing war. 

It was this advisory work with the government that granted her the required documentation—U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services case number—for evacuation out of the country when the Afghan government collapsed in the face of the Taliban advance on the capital in mid-August.

But safe passage was by no means guaranteed in the chaos of those few days. 

Together with defense ministry colleagues, Azizi watched in disbelief on Aug. 15 as the helicopter flew off from the palace with the Afghan president on board. As the reality of the government’s implosion settled in, so did the urgency to leave the country. 

Over the next few frenetic days, Azizi shuffled back and forth between the mobbed airport and a safe house where she anxiously waited with her brother Sayed Zahir—who had moved to Kabul to live with her and offer some protection—for instructions from the U.S. embassy. With Al-Qaeda and ISIS now monitoring phones and texting apps, any communication was dangerous. 

On Aug. 17, she received a call from the U.S. embassy military section office: “Come to the airport, your clearance is arranged to leave, but not your brother’s. Go to the gate and wait for our call.” Azizi knew that the Taliban had already inquired at their Kabul apartment, but Zahir assured his sister that he would find a safe place and that she must go without him. Reluctantly, she conceded. 

At the airport, she waited at the gate as instructed. As evening began to settle, the crowds around her swarmed, desperately hoping to be let in. 

She texted her contact: “It feels like everyone here just wants to eat me—it’s dangerous, I can’t wait much longer.” The woman urged her to be patient and to avoid drawing any attention to herself. Azizi remembered wrapping her burka head-covering so that only her eyes were showing and no one could see her. 

A few minutes later, she was whisked in and then hustled from one airport section to another. Finally, she boarded the military plane to Qatar carrying the knapsack with her MacBook Air—a gift from the defense ministry for her hard work—and a few personal items as her only possession. 

She spent several weeks in the camp in Qatar with little to do but sleep. In September, she was flown with a large group of refugees to a facility in Philadelphia, then a month later she was relocated to a camp in New Jersey, then another one in Virginia. 

In Virginia, she considered her next step and began to search the internet for jobs or study opportunities. She learned of the scholarship at the University and sent an email. 

Within hours, Cecilia Sanchez, international relations manager at the business school, responded that she was forwarding Azizi’s inquiry to the director. 

Chei Hwee Chua, director of the master in international business program, formed part of the dynamic business school team that assessed the applicants for the Global Crossing Airlines Graduate Business Scholarships. Azizi’s resume leaped out at her when she received it. 

“This was clearly not a regular candidate, but one with valuable work experience—her case was special,” said Chua. 

When it came time for the virtual interview, Chua remembered that she was emotionally moved by what she heard. 

“Learning more about Zakera’s meaningful work helping women and then what she’d experienced personally—it was heart-wrenching,” said Chua, adding that she herself had come to the U.S. on her own from Singapore. “But I came here to study for my doctorate, and always had my home to go back to and family for support.” 

“Our program doesn’t just look at grades, but also life experience. We value the diversity that our students bring to the classroom,” Chua pointed out. “I don’t think we’ve ever had someone from Afghanistan, and now we have two students this semester.” 

“As an international business school with a sense of global responsibility, we welcome the opportunity to offer tangible help to two qualified students displaced by the recent events in Afghanistan,” said John Quelch, dean of the Miami Herbert Business School. 

The airline carrier providing for the scholarship shared their motivations. 

“Global Crossing's humanitarian relief flights—as the only U.S. carrier performing these flights into Kabul—have had a profound impact on all our team members. We are proud to partner with Dean Quelch and Miami Herbert Business School to provide graduate scholarships for those affected by the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan,” said Ed Wegel, chair and CEO of the airlines. 

Invited by the U.S. government to participate in the evacuation effort, the Miami-based company sought additional ways to support those who were displaced, according to Mark Salvador, chief marketing officer. 

“The University of Miami is in our backyard, and we felt strongly that supporting the initiatives coming out of the dean’s office would be an ideal way to tie our experience into the local community,” Salvador said. 

Azizi’s father has remarried and remains in Afghanistan, but she has helped her mother and several siblings relocate to Turkey and Italy. She’s glad they’re safe but frustrated that they are denied the chance for schooling or work. 

The challenge of adapting to a new language, culture, and place remains daunting, but Azizi knows she can draw on her experience to persevere. 

“I’ve started from zero several times before in my life,” she said. “For now, I need to study hard and to earn this degree. I just want to work and live my life, yet even from here I can help the women in Afghanistan who are under threat. I can help by advocating for them.” 

She knows it will take years for Afghanistan to stabilize, but she said she hopes that there will come a time that, with her degree and new skills, she will be able to launch a nonprofit to support women to work and empower them through education. 

For Afghan women, who, like herself, have been resettled in the United States, she encouraged them to do all they can to better themselves. 

“Now we’re here in the country called the ‘land of opportunity,’ we’re safe, and our voices can be heard by everyone. We must take advantage to study and learn. With education we can do anything we want,” Azizi declared. 

And she pledged to continue to advocate for the women back in Afghanistan. 

“They want to try to sing their song, but they can’t talk,” Azizi said. “I want to tell everyone to give them a chance to learn. I want to be their voice.”