First Person

Why Razia Jan gets my vote for hero of the year

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Last week I met Razia Jan, one of the finalists for CNN’s Hero of the Year award. Razia is the founder of a small nonprofit organization called Razia’s Ray of Hope that is doing some of the bravest work I know of today.

I first heard about Razia during a conversation with my aunt about the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, which focuses on Mortenson’s mission to build schools in rural regions of Pakistan. (Though Mortenson’s book has generated some controversy, I still found the ideas behind the story inspiring.)

My aunt told me about her friend Patti Quigley, who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks. Rather than shunning the region of the world from which the attackers came, Patti focused her energy on understanding it. That led Patti to meet Razia and become involved with, and eventually Executive Director of, Razia’s Ray of Hope.

On Friday, I heard Razia tell her story at an event here in Boston. A native Afghan, she lived in the US for over 38 years. After the 9/11 attacks she was compelled to return to Afghanistan to fight terrorism from the ground up. She knew, through a deep understanding of the culture, that educating girls was a key part of the solution.

In 2008 Razia founded the Zabuli Education Center, a school built within safe walking distance of seven villages. Despite resistance and threats, she provides free education for hundreds of girls. Razia spoke about her journey founding and running the school, which began with literally creating the blueprints – they were initially drawn up without plans for a bathroom because the builder said “girls don’t need bathrooms” (he was quickly replaced with a new builder).

For these efforts, Razia was chosen as one of CNN’s top 10 finalists out of 45,000 nominees. If named Hero of the Year on December 2, she could win a $250,000 grant to provide education for all 350 girls in the school for three years, or to build a third floor to provide high-school level education to the girls (Razia had the foresight to make sure the school was built with the structure to support a third floor so it could grow).

Whether she wins or not, though, Razia is already a hero. Hearing about the amazing things that she’s doing for her community, and for the world, made her seem almost superhuman. But when I met her, I was surprised how humble, grounded, and – to be quite frank – normal, she is. I realized that the only difference between “heroes” and the rest of us is an idea and the courage to make it happen.

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