Kandahar, AFGHANISTAN -- The United States invested heavily to help women in Afghanistan. But as American troops leave the country, so does the money -- and a light of hope in the heart of Taliban country could be extinguished.
“Extremists threw acid on my face and my body. They burned me but they could not burn my determination to education,” said Arezo, a young Afghan girl, remembering the painful day in 2009, when three men attacked her on the way to school in Kandahar.
The southern Afghan city, the Taliban’s hometown and former seat of their rule, is known to be a very traditional and conservative place, even by Afghan standards.
Thirteen-year-old Arezo defied the attacks and is back at school taking classes and studying English at the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies, an academy educating the young people of Kandahar, where they still face extremist threats.
“Education is important,” Arezo said. “I want to continue my education.”
Her plan is now in danger, as the school will likely have to close due to a lack of funding. What the Taliban were not able to destroy, the departure of foreign aid from this war-torn country might. As American troops are leaving Afghanistan, so is aid money.
The school’s director, Ehsan Ullah, told NBC News he is running out of options after a U.S. State Department grant was not renewed last fall, and he might have to close down the project within the next months.
He founded the school in 2002 to provide courses supplementing normal education in Kandahar, including computer classes and English courses.
“We see there were lots of aid projects when the boots were on the ground, and those aid projects are now closing,” Ullah said. He already broke the news to his 1,700 students, more than half of them women.
“We’re just in a terrible situation and those women who are there, they feel so rejected and so disappointed.”
“We have been telling them again and again that it’s going to be closing any day, we are running out of money, and we cannot help you anymore,” he said. “We’re just in a terrible situation and those women who are there, they feel so rejected and so disappointed.”
It is the second time that the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies has faced funding problems as foreign troops and aid are being pulled out of Afghanistan after a 13-year-long ?!? war.
After an almost six-year long support, the Canadian International Development Agency stopped funding the Kandahar school in 2012 and it was only able to continue to operate as the U.S. State Department stepped in with a $160,000 grant.
Overall, the United States has spent more than $100 billion on Afghanistan’s reconstruction, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Ullah said the State Department told him they would be unable to continue funding the school, and the grant ran out last fall. So far, he was able to run the school thanks to private donations, but even that money is running out.
“There was a hope, there was opportunity, and there was freedom, but now that’s going away because of just a few thousand dollars,” he said.
The school even had to cancel its remote English lessons given by American volunteers earlier this year, as it could no longer afford the broadband Internet costs.
Caroline Burke, a graduate student at Stony Brook University, who has taught English via Skype to a student at the Kandahar Institute since 2012, was disappointed when the sessions stopped due to lack of funding.
“The school doesn’t need that much money compared to other projects,” she said, adding that she was anxious the program would close down forever. “It has turned into one of the biggest projects of my life.”
Mark Thompson, executive director of the Denver-based National Educator Program, is trying to support the Kandahar Institute with new funding. He said there is no other aid project that can deliver “this kind of bang for the buck.”
“If funds go through Kabul, not much actually goes to the project because of corruption."
“Three hundred girls graduated are 300 new leaders that go out into Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re the people who will build an economy that’s not built on opium, combat corruption, and pave the roads. Change has to come from within the society.”
Thompson said he has approached Congress to provide direct funding to the school.
“If funds go through Kabul, not much actually goes to the project because of corruption,” he said.
Nevertheless, Ullah, the school’s director, has not yet given up hope and urges the international community to stay committed to helping his country rebuild.
“Afghanistan is now building from scratch and Afghanistan needs a sustainable corporation and sustainable assistance and help from the international community, especially friends like the United States of America,” he said.
Otherwise, he added, the Taliban will come back with even greater strength when foreign troops have left the country.