WAW conducted an interview with Gala 2017 honoree Fereshteh Forough on her inspiring work with Code to Inspire and her life as a refugee.
Q: I myself was a refugee. My family fled Afghanistan in the early 1980’s. We ended up in Australia. It was so far from Afghanistan. Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood?
What was life like growing up as a refugee in Iran? You were so close to home, yet so far.
My family also left Afghanistan in the early 1980s because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I was born in a small town on the border of Iran and Afghanistan although my parents are from Herat, Afghanistan, a historical city in the western part of Afghanistan. I grew up in a family of eight kids. Living life in a place where they treat you as an unwanted guest was not a pleasant experience. Even accessing a basic right like education was an obstacle. I’m sure you’re aware I faced the same biases that many refugees faced. Mostly I’ve noticed that people think the following about refugees:
“They come to your country to take your jobs and steal opportunities out from under you; they are burdens on the community.”
You are correct in that I was so close, yet so far. The only images I had of Afghanistan were through my mother’s memory album and from TV.
Q: My father was an educator and really believed in the power of education. Afghanistan being a patriarchal society, how has your father influenced your life?
Many of our young women can’t and don’t go to school. There is still push-back with girls getting an education. Have you witnessed this during your time in Afghanistan as both a student and teacher? What is the biggest common factor for the young women who are able to attend school (is it supportive families, economics, etc)? I know how, sadly, true that tends to be. In our family, however, the story was different.I don’t remember how many times the schools rejected my siblings and me, but I clearly remember how many times my father knocked each office door to get the right documents for us to be eligible to attend school. My father was always very supportive our pursuing our education and helping us with homework and any questions we had. I feel so fortunate that I had my father’s support the whole time.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001 in Afghanistan, we moved to Herat in 2002. My four-year faculty experience was very pleasant but challenging. Due to a strong male-dominated cultural and traditional customs, it wasn’t an easy educational journey for women. The very first issue I faced was related to my “Iranian accent”, many of my classmates didn’t like it, some called me a foreigner. You can imagine how hard it was to be considered a foreigner when I thought I had finally returned home. I also didn’t wear a burqa or chador outside, and because the Taliban had only left one year earlier, their influence was still strong. My proficiency in English, however, let me stand out among my classmates because most of our classes were in English
I became one of the first female mentors in the faculty to teach Java programming. I finally finished my Bachelor Degree in Computer Science; and later on, through a scholarship program, I went to the Technical University of Berlin in Germany for two years. I got my Master’s Degree in Germany in Information Technology. When I returned to Afghanistan, I started my career as a computer science professor at the Herat University Computer Science Faculty.
In a society like Afghanistan that is very family oriented with mostly men acting as the household decision-makers, fathers and brothers play an exaggerated role when it comes to enabling girls to go to school. As long as your family supports and encourages you to pursue your education, the external factors will be much easier to tackle.
Q: Technology in many parts of the world is taken for granted today. An entire generation has never known life without it. What drew you to technology, computer science, and coding? How can this change the future of Afghanistan?
Coding is a language like any other language and a great tool for communicating. Knowledge is power and technology is the tool for this empowerment. That’s what made me become a citizen of the world without considering geographical boundaries. I founded Code to Inspire as the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan and executed everything in Herat, Afghanistan, literally online… from the fundraiser, shipping equipment, recruiting mentors, registering applicants, to curriculum development, and so on and so forth.
This is the power and connectivity I am talking about which enabled a woman like me, a refugee deprived access to education, to realize my dream and give the women of my hometown and my country free access to technical and digital literacy!
Q: What do you feel has been the key to your success thus far?
It’s very important that you believe in yourself and have faith in the work you’re doing. It doesn’t matter where you are, what you have or don’t have, you should never be afraid to do what you believe in. And if you’re criticized, embrace the critics because they make you stronger.
Q: What were some of your biggest obstacles and challenges in pursuing education and establishing a coding school?
I faced many challenges starting from the first day I thought about making this happen. I wanted to start a school that girls could join without worrying about security and cultural barriers. That is no easy feat. Preparing the right papers/documents here in New York to operate as a non-profit and raising the funds needed for our Code to Inspire were also huge tasks. Despite the challenges, I am persistent and energized because, every day, I learn something new and meet inspiring people who share their knowledge with me. It gives me hope to know that 80 girls in Afghanistan are learning and growing every day.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to the youth who have big dreams and maybe can’t see a way to get there, what would it be?
Although I have faced so many acts of discrimination to count, and too many that any single person should bear, I won’t let my gender and my ethnic background hold me back. I believe being a minority is not a disadvantage. I use it as a possibility to show that I can do and achieve what I want by ensuring access to equal resources. Sometimes you don’t have the available resources to succeed, but as a refugee, I learned to be very resourceful. CHANGE IS POSSIBLE. No matter who or where you are!
Q: Can you tell us of any failures along the way and how you overcame them?
There is no failure in life. It is just a challenge, an obstacle in front of you that needs patience and hard work. Throughout the process, you will learn valuable lessons that will help you take wiser decisions for the next step.
Q: What serves as an inspiration to you?
My main inspiration is my mother. She learned how to make dresses, which she sold to buy school supplies for us. She taught me how to be an entrepreneur and make the best out of the least. I learned from her that great things can start with empty hands!