WHERE PAST MEETS PRESENT: Razia Jan bridges two rooms at the Zabuli School for Girls, one outfitted with 21st century technology, the other a testament to Afghan tradition. Here she wipes away tears after one of her students, Madia, 4, speaks to the village elders in perfect English. Photo by Karen Wong

PART 1

For two days Razia Jan anticipated the meeting she arranged with the men she calls the Village Elders. The group -- fathers, grandfathers, other senior male family members of students at the Zabuli School for Girls and Women – meet with Razia several times a year, but this time would be different. She had to tell them an American journalist was coming to do a story on the school and she wasn’t sure how they would react.

After greeting the school administrators, some teachers and several girls who tried to suppress charming giggles, Razia went upstairs to the computer classroom where a dozen elders dressed in traditional Afghan clothing were already assembled.

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The room itself was symbolic of Razia’s mission to bring modern education to girls in a very traditional country. On one side of the large classroom was contemporary furniture, posters extolling the benefits of technology and ten computers with flat screen monitors. The other featured a handwoven Afghan rug in traditional red beneath upholstered wooden couches with a somber portrait of President Hamid Karzai watching all that went on in the room.

The bearded elders with their customary hats, loose fitting white and tan long shirts called kurtas and pants with dark vests and loafers remained stone faced and seated as Razia and Natasha Latief, a friend and women’s rights attorney, entered the room. Administrator Mohammed Zia and Principal Razia Mausaver were also present.

The conversation began in soft-spoken Dari. Not much time passed before a barefoot attendant entered with a tray of steaming cups of green tea.  The conversation continued as the men drank the customary tea and ate light, yellow cake. Their voices became stronger and intense at times. After about 30 minutes, a group of five kindergarten students and their teacher entered the room and walked over to Razia with outstretched arms.  The girls turned to the elders and began speaking in Dari and then in English. The youngest student at the Zabuli School, Madia, not yet four, appeared timid, but spoke with a strong, confident voice.

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“I am learning English because English is the international language,” said the girl.

As Madia spoke, tears streamed down Razia’s face, betraying her pride in and love for the little girl -- along with the tremendous heartache she carries for the family. Madia’s father was a respected security guard at the school until a little more than a year ago when he was shot and killed in a family dispute. Madia’s older brother attended the Zabuli Girls’ School last year so he could be in the place where his father worked, Razia recounted earlier. At the conclusion of Madia and her classmates’ demonstration, the elders were clearly moved and gave gentle applause to the students. Some of the men said that these girls knew more than many men.

They called Razia the “Mother of Deh’ Subz.” While Razia has conferred with these men before, she was pleasantly surprised by this one.

“This meeting did surprise me for the men being so positive about everything we do with students at the school,” said Razia.

What started for Razia as a campaign to bring textbooks to the Afghanistan university system turned into the creation of a girls’ school not far from Kabul. The Zabuli School for Girls, the first girls’ school in the historic district of Deh’ Subz, was built on the site of an abandoned boys’ school. Following the Taliban’s rise to power in 1994 after a decade of war with the Soviets, Afghan culture has done its best to keep girls and women illiterate. That changed with the American invasion in 2001. Soon thereafter, schools for girls began to open, including the doors of the Zabuli School for Girls and Women with an initial enrollment of over 100 students in 2008. Since the U.S. announcement that it will pull out of the region in 2014, the Taliban has experienced a resurgence and has closed nearly 500 girls schools in recent months, according to the Afghan Education Ministry.

Today at Razia’s school, there are 355 girls ranging from kindergarten to grade eight with the hope of expansion to grade twelve. Razia was adamant that the school be built with walls and a foundation that could support the eventual addition of a third floor. That expansion was part of her goal in meeting with the village elders.

The men, who weren’t used to discussions with women, embraced the idea of including a high school. One elder said, “You can go to the Ministry of Education and tell them what we need and nothing is done, but Razia comes in and gets this (the school) done.”

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Gaining the trust and approval of the men in the community is essential not only to fill the seats in the classroom, but also to ensure the security and longevity of the Zabuli or any girls’ school in conservative Afghanistan.

As Shair Agha, a white bearded elder said, “Razia’s name will be here for thousands of years. Even when Razia is gone, her name will always be part of this school and she will be known as the Mother of Deh’ Subz.”

With the blessings of the elders for expansion, Razia and her Ray of Hope Foundation were left with the ever-present challenge of raising the funds to build, furnish and supply the high school classrooms.  The existing school was built at no cost to the community and all students attend school tuition-free. The Ray of Hope Foundation pays for everything, according to Patti Quigley, executive director of Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation.

“Ninety percent of donors are individuals from Duxbury, Wellesley and Concord, Massachusetts, as well as Washington, DC, Omaha, Nebraska and Bartlesville, Oklahoma,” said Quigley. “In all these areas, the Rotary Club has been a great point of contact along with Rotary Club International.”

But to add another floor, new textbooks and supplies would take funds Razia doesn’t currently have. Like so many times before, she vowed to find a way, but how?

Then her phone rang with what may be the answer to so many prayers.

To learn more about Razia Jan and her charity, Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation, please visit raziasrayofhope.org.

PART 2

CNN Hero Razia Jan speaks on camera in this shot that is on the CNN Heroes Web site. Behind her, students sing and dance. Photo by Karen Wong.

After the successful meeting with the Village Elders on June 27, Razia Jan had an added zip to her already energetic step. Having the support of the men in Deh’Subz to build a high school floor atop the Zabuli School that already housed grades one through eight was an important first step. When Jan got home from school that day, she shared the good news with her cousin Shuja who lives with his family in Scottsdale but was spending several mont.hs in Afghanistan. She was about to call Patti Quigley, the executive director of Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation, when one of Jan’s two cell phones rang

It was CNN Producer Allie Torgan calling to confirm CNN’s interest in Jan as a CNN Hero and to say a video crew would be coming later in the week to observe Jan at the School. Jan was visibly moved by the call.

“I was surprised and honored to get recognition for my struggle to help educate the girls and women in Afghanistan,” said Jan. After speaking with CNN, Jan immediately phoned Patti Quigley to tell her the great news.

It was early June when a CNN Hero producer contacted Quigley to say that Jan was being considered. Allie Torgan and other producers spent a great deal of time interviewing Jan’s colleagues and Ray of Hope board members to determine if Jan should be a Hero. A few weeks later, Torgan emailed Jan. Before going further in the process or sending a camera crew to the Zabuli School, Torgan wanted to make sure the attention would not put the students or Jan at risk for attack. The Afghan Education Ministry reported that this year alone, 500 girls’ schools were closed by the Taliban.

“She told me that I was nominated,” said Jan. “She wanted to make sure that it was okay with me and it was okay with the school.”

Fridays in Afghanistan are a holiday for schools and many businesses, but Friday, June 29 was the day Jan met the CNN Heroes crew at the Zabuli School for an interview. A translator and security guard accompanied CNN Producer Sumnima Udas and cameraman Sanjiv Talreja, who are based in India. Udas interviewed Jan in one of the classrooms for three hours.

“The crew was very professional,” said Jan. “They knew exactly what they wanted to film. They had sheets with hundreds of questions.”

Sumnima Udas and her crew returned to the school over the next two days to tape the students and Jan in the classrooms and on the playground. They also took video around Deh’ Subz and traveled to the home of Momen Yer who has three daughters at the Zabuli School.

“Nadia and two other girls were interviewed,” said Jan. Momen Yer’s daughter Nadia is in seventh grade and is a top student at the Zabuli School. “Also Nadia’s uncle (was interviewed). It went really well.”

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After three long days of taping, Jan and all those involved with the Zabuli School and Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation could not openly discuss the CNN Heroes visit. CNN Hero Nominees are not considered CNN Heroes until their stories air on the CNN Web site or broadcast on television. Waiting wasn’t easy.

It took time to edit the hours of video and then breaking news events delayed the airing of Jan’s profile so Quigley and other Ray of Hope Board members could only wait and wonder if Jan would actually be named a CNN Hero. Finally, word came on the evening of August 2 that Jan was the CNN Hero of the Week.

Upon getting the news, Razia’s Ray of Hope Executive Director Patti Quigley was delighted.

“I was elated and a little bit surprised because I put the nomination in a year ago,” said Quigley. “I hadn’t heard anything and didn’t know they were still looking at it.”

Quigley, who’s been a volunteer with Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation since its inception in 2007, said she was thrilled for Razia, noting the added attention from CNN will mean more credibility for their work both at home and abroad. Since CNN first aired its segment on Jan August 2, the Ray of Hope Web site had thousands more hits and a boost in donations to the non-profit foundation.

“The main reason why I nominated Razia was because I thought with all the work she does for everybody else, it makes sense for her to get a really prestigious award,” said Quigley. “The credibility that goes along with receiving a CNN Heroes award would really help her cause.”

CNN Heroes are selected from viewer nominations. Last year, more than 10,000 nominations were received from 100 countries. Each week, a CNN Hero is profiled on the global networks of CNN. In September, the Top 10 CNN Heroes for 2012 will be announced. From the Top 10, viewers select the CNN Hero of the Year via online voting, according to CNN. The Hero of the Year will be revealed during a live broadcast of CNN Heroes on December 2, 2012.

Kelly Flynn, senior executive producer of the CNN Heroes Initiatives said Jan suits the criteria perfectly.

“CNN Heroes is all about recognizing everyday people around the world who are doing extraordinary things,” said Flynn. “They aren’t necessarily seeking the spotlight, but see a need out there - and commit to making change and helping others. Razia Jan exemplifies this ideal. Her dedication and passion to educating Afghan schoolgirls is remarkable. And when you learn more about her personal story, it’s even more compelling. She’s in her sixties and stepped out of her comfort zone to act on something that had been a dream for decades. I think her story just goes to show that you are never too old or too young to change the world.”

Reacting to the news, Razia’s Ray of Hope board member and Duxbury resident Margaret Brook said, “Oh my gosh, I was really proud and thrilled for Razia that her vision and dreams are coming to fruition. I’m proud that her efforts are being recognized. It is so well deserved.”

Brook encouraged people to support their efforts by “liking” Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation Facebook Page, following it on Twitter and visiting the Web site to learn more about the school.

“I hope (this award) will have a positive impact on the Zabuli School and it’s future,” said Brook.

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When Razia Jan was asked a few days before the announcement what it would mean for the Zabuli School if she were to be named a CNN Hero, Jan said, “If by any miracle I am a Hero, that will help the Zabuli School to grow and educate these girls for many years to come.”

Once she learned she was chosen and had time to reflect how being a hero would change her life, Jan said, “I won’t change my work to make sure that the girls are protected and given the best opportunity in life.”

To view a short clip of Razia Jan and the Zabuli School, go to cnn.com/SPECIALS/cnn.heroes/.