By Kristin Zagurski
Six families sat in the Board Room of the William H. Thompson Alumni Center Sunday afternoon waiting to make history.
They were waiting to meet 13 women from Afghanistan – women who had never ventured outside Afghanistan before, much less traveled on an airplane.
The women they were waiting for were coming to UNO as part of the Afghan Women’s Teacher Training Exchange, which aims to enhance the skills of Afghan women teachers who work in basic education.
The families spoke with Afghanistan native Sania Wali, who came to study at UNO and the University of Nebraska Medical Center many years ago as part of the Weber Scholars program, getting tips on how to pronounce the women’s names and how to greet them properly.
The 13 Afghan women, who range in age from 27 to 50 and come from many different Afghan cities, were first slated to arrive in Omaha Oct. 5, but their arrival was delayed due to the unavailability of travel visas.
The women arrived late Sunday afternoon to an energetic crowd. They shook hands with everyone and kissed the cheeks of the women, which Wali said is the customary Afghan greeting.
Tom Gouttierre, dean of International Studies and Programs and director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies, introduced the women to their host families as they sat around a table drinking tea and eating cookies.
Five families will host two women each. A sixth family will host three women. Janice Chappell-Lawrence, who works in International Studies and Programs, said the arrangement was made because the women are used to traveling together.
Barb Davis, a reading specialist with Omaha Public Schools, will play host to two of the Afghan women. She said she hopes the women will be able to visit her workplace one day to see what she does.
She said she is very excited about the opportunity. Wali, a longtime friend of Davis’, will help her get acquainted with her new family members.
“I’ve been so excited for a long time,” Davis said. “I’ve always hoped this day would come.”
Davis said she knows the history of what has gone on in Afghanistan and is very concerned about its women.
“It’s a historical event to have these women come to Omaha and be able to take back with them warmth and the feeling that we want to be supportive to them in any way that we can,” she said.
As an Afghan woman, Wali believes the program is “unbelievable.”
She said there has been a big change in the past year in Afghanistan’s progression toward democracy and freedom.
“We are getting somewhere moving toward education, peace and the reconstitution of human rights,” Wali said.
When Wali came to Nebraska, she was one of two women in a larger group of men.
Davis said the fact that the group of 13 is all women is very wonderful.
Gouttierre said the women’s presence is important because it represent-symbolically and qualitatively-a new era for Afghan women.
“It means a lot,” he said. “They’re going to have a very excellent program here.”
The program is a cooperative effort of International Studies and Programs and the College of Education, the women’s studies program, the College of Arts and Sciences, Omaha Public and parochial schools and school districts in Scottsbluff and Oakland, Neb.
Gouttierre said the program, which is made possible by a $200,000 grant from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is very solid and demanding.
During their time in the states, the women will participate in ILUNO, UNO’s English language program. They will also take part in workshops on American culture, visit area schools and sightsee as time allows.
On Dec. 2, the women will “graduate” and leave their host families, spending their final days in the United States in Washington, D.C.
There, they will meet with government officials and visit historic sites before returning to Afghanistan Dec. 7.
Through the program, Gouttierre hopes “Afghans will know that Americans really do care for them, and Americans will learn how much Afghans admire and depend on us during this critical period of reconstruction.”