Women's Rights Activist Hopes to Bring Her Story to America Through ESL Classes

Part of an occasional series highlighting University of Virginia employees who have taken advantage of the adult education benefit.

August 29, 2011 — Najiba Sultani captivates people with her story of hardship, courage and endurance in Afghanistan as a women's rights activist and scholar, her path to America and her aspirations.

Sultani, who arrived in Charlottesville after a circuitous journey that took her from Kabul to Pakistan to Iran to Turkey to Texas, works full time in Facilities Management's housekeeping department. It's a far cry from her earlier, privileged life in Afghanistan, but she's grateful for her new life and opportunities in the U.S. She gained citizenship in 2009.

"I am right now comfortable safely, my children growing very well, I bought a house," the mother of two sons said. "Right now my life is better than before, is good."

Although Sultani has a university degree, and despite her fluency in Turkish, Pash, Farsi, Russian and Dari, the English language barrier has prevented her from finding a job suited to her professional qualifications.

Holly Heilberg, a career development specialist in Human Resources, said Sultani has an impressive resume of awards and recognition and would love to develop her career at U.Va. Her skills could fit into a variety of areas, she said; it's just a matter of further developing her English fluency.

She's making progress. After a stint as a cook and assistant teacher in a local child-care center, Sultani took the position with U.Va. Housekeeping in May 2010. After becoming a full-time employee in October, she began taking English as a Second Language classes and is now in ESL level two. (Since 2002, the University has contracted with Charlottesville's Adult Learning Center to deliver GED and ESL classes on Grounds.)

Even in halting English, the story of her life is arresting.

Sultani was born to a middle-class Uzbek family in Northern Afghanistan. In 1978, as she was beginning college, the government transferred her and 40 other students to People's Friendship University in Moscow, where in 1984 she earned a degree in world history with a concentration in women's rights – the first woman to graduate from the school.

Always concerned about the condition of women's lives in Afghanistan, Sultani landed a job as a history professor at the University of Kabul. She researched and wrote two books about nationalism and women's rights.

In 1996, the Taliban ousted the national government and outlawed women's education. Sultani was widowed when her husband, Alijan, was killed in a rocket explosion, while she was pregnant with the second of their two sons.

Yet when a neighbor who worked for the United Nations asked her to open her house as a school for young women, Sultani agreed, despite the risk of violent reprisal. She converted her house into a school for 150 girls between the first and 12th grades.

"Every student, they were so happy," she recalled.

The Taliban threatened not only her, but also her children. Nine-year-old Zobair was violently abducted on his way to an art class. Seeing three other kidnapped boys in the back of the vehicle, he jumped out of the moving car and sprinted under gunfire to hide in some nearby rubble. He eventually made his way home with the aid of his brother, Farhad.

Sultani fled to Pakistan, where she obtained an emergency visa to travel to Iran. From there, she and her children walked 10 days over the mountains to reach her sister in Turkey.

With no means of communication, Sultani became separated from Farhad. On faith that he had been sent to stay with Sultani's mother, Sultani and Zobair immigrated to the United States in 2004 with U.N. help, ending four years of flight.

After a stint in Texas, Sultani settled in Charlottesville in January 2005, where she not only reunited with friends, but also finally learned the fate of her older son. Sultani's family had given Farhad money to send him to Austria by way of Moscow. He lives in Austria with his wife and son, and soon will complete a university degree in economic business.

Meanwhile, Zobair is enrolled in computer science classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College while working at Whole Foods. Sultani said she is proud of her children's progress. "Right now, my family happy because they saw my children, their education growing good, they gentle, they happy right now."

She works hard to support not just herself and her sons, but also her extended family in Afghanistan. When her husband was killed, Sultani became a main provider for his elderly parents and a cousin who was abandoned by her own husband and cannot work or remarry. 

"Women, girls, they have so bad situation," Sultani said. "I am working. It's no matter who I was, that's OK, just I keep the life. My heart is … I am thinking forever about everything. I'm aware."

Sultani said she hopes to one day return to Kabul to retrieve her books and translate them into English.

— by Kate Colwell

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications