Fatemah Qaderyan is a guest of the Oslo Freedom Forum, and I meet her in the lobby of the Grand Hotel, in the heart of the Norwegian capital. From the kitchen, she orders French fries. Why not?
I ask her, “Do you like McDonald’s?” Yes, she grins. She is far from alone. The whole world beats a path to the Golden Arches.
Fatemah is 16 years old and an Afghan. She is the captain of a robotics team — all-girl — that has made headlines around the world. Last year, the team was scheduled to compete at an event in Washington, but was denied visas by the U.S. government. This situation was remedied and the team duly participated.
Days after they returned to Afghanistan, something evil happened. The Islamic State bombed a mosque in Herat, where Fatemah and her family live. The terrorists killed some 40 worshippers, including Fatemah’s father.
She and I do not discuss the bombing, but she will address it later, while talking to the Freedom Forum audience. When the Islamic State struck, she was at home, nearby — sleeping. “I woke up to this horrendous noise. My mother had just finished morning prayer and rushed out of the house to see what happened. I tried to contact my father, and for the first time in my life he did not pick up the phone.”
Her father is her hero, she says. “He taught me to be brave. And that’s what I should be.”
She is one of the most winsome girls you will ever meet: marvelous, shy smile; marvelous grin; marvelous giggle and laugh. Her language is Farsi, or “Dari Persian,” as some call this particular form of Farsi, but she knows some English. We have the help of a translator.
Fatemah is an eleventh-grader at Mehri High School in Herat. Herat is the capital of a province also called Herat. In this province, almost 40 percent of school-age children don’t have the chance to go to school.
Girls, of course, are seriously disadvantaged. “Some might not go to school after age seven,” says Fatemah. “Some live in remote areas, where there are no schools. And some live in areas controlled by the Taliban, which doesn’t allow girls to go to school.”
As we talk, it occurs to me that Fatemah’s country has been at war her entire life. What’s that like? Does it feel normal to her — or does she sense it is abnormal? She definitely senses that it is abnormal, and, in fact, she knows it. She is also vexed by a particular fact.
“Afghanistan was one of the first countries to get independence,” she says. That happened in 1919. And yet, Afghanistan is way, way behind many countries that got independence later, and in some cases much later.
Fatemah Qaderyan is an Afghan patriot, and she wants her country to advance and assume some rightful place among the nations. Some normal place.
At school, she likes math, science, and computers, as you might guess. She is a STEM person, for sure — but she also likes writing, and is good at it. When she was 13, she wrote a book: My Afghanistan. She is now at work on another one. Does writing come easily to her? She confesses it does. “It’s one of my hobbies,” she says.
The robotics team is mentored by Roya Mahboob, who has also been a guest of the Freedom Forum. She is something phenomenal: an Afghan businesswoman, a software entrepreneur.
So uncommon is robotics in Herat that when parts arrived in the mail, authorities did not know what they were or what to do with them. This delayed the team by quite a bit. With a late start on their project, they had to work all the harder.
I wonder how Fatemah got to be captain. “The teacher selects someone who can lead the group. You have to be a good organizer, you have to do things on time.” The team has traveled to many cities in Europe and the United States. In the U.S., they have been to New York, Detroit, and San Francisco, just to name three.
“Which cities do you like best?” I ask. “And which cities do you like least?” Fatemah declines to say, observing that each city has its own qualities and its own atmosphere.
I ask about Herat: “Are you a celebrity there? Are you well-known?” “When I go to school,” she says, “I wear a veil, so only my eyes are revealed. If I didn’t wear that veil, people would know me.” I ask whether that would be good or bad. “Good in some ways,” she says, “and bad in others.” Recognition would be bad for her personal security.
How about other girls? Do they like her, admire her, look up to her? Yes. They support her and encourage her. They also like to advise her — which Fatemah doesn’t mind at all. “Everyone has her own opinion, and it’s good to consult others.”
What about boys? Do they admire her or resent her? “Obviously, they will resent me!” Fatemah exclaims. Yet “some of them are good, on social media. Some of them encourage me, but others, no.” I tell her that I bet a lot of them like her, secretly. She grins and laughs.
Fatemah has a strong desire to further the cause of girls and women in Afghanistan. “There is something inside me, very strong, that drives me to support and protect girls. There’s something in me that makes me always want to do that.”
Now that she and other girls have had “a taste of education,” she says, they want more, and they want more for society at large.
Fatemah would like to be a software engineer. She would also like to help establish a STEM school for girls in Afghanistan. (Perhaps I should pause to say that “STEM” stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.) “There are many girls who have intelligence and talents that no one knows about,” says Fatemah. “These things need to be brought out. People need opportunity. We must give them opportunity, so we can have people such as Einstein in our country.”
Fatemah is a big, big Einstein fan, and knows a lot about him. (She also likes Harry Potter.)
What will this school she imagines be called? “Something like ‘Afghan Dreamers’ — something that talks about dreams.”
She yearns, this girl, to bring her country into the light of modernity. She has suffered terribly, like the country itself, with all the murder and mayhem visited on it. She is really a joy to meet, Fatemah Qaderyan.