Freedom To Learn

When Basbibi Kakar was an infant, her family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan, settling in Pakistan. As refugees, life was hard. Her father, who had been a college professor in Afghanistan, had to resort to selling fruit from a cart to make ends meet.

All of the 10 children had to contribute to the family’s livelihood but they all also got to go to school, including the girls. “My father was an enlightened man who strongly believed in education,” says Kakar, who came to the United States in 2013 on a full scholarship to Montclair State. “He went so far as to insist that each of his children, girl or boy, go on to college and seek a profession. I definitely owe my love of learning and determination to pursue my education to my father.”

Once arriving at Montclair State, Kakar had the freedom to pursue her education and access resources and opportunities that were never available to her in her homeland.

Studying at the Feliciano School of Business, Kakar was able to follow her dream of learning the fundamentals of business administration and economics, knowledge necessary to someday open her own business or pursue a career in economic development and public policy that she hopes to apply to changes in Afghan society.

Beyond the educational advantages in the United States, Kakar says she always felt welcomed and safe dressing as a Muslim woman on campus, wearing her hijab, or traditional Muslim head scarf, when she attended her classes. “I really liked the safe space, environment and diversity Montclair State provides, because it makes things easier for students to pursue their goals instead of worrying about what others have to say about them,” she says.

The 25-year-old graduated from the Feliciano School of Business in May 2017 with a degree in business administration and economics. She plans to pursue an MBA and to eventually earn a doctorate. In the meantime, she is living in Manhattan and working at two internships – one in finance at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and one in girls’ education advocacy at the Malala Fund.

Kakar’s interest in business started early. She was an entrepreneur at 17, when she returned to her hometown in Afghanistan and started an Uber-like on-demand car service. She did well enough after a couple of years, she says, to bring her father and younger siblings back home and help her siblings further their education.

“Conditions had improved in Afghanistan but we were still witnesses to daily violence,” she says. “The challenges to women were enormous: We wore burkas for anonymity when on the street, our movements were restricted and we often received threatening calls condemning us for simply going about our lives as doctors, teachers and students.”

Throughout this time, she says, she dreamed of furthering her education in the United States, particularly since women in post Taliban Afghanistan were still discouraged from pursuing a higher education. And her father wanted both his daughters and sons to study beyond 12th grade. He encouraged his daughters despite pressure and disapproval from his own relatives.

“He has been very supportive of working class women and the phenomenon of how women help the countries grow toward development if they are educated,” she says. “I think that’s why he was a very strong believer of sending his daughters to school and fighting and advocating for them.”

Now among Kakar’s sisters is a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher and an undergraduate in international business in St. Louis. Her brothers are also first-year college students, majoring in business.

At Montclair State, Kakar says she found a huge amount of support in the faculty of the Feliciano School and the resources the school provided for her.

Associate Professor of Economics Vidya Atal says she admires that Kakar always faces adversity with a smile. “Being a woman, especially from an extremist society, Basbibi has been fighting all the obstacles to pursue her dreams,” Atal says. “Yet I have never seen her lose that smile and positive attitude, no matter how much difficulty she is into, be it in class, or in life.”

That positivity comes easily, Kakar says, because she is so grateful to have the opportunity to study in the United States. She recalls that the biggest culture shock she experienced upon her arrival was encountering students who took education for granted.

“I think it’s a fact that when people are provided in abundance, some opportunities are taken for granted, but when deprived they seek to get it in any way possible,” she says. “My greatest achievement in life is getting a full scholarship to Montclair State University that I proudly completed this year.”

She hopes that her graduate education in economic development and public policy will help her become “an effective implementer of ideas that will promote peace, education and a sustainable living in Afghanistan. My country is grappling with unique issues, and it will take unique means to resolve them. Education is necessary in order for women to have rights and be able to make better decisions for themselves and their families.”

Despite the fact that Afghanistan has been “laid waste by bombs and violence,” Kakar has hope in the future. “So where is the hope? It is in the young and their love of learning it is in the determination of Afghans to rebuild their civil society and in every individual who takes on the challenge of making a change.”