Zehra’s Season for Success

In Marudo Kharmang, Pakistan, Zehra has long appreciated the sweet taste and economic potential of the simple apricot. And yet, she struggled to raise consistent harvests and make the business viable and reliable. But she wasn’t ready to give up.

Central Asia Institute’s apricot program began with the goal of finding women like Zehra—already invested in the apricot sector but looking for the support to help them transform their skills into a viable business. Joining the program provided Zehra and her cohort with valuable agricultural training and skills, business training, and sessions on how to take the next step.

women working on their apricot business

From simple apricots to dehydrated fruit, jam, and more, Zehra and her group learned how they could add value to their fruit. Since joining the program only a year ago, Zehra has seen her income grow from $136 per harvest to $438, a life-changing increase. And for Zehra, this is only the beginning. She plans to invest more time, effort, and training to keep her business going strong long into the future.

Read more about the early results from our apricot program and the difference it is making in women’s lives.

Apricots on tree branch

Golden Harvest: Apricot Innovation in Baltistan

Wajmah forges her own path in Afghanistan

“I couldn’t write or read until last year, not even a single word,” shared 16-year-old Wajmah. As a girl in rural Afghanistan, Wajmah had been unable to attend school at all during her childhood. In addition to the geographic constraints of distant schools, and the restrictive policies of the Taliban, Wajmah had suffered an early loss. At 7 years old, her father passed away, and her mother was unable to afford school supplies, even if she had been able to get there.

But when CAI’s Accelerated Learning Center opened, affording basic education to those who had missed out on their primary school years, Wajmah started on a new path.

Woman in classroom

“Now I can read and write, not just my name, but even a few paragraphs.” And her efforts have borne impressive results on exams, scoring 90% in her first semester and 100% in her second semester.

Wajmah dreams of becoming a lawyer. Despite the oppressive Taliban regime, she is not giving up hope of a brighter future. And we are not giving up either. Read more about the work we’re doing to support girls’ education in Afghanistan.

Zarafshon’s Future Looks Delicious

ZafrahsonAt 49 years old, Zarafshan has experienced significant strife in her home country of Tajikistan. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, civil war broke out between the Gorno-Badakhshan region where she lives and the rest of the country. While peace was reached, the local population remains marginalized and government services are scarce, compounding poverty.

There were many times when circumstances could have overwhelmed her. And yet throughout this, she managed to get an education, get married, and raise three beautiful children. But it was often difficult as she and her husband faced chronic unemployment.

For Zarafshon, a training offered by Central Asia Institute – Tajikistan was the start of her journey to stability. After attending an initial financial literacy training, Zarafshon joined the inaugural class of the ASPIRE women’s entrepreneurship program, launched by CAI-Tajikistan in 2019. She utilized the knowledge she attained in the training and her cooking skills to start a small business.

Today, nearly three years later, her business is thriving. She bakes, on average, 80 kulcha (mini bread loaves), each day, earning a $30 daily profit. And her family has joined in on the venture. Her oldest son helped her write a World Bank grant application, which they won, awarding them $1,500 for additional equipment. This women’s month, we’re proud to celebrate Zarafshon and her perseverance to take a chance and believe in herself!

Zafrahson working in her bakery

This International Women’s Month, Join CAI in Celebrating the Women and Girls of Central Asia

Throughout the month of March, Central Asia Institute is celebrating all the incredibly inspiring and dedicated women and girls of Central Asia. But to fully understand the extraordinary things they are achieving each day, it’s important to first understand the enormity of the challenges they face. 

Imagine for a moment being a girl in Afghanistan today, a country often ranked as the worst country in the world to be a woman. If you are lucky enough to be among the minority of children enrolled in school, you will be banned from studying beyond Grade Six because you are a girl. By the time you are 16, there is a good chance you will have been forced into early marriage to a man far your senior and not of your choice. Most likely you will have little to no control over how often you get pregnant. And the likelihood that you’ll die in childbirth is among the highest in the world. You’ll face high rates of violence and will be denied access to healthcare, work, and freedom of movement.

girl sitting on floor

For females born in the remote, impoverished regions of Pakistan, the situation is not a whole lot brighter. Less than half of girls attend school and for those who do, an estimated 80% are forced to drop out before high school. As a woman in neighboring Tajikistan, you’ll have few employment opportunities, and if you do have a job, your income will be far below that of men, offering little hope for pursuing your dreams or helping to lift your family out of poverty.

But amazingly, the girls and women of Central Asia overcome these dark forces every day. We’d like you to meet a few of them.

Zehra’s Season for Success

Zarafshon’s Future Looks Delicious

None of these programs would have been possible without the unwavering and generous support of CAI’s donors. This women’s month, we also celebrate them for believing in the women and girls of Central Asia throughout the year. They are proof that when we reach across cultural and geographic divides to support each other, we can start to shift the norms and expectations in regions where women have been systematically excluded from so many parts of society. Together, we can clear the way for women like Wajmah, Zehra, and Zarafshon to blaze new trails for themselves and the next generation of women.

Tajikistan’s Preschool #2 Comes to Life

Supporters of Preschool #2 (P2) in Tajikistan will be able to celebrate soon!  Four years ago, we broke ground on P2, and so many of our dedicated donors immediately joined us in the project as Brick Layers, funding the construction of this model school that will serve the Khorog community for many years to come. 

P2 Before: A school in dire need of repairs

Due to the extremely remote and unstable nature of the areas in which we work, project timelines are dependent upon the availability of both supplies and labor, so we are grateful to everyone for their patience and steadfast belief in the project.  We’re excited to share some photos of the school during its various stages of construction, culminating in how it looks today.

With many hands, a change begins

Progress amplifies excitement in the community

With only a few finishing touches left, the doors to Preschool #2 will soon open to 120 eager students.  Stay tuned for additional photos and a video tour of the school.   

A school to be proud of

The final result is a school that students, teachers, and families are immensely proud of. This building would never have been possible without YOUR support. Thank you for caring about the preschool students of Barushan, Tajikistan, and for sharing your resources with them. Stay tuned for a full video tour of the building!

Emergency Response to Herat Earthquake

Between 7 and 15 October 2023, Herat Province, Afghanistan, endured a series of three powerful earthquakes, each registering a magnitude of 6.3 on the Richter scale. The initial two earthquakes, occurring on 7 and 11 October, inflicted profound devastation, resulting in the tragic loss of 1,480 lives and leaving 1,950 individuals injured.

With your support, we were able to rapidly mobilize funds to support survivors of the earthquake. Read on to find out the difference that your contribution made:

Coming together to help

Central Asia Institute and our Afghan partner, WADAN, coordinated closely with provincial leaders and the Directorate of Public Health and Directorate of Disaster Relief. We also joined meetings with the Regional Cluster to ensure synergy, prevent duplication, and target the most vulnerable demographics. With these partnerships, we were able to identify 35 female health workers requiring assistance to carry out their duties, as well as 80 child-headed households not being served by other organizations.

Your gift made a difference

In the course of our outreach, your contributions funded direct cash assistance to 80 Child Headed Households, helping them to meet immediate needs and begin rebuilding their lives. Your gift also enabled us to distribute financial incentives to 35 Female Health Workers who had volunteered their services for transportation, communication, and food expenses for two months. These health workers played a critical role in providing healthcare services to the affected population.

Sharing words of relief and gratitude

One health worker, Ms. Amina Mohammad, expressed heartfelt gratitude for the assistance. While she felt called to volunteer during the dire tragedy, the financial incentive helped alleviate burdens to her own family. “I do not have a regular salary and so this support will play a critical role in ensuring my children’s basic needs are met.”

Another female health worker, Mrs. Kubra Qadir, echoed feelings of appreciation. As the sole provider for her household, she explained the profound impact this assistance would have on meeting her family’s needs.

Similar sentiments were expressed among the child-headed households. Mr. Sardar, a relative of one of the children tragically orphaned by the earthquake, extended heartfelt gratitude to CAI for their donation. With the loss of their parents, many of these children rely heavily on the support of relatives, yet the stress of such responsibilities often surpasses the means of these households already grappling with their own hardships.

Golden Harvest: Apricot Innovation in Baltistan

In March 2023, Central Asia Institute and Pakistan partner Moawin Foundation launched a new economic empowerment project for women in the breathtaking region of Baltistan. Focused on harnessing the potential of apricots, the initiative aimed to tackle the longstanding issue of mismanagement of this valuable fruit in various parts of Baltistan.

Mapping Potential

The project, implemented across three districts—Kharmang, Ghanche, and Shigar—provided training opportunities to women without such support. Recognizing the untapped potential of apricots in Baltistan, the initiative targeted villages where apricot wastage was rampant, particularly focusing on widows and women from poor backgrounds.

Within the districts, villages like Daghoni, Mayurdo, and Nar became hubs of activity as women enthusiastically participated in training sessions on apricot dehydration, jam-making, mulberry preservation, and product marketing. The comprehensive skill development programs not only opened financial opportunities but also instilled a newfound sense of confidence in their abilities.

Apricot at market in Pakistan

Measuring Success: Post-Training Evaluations

Early post-training evaluations revealed promising results. In Daghoni Ghanche, where apricot wastage was a significant concern, the project introduced innovative preservation techniques for the first time. Once marginalized, women like Gulibi and Fizia emerged as successful entrepreneurs, generating income through the production of jams and dried apricot products. The 20 participants in Daghoni increased their income by an average of 180%.  

Economic Impact and Community Development

The impact of the Apricot Dehydration Project goes beyond individual success stories. It addresses the issue of apricot wastage, fosters economic development, and empowers women to lead sustainable income-generating ventures. The project serves as a successful example of community development, blending traditional practices with modern techniques for sustainable income generation in previously underserved regions. As these women continue to thrive, their success reverberates through their communities, paving the way for a brighter and more prosperous future in the breathtaking landscapes of Baltistan.

Jars of apricot jam

Tahmina’s Business Stands the Test of Time

Tahmina is starting 2024 with a hard-earned title: businesswoman. Her journey to entrepreneurship was filled with starts, stops, lessons, and achievements. These days, Tahmina can support her family through her business, and she is meeting a community need. It is a far cry from where she found herself in the mid-2010s with a college degree and scant employment prospects.

Growing up in the Gorno-Badakhshan region of Tajikistan, education was always important to Tahmina. Tajikistan has high literacy and high school graduation rates, and most young people strive to complete their higher education. However, the region is economically depressed, and finding employment is challenging. This translates not only to difficulty meeting daily expenses but also to the fear of not being able to provide further education for the next generation. These are among the chief reasons that Central Asia Institute focuses on providing scholarships, supporting school infrastructure, and entrepreneurship training in the region.

Tahmina was introduced to Central Asia Institute in 2019 at their inaugural Financial Literacy Training. During this program, she gained new skills and tools for managing her finances and began crafting a vision for a small business. Encouraged to start with her existing skills and interests, Tahmina began selling traditional sour bread to friends and family. This humble beginning gave Tahmina important knowledge about procurement, costing, supply, demand, and timing. In further trainings with CAI, Tahmina made important connections between her initial real-world business experience and the more advanced training topics.

Tahmina presents her baked goods at a CAI training event.

Tahmina presents her baked goods at a CAI training event.

In the midst of growing her business, Tahmina and her husband were raising their two children, and spreading word about her business. CAI recognized her hard work and continued commitment and supported her with a grant in the form of a modern oven. This made the cooking process much more efficient and manageable.

“I worked from home and slowly expanded my business into a small baking workshop. I knew that I needed a business plan but had lacked the knowledge to create one. Through the CAI training program, I built a business plan and applied for more equipment to grow my business.” Since adding additional equipment, Tahmina has expanded her offerings to include Tandoori bread and other delectable baked goods.

It has now been more than four years since Tahmina began her baking business, and the change is stark. From the despair of unemployment to becoming a proud business owner, Tahmina feels immense gratitude for her journey. “I feel very proud to be financially independent and able to support my family and kids. To all of the CAI team and donors, thank you for walking me through this process.”

An example of traditional Tajik baked goods.

An example of traditional Tajik baked goods.

The Power Couple of Jagir Basin

For Maria Bono and her husband Raja Naveed, the endearing “power couple” label applied by their community is one they can wear confidently. Together, they have dedicated themselves to creating lasting change in their rural community. Maria worked in a government job, and Raja spent years teaching at urban, private schools. But they couldn’t shake the feeling that they had a greater calling waiting. Together, the couple decided to relocate back to the rural, mountainous terrain of Gilgit Baltistan.

Outdoor classroom

“This community is one of the most underprivileged communities in Gilgit Baltistan and they deserve their right to education. The community has migrated from other parts of the region and settled here to feed their families,” Raja shares.

Maria adds, “These children are active learners and whatever we teach, they pick quickly.”

For the 145 students that attend the school where Maria and Raja teach, the school day is an opportunity to focus on their growth, and their social connections, and to enjoy being children. Outside of school hours, many of the children help to tend cattle with their families. Before they found a permanent structure, classes took place in open fields, with cattle tied up nearby.

Maria and Raja have worked hard to make sure families are included in their children’s education. They are welcome in the school building and regularly participate in parent-teacher conferences and school council meetings. Maria says, “We believe that we can bring about long-lasting change only if the parents, community, and teachers are involved in the progress of these students equally.”

With your help, teachers like Maria and Raja will be able to continue their mission to provide high-quality, engaging education to the children of Gilgit Baltistan and beyond.

Bibi Finds Her Path

Bibi Kashmira

Bibi Kashmira knows firsthand the difference that an education can make. At just 25 years old, she has navigated uncertainty and economic instability, but always saw her education as the light towards a better path. After finishing university, Bibi struggled to find work in her rural village in Badakhshan province, but she didn’t stop networking and sharing her passion with others. Eventually, Bibi learned about a teaching opportunity at a CAI school and confidently submitted her application. To her delight, she was hired as a primary school teacher at the CAI community-based school, where she would shepherd students through grades one through three.

Taking on this job not only allowed Bibi to serve her community but also provided her with a much-needed source of income. Her husband had suffered an injury, leading to permanent disability, during the conflict of years prior and her employment was crucial in supporting their family financially.

As Bibi tells it, “Before the establishment of the community-based education program in the village, students faced numerous challenges including a long distance to reach school and inability to purchase school supplies. However, since the establishment of the school, students have shown a remarkable interest and enthusiasm for learning. The provision of teaching and learning materials has greatly benefitted not only the students but also their families.”

As a leader in her school and her family, Bibi is a shining light to the girls and boys in her classroom about the positive impact women can make, even in the harshest of circumstances.

Progress in Pakistan

The towering mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan are serene against the bustling villages below. For Central Asia Institute the activity is truly nonstop. From repairing schools to mobilizing the library van, running IT training sessions, or supporting preschoolers, the community is always engaged. Below, take a photo tour through the work that you made possible by supporting Central Asia Institute:

Construction and Repair of Schools

Ensuring a safe learning environment is paramount for student success and teacher retention. The team tackled painting, maintenance, and full-scale construction projects.

Community School Habibabad Qumarah
New schools in Pakistan built with CAI partnership

Capacity Building and Training

With a focus on quality education, we conducted teacher training programs across Gilgit-Baltistan covering topics from IT to STEM to teaching methods and more. 

Training session

Health, Hygiene, and Well-being

We conducted sessions on health, hygiene, and water and sanitation issues. 

girls washing hands
Health and Hygiene Training

Early Childhood Development and Scholarships

Investing in the future, we’ve focused on early childhood development by training teachers and supporting the establishment of early childhood education centers. We have also continued our efforts to provide scholarships for continued education.

Early Childhood Education in Pakistan

Environmental Education and Infrastructure Improvements

As part of our commitment to the environment, we conducted climate education sessions focused on sanitation and waste management in CAI schools. 

Provision of dustbins

Mini Libraries and Future Endeavors

To encourage and spread a love for reading and learning, we established four mini-libraries in schools across Gilgit Baltistan.

Mini library in Pakistan
Library van

Transforming Lives, Together

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to all our partners and supporters who make these initiatives possible. Together, we strive to transform lives through education and create a world where every child has access to quality learning.

URGENT APPEAL for earthquake survivors in Herat, Afghanistan

In the wake of the recent devastating earthquakes in Afghanistan, which claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people and left nearly 10,000 injured, the situation is dire. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, and more than 66,000 people were affected across multiple districts. These communities are in urgent need of assistance.

While CAI doesn’t operate directly in this area, we are compelled to lend a hand. Our immediate priority is to provide humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable in the community – particularly female and child-headed households who have been displaced and are struggling to meet their basic needs. These families lack the financial resources necessary to support their loved ones.

In addition, we are collaborating with a dedicated group of female health workers who have generously volunteered their services. To further empower their efforts, CAI is committed to providing incentives and transportation support.

A disaster unfolds

On October 7th, 2023, a typical day was abruptly transformed into a devastating humanitarian crisis when the first of three earthquakes hit western Afghanistan. In the following days, an additional two earthquakes continued to destroy homes and injure and kid individuals. According to a Washington Post article, more than 90% of those killed were women and children, many of whom were likely in their brick and concrete homes at the time of the quakes.

Central Asia Institute operates programs in the northern region of Afghanistan, far from the devastation of these earthquakes. But in a nation that is already facing intense challenges due to economic, environmental, and political factors, everyone has a duty to step in and help.

Map of Afghanistan showing the epicenter of earthquake

Our response

Once we had confirmed the safety and well-being of our direct partners and program beneficiaries, CAI went to work coordinating with partners about the greatest needs on the ground and how we could help. Partner organization, WADAN, worked quickly and diligently to identify the needs that we were best suited to meet.

This is where you come in: the request is simple and impactful, and we need your help to respond quickly. Each donation raised towards this urgent campaign will go directly towards purchasing necessities for families, prioritizing women, and child-headed households. These funds will also support volunteer Afghan women health workers to provide medical assistance in these communities.

Your support can make a profound difference during this critical time. Together, we can help these families rebuild their lives and provide essential aid to those who need it most.

Watching Shabana Shine


As the sun rises over Parwan District in Afghanistan, 8-year-old Shabana wakes and joins her parents and eight siblings for breakfast. The day will be busy as usual, as Shabana helps her mother and prepares herself for school. But Shabana relishes it.

As a young girl, she didn’t know if she would ever get the opportunity to attend school because there were simply no options nearby. Instead, Shabana spent her days helping with chores and tending the family’s cattle. But when Central Asia Institute opened a classroom in her community, it was her father who made sure Shabana got registered.

Families play an important role in education

Shabana’s father, a shopkeeper who travels frequently for work, has been an enthusiastic supporter of her education. He knows how critical education is for ensuring a bright future for his children. And the efforts are already bearing fruit. Shabana’s teacher praises her work ethic and excitement for learning. Her reading comprehension is growing daily, and she is mastering new skills in writing and math.

For Central Asia Institute, family and community involvement is a key part of a holistic education. Our partners in Afghanistan have worked hard to create, train, and support community councils that give parents and families the opportunity to be closely involved with their children’s schools. The strong parent-teacher relationship means that children can transition smoothly from home to school, and teachers can more easily understand and support challenges that arise in a child’s life.

Students in a CAI supported school

Students in a CAI supported school.

It takes a (global) village to move the needle on education

 When Shabana and her classmates depart at the end of their school day, they take home their artwork and worksheets to share with their families. Being enrolled in CAI’s school has become a point of pride for the students and their families, and the demand is high for more classrooms in the community. With the generosity and dedication of CAI supporters, we are working hard to meet this demand and continue our lasting investment in these rural communities. Thank you!

Students in a CAI supported school

Students in a CAI supported school

Event Report: An Evening in Vermont

This August, roughly two years after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Central Asia Institute hosted an intimate discussion on the future of Afghan women and girls. Situated at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont, the panel featured three incredible women, and drew an audience of more than 100. As the state with the highest number of Afghan refugees per capita, the group of Vermonters and Afghan Vermonters remained deeply engaged throughout the evening.

The event kicked off with a review of scenes from the Frontline docuseries “America and the Taliban,” with live commentary from our guest panelist, Frontline producer Marcela Gaviria. Sharing her insights from more than two decades reporting on Afghanistan, she set the scene for a deep discussion on how women and girls are faring under current restrictions.

Moderated by Vermont Public Radio’s Mikaela Lefrak, the panel discussion began with a focus on panelist Judge Anisa Rasooli, who had only recently arrived in Vermont. Judge Rasooli has been called the RBG of Afghanistan due to her accomplishment of being the first woman appointed to the Afghan Supreme Court.

Panelists from event in Vermont

The panel was rounded out by the third and final panelist, Sediqa Fahimi. Having grown up in a rural village of Afghanistan and not received any formal schooling until the age of 9, Sediqa seized the opportunities availed in the 2000s. She went on to become a Fulbright scholar, earn a Masters, and started her own nonprofit. Since evacuating Afghanistan in 2021, she has continued her important work in the nonprofit sector.

While Central Asia Institute program teams and partners are engaged in crucial work to move the needle on education and girls’ empowerment in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, our communications and development teams are honored to be able to keep the conversation moving beyond borders. As coverage of Afghanistan inevitably wanes after this two-year anniversary mark, we hope to continue shining a light on the girls and women in this region who are counting on the world to pay attention.

Our next event is coming up in Chicago on October 25th. This event will be both in person and virtual, so be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for the full announcement!

And, we want to hear from you! Is there an event in your hometown that CAI should be a part of? Would you attend a CAI event? Let us know in the comments or by reaching out to info@centralasiainstitute.org

Sulhiya’s Story - Tajikistan

Growing up in the Gorno Badakhshan region of Tajikistan, Sulhiya was known her for compassion and outgoing personality. When she was looking for direction after graduating in 2007, her family encouraged her to pursue teaching, which was a natural fit for her skillset.

Sulhiya immediately developed a deep connection with her students and picked up on a subtle trend among many of them: She noticed that students were embarrassed about their uniforms, which had become tattered with overuse. She also knew that she could help.

Sulhiya - teacher in Tajikistan

Sulhiya was an experienced tailor with a passion for sewing. As a teenager, she would often mend clothes for herself, her family, and friends.

Although she had the desire to help, and the necessary skills, Sulhiya struggled to figure out how she could focus on sewing uniforms while also managing a demanding teaching schedule. Because she was vocal about her vision, she was soon connected to Central Asia Institute-Tajikistan (CAIT). When she attended their first Business Literacy training, all the pieces began to fall into place. The CAIT program provided Sulhiya with the necessary equipment to get started, and the business acumen to see it to fruition.

Energized by her initial progress, Sulhiya worked with CAIT to apply for and attend further training through Accelerate Prosperity in Dushanbe.

Sulhiya’s sewing projects

Today, Sulhiya owns a sewing workshop in Porshinev village of Shugnan District. Her main outputs were initially traditional dresses. However, during the past few years she was working alongside CAIT she expanded her services to include producing high-quality and long-lasting school uniforms helping the children she used to teach.

She is incredibly grateful for her education in entrepreneurship and continues to use the skills she learnt to help her business grow and benefit her community. When asked about her next steps Sulhiya is excited to start formally branding her business, learn digital marketing, and create more jobs for women and girls.



Sign up to receive updates and stories from the field.

Privacy Statement | Copyright 2024 Central Asia Institute. All rights reserved.  Site Map
CAI is a U.S.-registered nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, EIN #51-0376237. Contributions are tax-deductible in the U.S.