Get to know our summer intern: Rida

Each summer, Central Asia Institute welcomes students from around the country – and the world – to work as summer interns. Our internship program not only affords students the opportunity to work alongside our team and gain firsthand experience in international development and non-profit management. It also provides CAI with valuable input and support from extremely talented and accomplished young people who represent the next generation of leaders and change makers. This summer, we’re thrilled to have several very special interns joining us from Afghanistan and Pakistan who are studying at U.S. universities.  

CAI’s Executive Director, Alice Thomas, recently sat down with one of our interns, Rida, to learn more about her and what drew her to CAI’s mission of advancing education, especially for girls. 

Q: Tell us more about yourself and where you’re from.
A: I’m Rida, originally from Quetta, in Pakistan. I grew up as the eldest among my two younger siblings and was raised by a single mother. As a first-generation student, I’m humbled by the opportunity to break barriers and forge a path for my family. My upbringing in Quetta has instilled in me a deep sense of humility and community, guiding my journey as I strive to make a difference.

Quetta is located in southwestern Pakistan and is situated near the border with Afghanistan. Growing up there, I was surrounded by beautiful mountains and a rich culture. Quetta’s culture is made of different traditions, languages, and customs, all because of its diverse population and long history. The people of Quetta are renowned for their warmth and hospitality. Unfortunately, the city has faced security challenges due to its proximity to conflict zones and geopolitical tensions.

Q: What brought you to the United States?
A: I’m here in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship, pursuing a Master’s degree in International Development Studies at Ohio University. My focus is on the intersection of gender and development, exploring how global politics and collaborative efforts can effectively address pressing issues for sustainable development. Additionally, I’m passionate about leveraging technology for social impact and how we can use it to bridge the gap between global policies and grassroots initiatives to ensure that development efforts are inclusive and impactful.

I came to the United States initially as a cultural exchange ambassador at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 2018. During my semester there, I found the experience incredibly enriching and realized that I wanted to pursue further education in the U.S. That’s what led me to return.

Q: As a woman from a culturally conservative part of Pakistan, tell us what it means to you to get an education?
A: Education has been a transformative force in my life. Throughout my life, I have studied on scholarships that have granted me access to education in a society where opportunities for women are often limited. Education has served as the key to unlocking incredible academic and professional opportunities. These opportunities have enabled me to come to the United States all the way from Quetta, Pakistan to pursue my passions. It’s through education that I’ve gained the personal freedoms to shape my own future.

In Balochistan, where UNICEF reports a shocking 78 percent of girls are out of school, the urgency to address this issue is undeniable. This is why my internship at the Central Asia Institute resonates so deeply with me; it offers a direct avenue to confront this pressing challenge head-on. Drawing from my own journey and the lasting impact education has had on me, I am excited about the opportunity to utilize my skills and passion to contribute to efforts aimed at removing obstacles to education, especially those hindering girls’ access and empowerment.

Q: What are some of the challenges girls in Pakistan face that Americans might not be aware of? 
A: Well, while Americans may be familiar with some of the hurdles girls face, such as systemic lack of resources and limited educational opportunities, especially in rural areas, there are additional complexities that deserve attention. Let me share a memory from my school days that sheds light on the challenges faced by girls in Pakistan. I had a best friend, someone I’d known since the first grade. She was a remarkable girl with big dreams. I remember her vividly, always talking about Benazir Bhutto and how she aspired to be a leader like her one day. But then, in 8th grade, she told me she wouldn’t be coming to school anymore because her family had arranged her marriage. It broke my heart, not only because I was losing my friend, but also to witness her aspirations being taken away at such a young age. Here was this bright, intelligent girl with big dreams, suddenly being forced into a life she didn’t choose. 

And that’s not the only story that stays with me. I had another friend, someone who was practically a member of our family. He had a daughter, just three years old a couple of years ago. He used to talk to me about wanting to give her the same opportunities I had – a chance to study, to learn, to grow. But his hopes were dashed by the oppressive values that still prevail in our society. His family and extended relatives ridiculed at the idea of sending a girl to school, labeling it as dishonorable. Despite his best intentions, he was caught between his desire to give his daughter a better future and the weight of societal expectations.

These stories are all too common in Pakistan. They show the hurdles girls face in pursuing their education and realizing their potential. But they also fuel my determination to advocate for change and work towards a future where every girl has the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Q: What do you like most about the United States? What do you miss most about Pakistan? 
A: One of the things I appreciate most about the United States is its diversity and inclusivity. Being able to interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures has broadened my perspective and enriched my overall experience. Additionally, what I like about the United States is the vast array of opportunities it provides. Here, I’ve always felt that my voice is heard and that I have the chance to pursue opportunities based on my efforts.

Nonetheless, I do find myself missing the warmth of my homeland, as well as the strong connection to my roots and the family ties that are deeply ingrained in the culture. There’s a warmth and closeness in relationships back home that I sometimes find myself longing for. And of course, I miss the delicious Pakistani cuisine!

Take a tour of Preschool #2

As many of you will recall, Preschool #2 is located in the mountain town of Barushan in Tajikistan.  Barushan is located in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), a remote and marginalized region of the country situated among the Pamir Mountain range and some of the highest peaks in the world. One-third of GBAO’s inhabitants live in poverty. Shockingly high numbers of children are malnourished and lack access to the most basic necessities such as clean drinking water. 

Preschool No. 2, the only preschool in the village, was built in 1962. Constructed with sub-standard materials, the building quickly fell into disrepair. The walls and ceilings were sagging in places, creating a dangerous learning environment in this earthquake-prone area. The air was damp, and mold was visible in the corners.  The toilets were broken wooden outhouses with no running water. While the teachers were doing their best, they lacked the facilities, training, visual aids, and toys to support an educational process that would allow these young children to fulfill their potential as students.  

CAI stepped in to help and plans for a new school were laid. Four years later, thanks to the dedicated support of so many donors, the doors of the new Preschool #2 were opened to the community during a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony.  CAI hosted a virtual event on May 1st to celebrate the project’s completion and take our generous supporters through a tour of the finished school. We are extremely proud of the final result and hope that you will be, too!

The Old School Building

The old preschool 2 exterior
The old preschool 2 hall way

The Construction Progress

New Preschool 2 construction breaking ground
New Preschool 2 construction second floor without roof
New Preschool 2 construction interior room
New Preschool 2 construction progress exterior view

The New School is Unveiled

New preschool 2 exterior view
New preschool 2 classroom
New preschool 2 sleeping quarters
New preschool 2 kitchen

Rana Dreams Big

In the remote Rast Qol village of Afghanistan, eight-year-old Rana and her grandmother are the best of friends. After Rana tragically lost both parents in a car accident at the age of three, her grandmother became her full-time caregiver. They got by on subsistence agriculture and income from Rana’s uncle, who runs a small shop in the village. But there were simply no options for school—that is until CAI opened a community-based classroom in Rana’s village.

Since joining two years ago, Rana has flourished.

“I have learned a lot of good things. And now I can read and write!” she shared enthusiastically.

Afghan girl reading a book

Rana is one of the thousands of students who would not have been able to attend school at all without CAI and the many donors who fund our work. The school has not only provided Rana with a strong educational foundation but also increased her social support network.

In the words of her teacher, “She is a hardworking and eager learner. And since no one in her family has been formally educated, I am providing her with extra support to ensure she succeeds.” Education is the most crucial path towards change and progress for women, and that is why we are committed to supporting girls like Rana.

Kabirova’s Journey to Leadership

Kabirova’s journey is a testament to resilience. An early marriage forced her to halt her education prematurely. Eager to find ways to use her skills and contribute to her family’s income, she pursued her passion for sewing, selling her first creation for $0.18 cents. Juggling family responsibilities and her budding business, Kabirova established a sewing workshop with local backing.

Market stalls in Tajikistan

Yet, challenges persisted. It wasn’t until Kabirova enrolled in a women’s entrepreneurship training supported by CAI-Tajikistan that her vision truly blossomed. Through the training, she gained crucial financial and management skills and modern sewing techniques and equipment allowing her to propel her business to new heights. Her workshop is currently valued at USD 3,586 and employs 15 women.

“I am very proud to be one of the successful women entrepreneurs in my village who can be a good example for the next generation.”

Today, Kabirova stands as a beacon of success. She credits what she learned in CAI’s training for her achievements, emphasizing the pivotal role education plays in shaping futures. Kabirova’s story epitomizes the enormous potential of so many women in this impoverished corner of Central Asia who, provided with the right knowledge and information, have not only transformed their families’ lives but also become active participants in the region’s development.

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.



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