Marzia Zafarzada Bahir, Arezo Qanif and Hasina Safi, all traveling from Afghanistan, were scheduled to begin their 2010 Leadership Training program with local nonprofit Institute for Circlework on Thursday.
But Safi was the only one of the three to successfully have her visa request approved and be able to attend the training program.
She was also the only guest speaker at Saturday’s Circlework meeting at the Tikkun Reform Temple in Lansing.
Jalaja Bonheim, the president of Circlework, said Bahir and Qanif have not been informed of the reasoning behind their rejection.
“For months they tried to get a visa,” Bonheim said. “The U.S. embassy never favored them with a response.”
The three women are members of the Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella organization in Afghanistan that works to empower and educate women.
The event’s sponsoring organization, Circlework, is an organization that has provided leadership training based on the idea of having a circle of support since 2001 and that has worked on sponsoring these support circles for Israeli and Palestinian women since 2005.
About 100 attendees welcomed Safi, the executive director of the Afghan Women’s Education Center and board member for the AWN, and sought to learn more about her work in Afghanistan.
Alice Saltonstall, who sang as part of the event, said the timing of Safi’s visit was fitting because of the continued political issues plaguing the country.
“It’s such a poignant time to have someone from Afghanistan come to our country,” she said.
Safi said she wanted to speak about what the conditions in Afghanistan are — and that her message was not a political commentary. She said people hear enough about the political workings of the nation on the news.
“I don’t want to start from politics,” Safi said. “I just want to talk about reality.”
Safi spoke about her work with the AWE, which offers vocational and small business training and education about civic rights. It has grown from a small nonprofit — originally based in Pakistan to serve female Afghan refugees in the early ’90s — to serve seven provinces in Afghanistan currently with the potential for growth.
“We are working for the self-sufficiency and empowerment of women from literacy to advocacy,” Safi said. “We have to take risks. No one else will do it for us.”
She said progress has certainly been made since the Taliban was forced out of power but that there is much left to achieve.
“In the last eight years, women have moved a little bit,” Safi said. “In these eight years, we have opened a small hole of light. We want to make that hole a window.”
When asked about her family, she said her husband had always been supportive of her work. She said her family has come to believe in her message and understand it stems from the purest hope of bettering the lives of future generations.
“I want my daughters to have better than me,” Safi said.
Jayne Demakos, another singer at the event, said she was inspired by Safi’s speech so much that she had to pause for composure before explaining the chant she was leading directly after Safi spoke.
“My heart is slightly arrested from hearing you,” Demakos said.
Cornell University senior Stephanie Ponce attended the event as an executive board member of Cornell’s Afghan Women’s Advocacy group. She said it was eye-opening to see Safi talk about the same goals she wants to achieve.
“We personally help fund [Safi’s] project,” Ponce said. “I’m really excited to have seen her.”
Bonheim said she became aware of Safi’s work via an e-mail requesting more information about Circlework’s programs for leadership development. She said Circlework began requesting donations on its website in June for its Afghan Women’s Project — a sponsorship initiative Bonheim started to raise the funds needed for Safi, Bahir and Qanif to travel to the U.S.
Cara Stone, a former Circlework participant and leader of her own support circle, said the mission of Circlework has the potential to change lives.
“It’s helping heal this planet and heal our relationships,” Stone said. “It can be such a revolutionary thing.”
Safi said she has benefited from the Circlework training after just two days and feels a deep connection with other community members.
“I feel like I’ve known them for the last two decades,” Safi said.
Safi said her goal is something to be supported by — and not in conflict with — Islam’s tenants and she has had a substantial following. She said many are beginning to understand the power available to women beyond their care of the domestic sphere.
“If [Muhammad’s] wife was a business woman 1400 years back, can I not be a business woman today?” she said.