Fereshteh Forough founded the first female coding school in Afghanistan in 2015. When the Taliban took over in 2021, the school was forced underground.
HANOVER, NH — In 2015, an Afghan woman living in New Hampshire launched the first all-female coding school for young women in her native country called Code To Inspire.
Fereshteh Forough understands well that “great things can come from empty hands.”
As an Afghan refugee, born in Iran to a large family, it was Forough’s mother who taught herself to sew to earn money to afford her daughters’ education, which gave Forough her entrepreneurial spirit.
Forough went to high school in Iran. A year after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she returned to her parents’ hometown of Herat, where she attended college.
“I hated computer science at the beginning,” Forough said with a smile.
A general exam matched the young refugee with computer science. At the behest of her parents, she stuck with it, despite very few females being in her program.
“It challenged you to come up with a solution, and you could create something that you own. That sense of ownership and creativity actually made me really excited,” Forough said.
She graduated from Herat University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and then earned her master’s degree in Berlin before returning back to Herat to teach at the University.
She faced discrimination and threats as a professor, just as she had when she was a student herself. After three years of teaching, she moved to the US
With her native country on her mind, in 2015 she launched Code To Inspire: a one-year afterschool program for young women up to 25-years-old.
Their physical school in Herat offered free laptops and free classes to girls teaching them graphic design, mobile ad design, blockchain, and more. Two hundred students started graduated from the school, and doors to open for Afghan girls in the tech sector, with 60 percent of their graduates finding jobs in the community. Other students found freelance jobs online. Many began earning more income than the men in their families.
All was going well until the Taliban took over the country in 2021, bringing a halt to the education, health, and human rights for girls and women across the country.
“The day that I woke up and I saw the videos of Taliban walking in the city in all those places that I used to walk, it was very heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking to see that we are losing everything,” Forough said.
Students like 18-year-old Kawsar, whose last name has been withheld to protect her identity, felt like their careers and dreams were over.
“When the Taliban took the country and came, first I lost my hope. I thought that I was never going to be able to get any education,” Kawsar said from her home in Afghanistan over a virtual interview.
Forough moved quickly. She closed the physical school to keep girls and staff safe but opened classes online. The school laptops for girls who did not have them, made sure purchased their students had internet access and has continued to keep the school afloat underground.
“After that when our classes started again online … I told myself I shouldn’t lose my hope and I should fight for my dreams,” Kawsar says.
According to Forough, 80 percent of students have continued to attend Code To Inspire online, despite the personal risks they could face if the Taliban were to find out.
Since the Taliban takeover, the already struggling country has faced sanctions, an abrupt cutoff of foreign aid, loss of professionals who have fled the country, and is teetering on the brink of an economic collapse.
Once again, Code To Inspire has stepped in and is providing financial assistance to students in need through cryptocurrencies as a safe way to send money.
Despite all the setbacks, Forough has remained hopeful.
“Where there is ruin, there was hope for a treasure. And for me, being born as a refugee, and Afghanistan always being a war-torn country, always having these dark images of Afghanistan that it’s a ruined land but you always can find something meaningful and valuable even in the ruins,” Forough said.
For Forough, the hope of a bright future in Afghanistan is in the hands of the women there.