Outspoken and motivated, incoming LLM student Humira Noorestani hails from a community of young Afghan-Americans who long to rehabilitate a homeland they have never lived in. A homeland alive in the memories of the Afghani diaspora who fled as their beloved cities became theatres of the cold war.
For Noorestani, Charlie Wilson's war was a family affair. Her father, a determined opponent of the communist regime, served two years in Afghanistan's harshest prison for staging a coup in the late 1970s. He moved to the United States after his release and worked closely with President Reagan to evict the Russians from Afghanistan. Noorestani, born in the U.S., grew up as part of a large Afghan community in Virginia.
Politicized from a young age, she became an ardent advocate for Afghan causes. In high school, she volunteered to help with educational programs, which included doing voiceovers for the first Afghan Sesame Street. When Afghanistan became the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy after 9/11, she started the first Afghan club at American University and held events such as "Who the Taliban Are."
But Afghanistan, itself, remained off-limits. "My father who had returned to work with the Afghan government kept telling us it wasn't safe," she says. In spite of his objections, Noorestani and her mother took a three-week trip to the country in 2004. The degree of destruction she encountered was shocking.
The Kabul crafted by her parents' stories – a cosmopolitan city where her father, sporting a Beatles haircut had courted her mother, dressed like Jacqueline Kennedy – lay in ruins. Poverty greeted her everywhere, even the cemetery housing her grandfather's grave. "It was heartbreaking to see children begging, fighting to sell us water in 105 degree weather," she says.
When she returned stateside, Noorestani launched Ariana Outreach, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of rural Afghans but mostly serving as the first Afghan-run advocacy organization on Capitol Hill. Noorestani felt that she needed access to capital and policy-makers to accomplish her humanitarian goals. A law education offered a route to both.
"The law profession is revered among Afghans," she says, and while her parents supported her decision, they were not keen about her attending American University in Kyrgyzstan.
Noorestani had hit upon the idea while visiting her father in neighboring Kazakhstan, where he was working as a diplomat.
Attending AU would not only allow her to earn a law degree, but also gain valuable international experience and learn the Russian language. Eventually, she convinced her parents, but her friends remained skeptical. "They said I would come back in two month and couldn't handle living in a third world country, but I stuck it out," she says.
Near the end of her final year, Noorestani sensed that the country was heading towards major upheaval. Utility bills tripled, then quadrupled over the course of months, and even with her American dollars, she "felt a big pinch." Anger over increased living expenses was palpable and whispers about civil unrest got louder.
One April morning, she awoke to find Bishkek under siege. The president had imposed a state of emergency and police were arresting opposition leaders. In response, protestors stormed one of the military training centers, which stood next to her apartment building. Noorestani recalled seeing thousands of people gathered outside, shots being fired and strangers wandering the building's hallways, drunk. There came a point when she accepted that she might die.
Many foreign diplomats and aid workers left as protests continued, but she stayed put and pushed through her thesis because she did not want to delay graduation. Despite repeated school closures, she managed to finish in June.
As a Human Rights Fellow at Penn, Noorestani will pursue a master's in law. Having spent two years studying international human rights law, she plans to now focus on business law, with a specialization in oil and gas law. Not only will this create lucrative work opportunities, but it may also give her leverage to pursue humanitarian work, especially in Nuristan, her family's ancestral home.
An isolated region in Afghanistan with virtually no schools or healthcare facilities, Nuristan was initially Ariana Outreach's top priority. Recent skirmishes with the Taliban led UN forces to withdraw and Noorestani realized that working there required massive amounts of support and security. Although she has shifted focus to expanding outreach efforts in the U.S., she is optimistic about working in Nuristan someday because the locals trust and respect her family. "I have always thought that if any Afghan could make a difference in Nuristan, it could be me."