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She’s the Change

Groundbreaker Adela Raz ’08 steps up as Afghanistan’s first female Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has a new permanent representative (a.k.a., ambassador) to the United Nations: Adela Raz ’08. Appointed in January 2019, Ambassador Raz arrived in New York City in March to begin her three-year term. Fittingly for Afghanistan’s first female U.N. ambassador, Raz presented her credentials to Secretary-General António Guterres on International Women’s Day. The fact that she is blazing this trail at just 32 surprises no one who knew Raz from her student days.

Raz came to Simmons in 2004 on a full scholarship in partnership with the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women (IEAW), a U.S.-based nonprofit working to change the paradigm for women in the Central Asian nation, roughly the size of Texas. Then 18 years old, Raz had never been away from home and—thanks to the Taliban’s restrictive policy on girls’ schooling—hadn’t been in a classroom in five years. That didn’t mean her education had ceased, however: She had taken classes in a secret home school, one of the many that sprang up under the Taliban. She eventually took on the dangerous duty of running her own home school in her family’s living room. Nevertheless, now in Boston, she was faced with playing scholastic catch up 7,200 miles from her family in a strange country and even stranger culture. 

“It wasn’t easy,” recalls Raz. “I remember my first day of classes. I went to ‘Political Theory,’ and I had no idea what was discussed—not even a single word. English was not my first language. The rate of speech was much too fast for me to follow,” notes Raz, who also speaks Pashto and Dari. “After class, I went back to my room to do the reading, which was 100 or so pages. I got out my dictionary and started. It took me one hour to read two or three pages. I thought ‘I’m going to fail.’”

Raz had left her widowed mother and three younger brothers back home in Kabul. Since her father’s death, Raz had worked full time to help support the family. Her mother sent her to Simmons over the objections of her extended family, who predicted that the young Adela would be corrupted by American ways. (“In Afghanistan, the image of America comes from Hollywood movies,” she explains.) Failure was not an option.

Overcoming Obstacles

The next day, Raz went to Simmons’ international students office and explained her predicament. “They were so kind,” she remembers. “They got me a tape recorder so I could tape my classes. I spoke to my professors to get permission. They were all very supportive. It was the best decision I made. I would listen to the lectures six or seven times and write everything down in my notebook. As a result, I missed nothing. I remembered everything the professors said. I got straight As in all my classes.”

That, in a nutshell, illustrates Raz’s approach to life: Encounter an obstacle; engineer a solution around it. She used this strategy to pursue a triple major in international relations, political science, and economics, and then earn a master’s in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She worked with the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan from 2002-2004, and in 2010 covered the Afghanistan portfolio at an economic development organization in Washington, D.C. In 2013, she was appointed as the first female deputy spokesperson and director of communications for President Hamid Karzai. Following the election of President Ashraf Ghani in 2014, Raz was named chief of staff for the Administrative Office of the President. In 2016, she became deputy minister for economic cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a post she held until January.

“We are at a critical time, politically and economically. We have a lot on our agenda: security, economic development, environmental issues. And women’s issues are also very close to my heart.” —Ambassador Adela Raz ’08

Raz, who received the University’s Recent Alumna Achievement Award in 2017, credits Simmons with giving her a firm foundation. “I was very lucky to end up at Simmons,” she reflects. “I had wonderful classmates, professors and administrative staff who were like family to me.” That adopted family helped Raz navigate some very bumpy passages. “Sharing a room with someone I didn’t know was a new experience for me. I roomed with another student from Afghanistan, Palwasha Mirbacha ’08,” who was also at Simmons through IEAW. “She is my best friend now. But we were both going through a lot of adjustments.” For Raz, that included food. “At home, I was used to having warm meals. I had a hard time adjusting to cold things like sandwiches, wraps and salads. For the longest time, the only things I could eat were eggs, pizza and French fries.” 

And then there were the awkward questions from classmates based on their limited knowledge of Afghanistan. These ranged from the innocuous, “Do you have ice cream?” to the downright jarring: “Where is Osama bin Laden?” “I would tell people, ‘We hate him as much as you do. He’s not from Afghanistan, he was never from Afghanistan.” (Bin Laden was a Saudi citizen who was killed in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALS during a May 2011 raid.)

Building Confidence

In those early months in particular, Raz lived for the weekends when she could call home. “Every call would start with a huge cry,” she recalls. And, so far from home, there was only so much her family could do. She recounts consulting her mother when she had to declare a major. “‘I have to make a decision,’ I told her. ‘What would you suggest?’ She said to me, ‘Look, I’m not there, I really have no idea. You need make your own decision.’”

As hard as that was to hear, situations like that forced Raz to make her own way, which eventually bred confidence. “That’s what a women’s school does to you,” she reflects. “It makes you very strong in your own skin. Even now, my husband jokes when he sees a very strong feminist reaction from me. ‘Oh, Simmons…’ he’ll say.” 

Reflecting on experiences in and out of the classroom, Raz says, “I learned so much. I liked the educational environment, the independence, the respect for different ideas and thoughts. I felt like a thirsty person who was left in a river to drink as much as I could. I knew it was such a short time—I had to do as much as I could. My time at Simmons was full of academic activities.” Her biggest luxuries were occasionally going to a nearby fast-food Indian restaurant, getting ice cream or going to the movies. “Other than that, I was at school and in the library. I would stay there every night until they kicked me out. Then I would come back to my dorm and study until 2 or 3 a.m.” With that work ethic, Raz graduated a semester early with a 3.9 GPA, despite the challenge of a triple major.

Future Focused

Now at the United Nations, Raz draws on that work ethic once again as she considers the issues in front of Afghanistan. “We are at a critical time, politically and economically. We have a lot on our agenda: security, economic development, environmental issues. And women’s issues are also very close to my heart.” The latter includes education and assisting women in developing sustainable work and participating in society. Ambassador Raz is hopeful for the future, citing the positive changes she sees in her country. “When I came to Simmons, you couldn’t get an international flight from Afghanistan. You had to fly to Pakistan first and then on to Zurich. Now, you can pull out your phone and call a travel agent who can book you a ticket from Kabul to Dubai or Turkey or India.”

The availability of smart phones and the internet are also game changers. “When I came to the U.S., there were no smart phones in Afghanistan. Today, 90 percent of people have access to phones, and a large number to smart phones that can easily be connected to the internet. Afghanistan also has the most free media in the region,” she continues. “There are no restrictions by the government at all.” Raz is justifiably proud of her country’s hard-won progress. “We’re competitive, free and independent. This has not been easy, and it would not have been possible without the support of the international community. These are shared gains and shared achievements.”

Raz is also happy to see the narrative on Afghanistan shifting. On a recent trip abroad, “when people would ask, ‘Where are you from?’ and I would say, ‘Afghanistan,’ they would say, ‘Oh, Rashid Khan!’ —he’s a very famous cricket player. Or ‘Oh, the Afghan Women’s Orchestra!’ It’s nice to see how that image has changed.”

Looking ahead, Raz certainly sees more work but she also sees more reason for optimism. “I get my inspiration from the generation younger than me—those in their early 20s. They are dynamic, determined and informed. They are connected and aware. They are educated and they have opinions. This generation makes me hopeful. They are the new Afghanistan.”

Raz is eager for that new Afghanistan—particularly for her two-year-old daughter, Gauharshat (which means “jewel”). “People say, ‘Look, she might be the first woman president.’ I don’t disagree, but I hope she won’t be first woman president,” Raz says with a laugh. Among the wisdom the elder Raz will impart to her daughter is a universal truth for women around the world: “As a woman in a higher position, you will need work much harder because you are not expected to do well. So, you have to work that much harder to prove everyone wrong.”