Fereshteh Forough founded Code to Inspire to empower Afghan women with skills in technology and entrepreneurship — all from her laptop in New York City.
Fereshteh Forough: “I was born in a small town at the border of Iran and Afghanistan.
My greatest inspiration has been my mother, who would make dresses to support our education. I believe that sometimes great things can start with empty hands. I grew up in a family of eight kids. Living life in a place where they treat you as an unwanted guest was not a pleasant experience. Even access to basic rights like education was blocked by obstacles.
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, my family had to leave the small town with empty hands and go to Iran. My mother was entrepreneur at heart, and she taught me how to be an entrepreneur and make the best out of the least.
Life for an Afghan woman is a struggle at every inch and every trench; we are all fighting for our own basic rights in ways that women in many Western cultures wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) ever think about: laughing out loud, speaking openly in public, grabbing coffee with friends.
Despite all the odds, I am happy to be a woman from Afghanistan. It gives me strength to appreciate opportunities (even smallest ones), to fight against all odds with patience and tolerance, and to never give up. When you fight the most difficult struggles, it codes you with passion to win and inspire.
In high school, I majored in literature. I never thought about pursuing a career or degree in computer science or technology. However, when we moved to Afghanistan from Iran, where I’d been a refugee, I participated in the university’s general exam. To my surprise, the school selected computer science for me. I really didn’t want to go to university and do it, but then my parents said, ‘Just go, it’s a skill everyone’s looking for now.’
The first day I went to the class, we were taught mathematics. I thought, “Oh my god, this is the wrong place for me to be.”
Initially, I thought, I would come for a week and see and then I would decide whether to study computer science. The class was an introduction to programming and algorithms. Algorithms were intriguing. I found it was like an alien language, and it captured my interest to the core. I ended up completing the degree in computer science.
During my life journey in education, there were many ups and downs which led me to think about how to improve the status quo of education for women in Afghanistan and specifically in technology. It is difficult for female graduates with Computer Science degrees to find jobs. Familial and societal expectations of women stunt their career opportunities. The majority of the families prefer that their daughter become a teacher, because it is a respected, well-paying job in the community where women only work with other women.
As a female graduate in Computer Science, if you get a job offer outside of your hometown, the majority of families would not let you leave the city. Safety and security is one reason. Young women can’t even walk outside, whether alone or with a male companion. Not many families can afford to purchase plane tickets for their daughters and it is not part of our culture for a girl to live in another city by herself, unless she has a close and trusted family member to live with her.
As a female entrepreneur in technology, I have also experienced how difficult it is to deal with male customers. When a woman says, “Hey, I can design a website for your company or develop software or applications that will help your business”, they reply: “We don’t think a woman can do that!”
But as a woman I love coding. I believe that if knowledge is power, then coders will inherit the earth.
I established Code to Inspire (CTI) as a social good enterprise in early 2015. Later that year, in November, we opened the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan. Our goal was to educate Afghan women with in-demand programming skills, empower them to add unique value to their communities, and inspire them to strive for financial and social independence.
After earning a master’s degree in Berlin, Germany, I went back to Afghanistan. I worked as a professor at Herat University until the Taliban threatened my life. I moved to the U.S. and now live in New York City. In the process, I learned how to be a global citizen and – more importantly – a human being working alongside others without the constraints of tags or labels to create an empowered, inclusive global community.
There are general beliefs that refugees are taking jobs from Americans and stealing opportunities, or that they are a burden on the community. I code, I prove them wrong.
I founded Code to Inspire as the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan while sitting at a laptop in Brooklyn. Everything that was developed in Herat, Afghanistan, happened literally online: fundraising, shipping equipment, recruiting mentors, registering applicants, and curriculum development. This is the power and connectivity I am talking about. It enabled a refugee who was deprived of access to an education and allows her to literally make her dream come true. It gave free access to technical and digital literacy to the women back home!
It has been four years since I began to shape my life in New York City. People say it is the land of opportunity, a place to achieve your “American Dream.” But I believe it doesn’t matter where you are or what you have. It’s only important to know who you want to be. My “Afghan Dream” stays close with me wherever I am.
Life is fast and competitive in New York City. Everything just started on a piece of paper. It has been one year and half since I have started to work on Code to Inspire. Keeping an organization sustainable and successful is a difficult responsibility. While making my “Afghan Dream” a reality, I took a side job teaching Farsi. This was to make ends meet, but also because part of me will always be a teacher. Due to travel limitations that were restrictive even before recent events made it nearly impossible, I haven’t been able to visit my family for four years. There were many times I cried. There were many times I wanted to give up, throw in the towel, and catch the next flight home to Afghanistan. But then, I think of the girls who are going to school with bare feet in Afghanistan’s mountains. I thought of many girls who sit outside during the hot summer, in the rain and snow to learn and to change their lives. I can only fight for those girls through the power of the Internet and through the safety of my refugee status that keeps me so painfully far away.
Although I have faced too many discriminations to count, and too many that a single person should bear, I will not let my gender and ethnic background hold me back. I believe that being a minority is not a disadvantage: instead, I use it to show what I can do, and to achieve what I want by ensuring access to equal resources.
Sometimes you don’t have the available resources to succeed, but as a refugee, I learned to be scrappy and resourceful. I learned to make the best out of everything and it has gotten me this far. Opportunities will not come to you, you need to create them!
Women the world over do not need sympathy. We need understanding. Men must empathize with the female experience and better grasp how the community can stand with women for equal treatment. This is what I am doing for our students in Afghanistan. I want them to be bold, courageous. I want them to be visionaries and agents of change.
All of our students at CTI are proving that CHANGE IS POSSIBLE. No matter who or where you are!
Rumi said: “Where there is ruin, there is hope for great treasure.”
From the ruins of a shattered nation and shattered lives of refugee comes treasure, if we know where to find it.”