CC Magazine welcomes your Class Notes submissions. Please include your name, class year, email, and physical address for verification purposes. Please note that CC Magazine reserves the right to edit for space and clarity. Thank you.
Humanitarian Dana Hartman Freyer ’65 reflects on the plight and resilience of the Afghan people.
By Melissa Babcock Johnson
he first time Dana Hartman Freyer ’65 passed through Afghanistan, in 1972, it was a different place.
The now-retired attorney and international arbitrator became enamored with the country while working in her first job after graduating from Connecticut College. She served for three and a half years as the assistant to the Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations, Abdul Rahman Pazhwak, who was also voted in as president of the U.N.’s General Assembly.
“I fell in love with the country through that experience and that exposure,” Freyer said. “I loved the beauty that I saw from afar, and there was a spirituality about the Afghan people—who are poets and writers and storytellers—that intrigued me. And there was a mystery about the country.”
At the time, Freyer remembers, many Americans had not even heard of Afghanistan. But she couldn’t wait to go.
After graduating from Columbia Law School and working as a legal services lawyer for a year, Freyer suggested to her husband, Bruce, a rabbi, that they take time off and drive to Afghanistan from Europe in 1972. At first, he thought she was crazy, she said, but he came around. They bought a Volkswagen Beetle in Germany and hit the road.
The goal was to spend as much time as possible in Afghanistan and then head to Nepal to meet with friends Freyer had made while studying in Geneva her junior year at Conn. The couple crossed Europe, Turkey and Iran.
“In Iran, we had a little bit of a detour because I found out that I was pregnant, which wasn’t part of the planned itinerary,” Freyer said with a chuckle.
In the early 1970s, Afghanistan was still a constitutional monarchy. Radical Islamic fundamentalism wouldn’t take hold in the region until after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Women were doctors, lawyers and nurses and rode bikes to school, Freyer recalled.
“In the countryside, culturally it was very traditional,” she said, “but one of the hallmarks of the Afghan culture is hospitality, and so everybody’s doors were open.”
The Freyers’ Volkswagen Beetle traversed “every Jeepable road” and the couple saw large swathes of the country over a month.
“That trip seared Afghanistan into our souls,” she added. “It was such a beautiful country. Poor, but people were fed, families supported each other.”
And then war came.
DECADES OF TURMOIL
In 1979, the Soviets invaded, and many of Freyer’s Afghan friends were forced to flee.
“They came to the U.S. as refugees with just the clothes on their backs,” Freyer said. “We helped them settle in. And we watched as their country fell apart into civil war over the next 20 years.”
Since then, Freyer has dedicated much of her life to helping the Afghan people both on the ground and from afar, especially after 2012 when security became a major challenge. That work continues today through her involvement with numerous organizations, including Welcome.US, a resettlement program sponsored by the government in partnership with businesses, organizations and communities.
“Individuals and communities all over the country are participating in Welcome.US, and it’s a wonderful way to support Afghans,” Freyer said. The program is now being extended to refugees from Ukraine and elsewhere.
Recently, Freyer’s extended family helped a young Afghan man who came to the United States to find a job, apply for Social Security, get his driver’s license and acclimate to his new home. He was eligible for a special immigration visa because he is one of thousands of Afghan Allies, the term for people who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government and are therefore targeted by the Taliban for retribution. Freyer is currently working to help other Afghans and their families obtain this special visa and find other pathways to a better, safer life.
Additionally, Freyer is a member of the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council, a nonpartisan group that convenes governments, civil society and the private sector to support education, healthcare, economic empowerment and leadership for Afghan women and girls. She also serves on the board of Relief International, which works in 16 of the world’s most conflict-ridden, economically impoverished countries to provide education, healthcare, nutrition, sanitation and economic opportunities for families.
In Afghanistan, a tumultuous decade and a half of civil war eventually led to the rise and rule of the Taliban, which established a totalitarian government based on strict Sharia law in 1996 and severely limited freedoms, particularly for women and girls. The economic situation was dire for many, and in 2000, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution recognizing the humanitarian crisis in the country.
Then the Twin Towers fell.
BACK TO AFGHANISTAN
In 2001, Freyer was a partner at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Manhattan, specializing in international arbitration and corporate compliance. Her office overlooked the World Trade Center, and for weeks after 9/11, she watched the rubble smoke. Afghanistan was at war again, but a silver lining was that the Taliban had fallen and many Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran could return home.
Freyer, Bruce and two Afghan American friends discussed how they could help returning refugees rebuild their agriculture-driven economy. The biggest need, Freyer said, was to restore fruit and nut orchards, wood lots and other small farm businesses on which millions of Afghans had depended for their livelihoods.
In 2002, the group formed the nonprofit Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA) to enable this rebuilding. The launch sent Freyer to Afghanistan for a second time, in 2003.
“That was a very traumatic trip because the country was totally destroyed,” Freyer said. “I literally cried when I arrived at Kabul airport and witnessed the widespread devastation.”
The animal herds that dotted the countryside in 1972 were gone, as were the trees and greenery of the once-bountiful agricultural country.
“There was nothing for the herds to forage on to sustain them,” Freyer said. “Everything was destroyed—schools, homes, hospitals, the financial and legal systems. The country had to be rebuilt brick by brick.”
In 2004, Freyer and Bruce visited a village north of Kabul that had been the front line of the battle between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
“De-miners were still camped out at the base of the village and there were red crosses marking where you couldn’t go because they hadn’t de-mined there yet,” Freyer remembers.
The village’s school was a UNICEF tent with no chairs or books. Students sat on the ground. But in one room of the tattered tent was a table with a vase of plastic flowers. That symbol of hope stuck with Freyer, she said.
One day, a young boy carrying two buckets of water from the well on his shoulder approached Bruce and said, “Hello, what’s your name?” in English. Bruce returned the greeting and learned the boy’s name was Wali and he was almost 8 years old. Wali had spent the first seven years of his life in a refugee camp in Pakistan and had learned English from the aid workers, and it was his dream to attend college in the U.S.
“We wanted to help him realize his dream,” Freyer said.
Over the following years, the Freyers sent Wali books and arranged for him to take English classes in Kabul. When he was 16, Wali graduated from his high school in rural Afghanistan and, with the Freyers’ help, went on to attend King’s Academy in Madaba, Jordan. While he was there—unbeknownst to the Freyers—he met a Conn admission representative, applied and was accepted. He majored in computer science and graduated from Conn in 2019. He now works as a software engineer for eBay and lives in New York City.
“He’s a full-fledged member of our family and spends all his holidays and vacations with us,” Freyer said.
Freyer attributes much of her success to her own mentor from Conn, the late Marjorie Dilley, who was head of the Government and International Relations Department during Freyer’s years on campus.
“She taught me how to write, she taught me how to debate, she taught me how to advocate. She taught me almost all of the tools that have helped me in life,” Freyer said. “She was one of several professors who were really transformative in terms of helping shape the person I am today.”
'MOST PAINFUL GUT PUNCH'
After 20 years of being repressed, the Taliban reclaimed control of Kabul in August 2021, after the U.S. withdrew the last of its troops.
“It was like the most painful gut punch you could ever imagine for me and so many. Everything the Afghan people had worked for, for years, was taken out from under them,” Freyer said.
Daily life quickly became a nightmare for Afghans, especially women, girls and the country’s youth, who had spent their entire lives at war but had never lived under (or were too young to remember) the previous Taliban rule. According to the U.N., about 63% of Afghanistan’s population is younger than 25. Most had been able to attend school and university, including many of the girls. They saw women holding leadership positions in the government, as judges, ministers and parliamentarians, Freyer pointed out.
“They faced many of the same challenges that women face in this country and other countries,” Freyer said, “but progress was incredible, and that’s what that generation knew.”
The Taliban forbids education for women and girls after primary school, giving Freyer another reason to despair. In 2008, she and Bruce had begun supporting what became, in 2016, the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan, the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA). It was co-founded by Shabana Basij-Rasikh, who had suffered under the earlier Taliban occupation, and the late Ted Achilles, an American businessman who moved to Afghanistan in 2001.
Basij-Rasikh’s family had dressed her as a boy so she could attend school and escort her older sister. She had also attended secret schools that arose in defiance of the Taliban’s rule. She made her way to a public high school in the U.S. as an exchange student, graduated summa cum laude from Middlebury College and vowed that her life’s mission would be to educate Afghan girls.
In August 2021, approximately 100 girls from 28 of the 32 provinces in Afghanistan were attending SOLA in Kabul, a learning environment Freyer describes as “phenomenal” and theretofore nonexistent in Afghanistan.
SOLA was planning a permanent campus in Kabul with the hope that the Class of 2022 would be the campus’s first graduating class. Instead, students and staff were forced to flee the Taliban takeover. Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, agreed to provide a safe haven for the school.
“So nearly 250 members of SOLA’s school community were evacuated amid the widely televised chaos and horrors at the Kabul airport in mid-August 2021,” Freyer said. “They managed to get to Rwanda and within a few days they were attending classes on their new campus.”
SOLA is the only physically functioning school where Afghan girls can receive a secondary education. Freyer, who visited the students at their new campus last fall and serves on SOLA’s advisory board, said she was so impressed by their drive for education and their resiliency.
“Most of them continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress, especially because their families are still in Afghanistan,” she said. “Yet they are so committed not only to their studies and to going to university but also to helping their families, including sisters who are still in Afghanistan and currently don’t have a pathway to educational opportunity and to safety.
“As Shabana often says, ‘Educated girls become educated women who change the world.’”
Freyer hopes the school and the students will one day be able to return to Afghanistan. But even if they can’t, she’s committed to helping them and their fellow refugees to flourish.
“Afghans are among the world’s most hospitable and resilient people,” Freyer said. “They want for their families what we want for our families: a good education, health, a safe home and enough food to eat. Afghan families arriving in the U.S under the refugee resettlement programs work hard to quickly become wholly self-sufficient; it is miraculous how quickly they succeed. They, like other refugees, just need a helping hand, and there are many opportunities for Americans to provide that.”