Educationalist Shabana Basij named National Geographic’s Rolex Explorer of 2023

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founding president of Kabul-based School of Leadership (SOLA) now in exile, has been recognized as 2023’s Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year for her courage and commitment towards educating and empowering girls and breaking barriers.

According to National Geographic, the award is given to an individual whose actions, achievements, and spirit push the boundaries of leadership in exploration, and who shows a commitment to share this knowledge with the world.

“Shabana is a gifted and accomplished leader who has dedicated her life to educating and uplifting Afghan women and girls. We are inspired by her courage and commitment to building pathways for educational access, equality, and inclusion,” said Jill Tiefenthaler, CEO of the National Geographic Society.

Born and raised in Kabul, Rasikh was only six years old when the Taliban seized power, banning girls’ education. For the next six years, Rasikh, defying the possible dangers under Taliban rule, attended a secret school in the capital.

And when the Taliban’s regime fell in 2001 and girls were allowed to return to schools, Rasikh had already made her way to attend a year of high school in the U.S. through the State Department’s Youth Exchange Studies program before graduating with a Bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in Vermont. Later, she went on to earn a Master’s in Public Policy degree from Oxford University and received honorary doctorates from SOAS University of London and Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania.

While at Middlebury in 2008, she co-founded SOLA, the country’s only all-girls boarding school.

In 2016, once SOLA was established as a full-fledged school, the first 24 students across 14 provinces arrived on its campus in Kabul and were taught rigorous education and residential life programs in grades pre-6 through 10.

The post-primary school also helped students secure scholarships to pursue their higher education abroad.

However, what began in Kabul continues now in Rwanda.

When the Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021, SOLA had no choice but to evacuate its 256 students, staff, and their family members to Rwanda, which according to the school, was the only country that agreed to take them.

“I never imagined Afghanistan would fall as fast as it did. No one imagined it,” Rasikh told a large audience while speaking at TED. “But I will tell you this. On August 1, we were bringing our students back to Kabul after their semester break. On August 15, the Taliban were in Kabul and in control. And on August 30, we were holding our second day of classes at our new campus in Rwanda with our entire community together and safe.”

Since then, this boarding school operates in Rwanda where it teaches 61 Afghan refugee students, particularly girls who have been forced out of Afghanistan since 2021.

In 2022, SOAL launched its first-ever fully online admissions season. In 2023, they continued the same.

“But, it isn’t enough,” Rasikh told National Geographic.

SOLA is planning to entrench its new roots in Rwanda by purchasing land and building a new campus that will allow more than 200 children, from 6-12 grades, to receive an education.

This campus, Rasikh says, will remain open and serve as a sanctuary for these girls while their peers remain out of school beyond the sixth grade in their home country due to the Taliban ban.

Now in their third year of exile, Rasikh also plans to innovate how students access classes by launching a mobile curriculum called SOLA X that will allow children, anywhere in the world including Afghanistan, to study on their phones through WhatsApp.

Rasikh envisions building a global model to educate displaced students, primarily girls. “SOLA is not just a school,” she told National Geographic. “It’s a movement.”

SOLA’s mission is to educate Afghan girls to create a generation of young women leaders who will one day return home and rebuild all that the Taliban have destroyed, reads SOLA’s website.