Photo: Khadija Bahram

Photograph by Lynsey Addario

By Ryan Bradley

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The gunmen came from the center of the village, each carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle. They looked at the vehicle, a dusty SUV with the battered logo of an aid organization: IRC (International Rescue Committee). Inside, three women sat with their driver. The group had just arrived from Gardez in eastern Afghanistan, where they were working to establish a project to aid disabled children. The gunmen knew this, and opened fire.

Khadija Bahram was in Kabul in August 2008 when she heard that four members of her team had been murdered and that the Taliban had taken credit for the killings. A Taliban spokesman told the press that the aid workers, Bahram’s colleagues and friends, “were not working for the interests of Afghanistan.” What did this man know about the interests of this nation? Bahram thought. “I returned to Afghanistan to work toward rebuilding my home,” she says. “And now this?”

Bahram is a teacher. Specifically, she teaches women to teach. She is also one of only a handful of Afghan women with a graduate degree (in chemistry, from Kabul University). In 1994 she fled her war-torn homeland for a refugee camp in Pakistan. There, with the IRC, Bahram started a school for women and children, whose impact has extended far beyond its modest origins. “In Paktia Province, where many of the refugees returned, there are dozens of midwives, and community health projects set up by Khadija’s old students,” says Nicole Walden, a deputy director with the IRC. “Her work has saved so many lives,” Walden says, adding, “but more than that, Khadija is hope.” Bahram worked tirelessly in the refugee camp and then, after a decade, she came home.

Following the murders, aid workers fled Afghanistan, and the IRC temporarily suspended operations for the first time in 20 years. But Bahram stayed, guiding an educational program that stretches across five provinces in Afghanistan, many beset by the Taliban. Her army of teachers reaches more than 10,000 pupils, most of them girls. And this year she expanded the Inclusive Education project to address the needs of disabled children. Bahram may be risking her life, but Walden is right—Khadija is hope.

Originally published in the December 2009/January 2010 edition of National Geographic Adventure