Afghan attorneys Ali Shah Hasanzada, left, and Habiburrahman Rahmani are working toward a master of laws degree at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.
(The Blade/Amy E. Voigt)
ADA, Ohio — When Habiburrahman Rahmani and Ali Shah Hasanzada return to Afghanistan after spending about 10 months at Ohio Northern University, they’ll bring a sharpened desire to spread democracy in their home country.
The private university in a town with a population of 5,832 has become an educational destination for Afghan attorneys seeking to expand their legal understanding. Four students from the war-torn country are working toward a master of laws degree at ONU, which has graduated 15 Afghan students since 2011.
The school is preparing to host even more lawyers from Afghanistan. In February, ONU will welcome the first 10 of 30 Afghan attorneys to participate in a new program supported with $2.9 million from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
Howard Fenton, director of Ohio Northern University’s Center for Democratic Governance and Rule of Law, will travel to Afghanistan to interview applicants for the Advanced Legal Education Program for Afghan Lawyers, which received 50 applications for the first 10 spots.
(The Blade/Amy E. Voigt)
ONU secured the grant for the program, which will allow the university to offer an 18-month curriculum that includes English language instruction as well as courses in topics including comparative administrative and constitutional law, competitiveness and corruption, and public and private law issues.
“This will have [a] huge impact within the legal system of Afghanistan… and if these students just can change one point — imagine what will happen,” Mr. Hasanzada said.
The Advanced Legal Education Program for Afghan Lawyers will build on the master’s program, launched in 2006 with state department money. One aim of the master’s program is to train attorneys from countries with emerging democracies, and its more than 100 graduates have hailed from places including the countries of Georgia, Kenya, Ukraine, and Afghanistan.
That program will continue, but the new funding will allow the university to host Afghan attorneys for a longer period of time and improve their English skills. ONU received 50 applications for the initial 10 spots, and the federal grant will cover the selected students’ tuition, housing, and other costs.
It is one of the INL bureau’s most prominent programs to support Afghan legal education, said Jeffrey Robertson, the bureau’s director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan office. The training will focus on justice, corruption, and human rights issues, he said.
“This is a long-term investment for the United States in the kind of change that we want to see in Afghanistan. We are looking at this as generational change,” he said.
Mr. Rahmani and Mr. Hasanzada arrived in Ada in August — the most recent Afghan transplants to take up temporary residence in the rural Hardin County village about 70 miles south of Toledo.
Both attorneys studied law in Afghanistan. Mr. Rahmani graduated in 2006 from Herat University and used his legal training at various organizations, most recently as a senior program officer in the rule of law department at the United States Institute of Peace.
Mr. Hasanzada initially studied medicine but changed his focus to law because he thought he could usher in more social change as an attorney. He graduated from American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and has worked in the school’s law department.
After finishing the ONU program in the spring, they will go back to Afghanistan, eager to apply what they’ve learned here in their homeland.
“Since the fall of the Taliban, many laws were amended, many of them just canceled and new laws came out, but still there’s need for new laws,” said Mr. Rahmani, who missed the birth of his first child while in Ada.
Afghani lawyer Habiburrahman Rahmani, right, smiles at peer Ali Shah Hasanzada, left, at the Pettit College of Law in Ada.
(The Blade/Amy E. Voigt)
Work remains to amend the constitution and address key legal concepts such as judicial review, said Mr. Hasanzada. He expects ONU graduates will work in government roles and, perhaps, seek elected office someday.
Both young attorneys speak English well, but the new and extended ONU program will accommodate Afghan attorneys who aren’t as fluent. Mr. Robertson said the program will seek out students with brilliant legal minds and a commitment to their country and teach them the language as well as law.
Howard Fenton, director of ONU’s Center for Democratic Governance and Rule of Law, will travel to Afghanistan at the end of this month to interview applicants for the first class.
“The thing that’s pretty amazing about Afghanistan and these young lawyers is that they’ve known nothing but war their whole lives. I mean, they’ve grown up in an environment of conflict,” he said. “And notwithstanding that, they have an excellent education in terms of their Afghan legal education and have a really remarkable commitment to Democratic institutions that have barely taken root there.”
ONU’s program and its new push to educate more Afghan attorneys represent an investment in the future of that country, he said.
After they graduate, participants return to Afghanistan to spend at least two years working to advance legal reforms and governance.
Such efforts are producing results in Afghanistan, where more women are graduating from universities, Mr. Robertson said.
Mr. Rahmani and Mr. Hasanzada have seen significant shifts in the last decade or so, as technology and education improves and ordinary citizens feel empowered to express opinions and even protest the government.
While here, they’ve had the chance to travel, experience American customs such as Thanksgiving, and compare the United States’ legal system to their own.
Mr. Rahmani has recommended his colleagues back home consider coming to Ohio.
“This is a unique opportunity for Afghanistan,” he said. “If there are more Afghans benefiting [from] the program we will have more opportunities to bring change.”
Contact Vanessa McCray at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.
This article first appeared in The Blade and toledoblade.com on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015.