One of Afghanistan’s first co-ed schools, founded in 1998, was located in a poor neighbourhood of Kabul. Over the course of the next twenty years it became a beacon of hope for many, teaching democracy and human rights, and encouraging girls to speak out against extremist groups like the Taliban. This made them targets.
In August 2021, as the Taliban violently took Afghanistan, hundreds of schoolgirls went into hiding. The Taliban prohibits girls’ education past age 11, and many feared being forced into “marriage” with Taliban fighters, having seen similar atrocities happening in other provinces.
The 30 Birds Foundation
To help them, a team of 8 citizens, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists and Afghan ex-pats incorporated as the 30 Birds. After evacuating the school's founder and his family, they turned their attention to the girls who, as young athletes, artists, medics and musicians, were also receiving death threats from the Taliban.
Determined to continue their education, these girls played an active role in coordinating their own escape. Under duress, moving in small numbers from city to city and past Taliban checkpoints, they would eventually help the 30 Birds guide more than 400 Afghans, including family members and various activists for female education safely across the border.
To date we have:
Successfully, and against all odds, evacuated over 450 Afghans from Kabul.
Negotiated with the Pakistan Government to let our group of girls cross the border and remain in safe housing until more permanent resettlement can be found.
Negotiated with the Canadian government to accept and resettle 250 girls and their families from the school community.
Provided on-going support for the girls in Saskatoon to help with their education and resettlement
Raised money to fund safe housing, food, clothing, shelter for those who remain in limbo in Pakistan waiting for visas to Canada
Arranged for classes and work training opportunities for the girls in Pakistan
Leveraged the voices of such allies as Nobel Peace laureates Malala Yousafzai, Ambassadors, Generals, and HM King Charles through his charitable arm, the Prince’s Trust.
Kept the hope of our group alive in the face of these desperate times, and in doing so, kept our sanity (mostly!)
1000 birds set off on an epic quest in search of enlightenment, wisdom and the Phoenix--or Simorgh--who these birds hope can revive their community.
After the long and arduous journey, only 30 birds advance to the final step. They reach the spot where they'd been told they could find the Phoenix, only to find a lake. Disappointed, the 30 birds peer into the lake, and see their own reflections.
They realize that there is no Phoenix. There is no Simorgh waiting for them. There are thirty (Si) birds (Morgh). They are the Simorgh--the Phoenix. No one else is going to revive their community for them, the 30 birds are responsible for bringing their community back to life.
Building on our success evacuating more than 450 people from Afghanistan, we are now focused on three core program areas:
Alternative Education Programs in Afghanistan: We support Afghan educators who are offering alternative education programs for girls in Afghanistan. By providing access to education, we help young women build the skills they need to achieve their goals and contribute to their communities.
Pathways to Safety: We identify the top 60-90 female students in alternative education programs across Afghanistan and help them apply to universities and scholarship opportunities abroad. By providing support and resources for these students, we help them access higher education and pursue their dreams in a safe and nurturing environment.
Long-Term Support in Canada: For the girls we have evacuated, and for girls we will continue to help pursue their education abroad, we provide long-term and comprehensive wrap-around support. This includes mental health services, an elite mentorship program, and university counseling and scholarships. We believe that by providing these resources, we can help these women thrive and achieve their full potential.
Abuzar Royesh is the co-founder and CEO of DataServeAI, a California-based startup that builds digital financial solutions for small businesses in developing countries. Abuzar holds master’s degrees in Management Science & Engineering and International Policy from Stanford University as a Knight-Hennessy scholar and a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University in International Relations.
Prior to Stanford, Abuzar worked as a research lead at Afghanistan Holding Group, where he led various research and assessment projects for the office of the Afghan president, various ministries, USAID, UNHCR, and GIZ. He has also worked with marginalized youth, including international displaced persons, in Afghanistan in various capacities since 2010.
Justin Hefter is an entrepreneur and peacebuilder who uses technology to bridge social, cultural and political divides. He was part of the founding team to create The AMEL Project, which trains, connects and protects the next generation of human rights activists across Africa and the Middle East.
Justin was also the co-founding CEO of Bandura Games, a company he started with Israeli and Palestinian partners which developed video games as a tool for connecting youth across conflict zones. In 2015, Justin and a team of Millennials helped the interfaith activist Mohammed Al Samawi escape from the civil war in Yemen. The details of the operation are chronicled in Mohammed’s memoir The Fox Hunt, which is being turned into a full-feature film with producer Marc Platt and Academy Award Winning screenwriter Josh Singer. Justin has a BA from Stanford University (‘11) and is currently pursuing a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Christa D’Souza is a British journalist with three decades of experience in the magazine and newspaper industry. She has written for many publications including the London Times, The Guardian, The Spectator, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Vogue UK Magazine (where she was a contributing editor for more than 20 years).
She first visited Afghanistan with her mother Baroness D’Souza, co-founder of the school, in 2009 and since then has become both an active fundraiser for the school and a passionate advocate of education for all Afghan girls.
An alumna of Brown University with a degree in Semiotics, she has written one book entitled The Hot Topic* and is currently at work on another non-fiction title. She lives in London and Wiltshire with her partner and their two sons.
Tahera Hedayati is the Program Officer for the 30 Birds Foundation, where she leads the foundation's work with the evacuees.
Previously, Tahera worked as a Journalist in Afghanistan. In Kabul, she worked at Subhe Kabul daily newspaper and ran a column named “what Taliban did to the people”. For that column, she interviewed people who lived under the Taliban’s rule and wrote and published their stories. Tahera relocated to the US after the Taliban released a statement threatening journalists who wrote against them.
Raised in New York and London, Bella Pollen is a writer and journalist who has contributed to various publications including The Financial Times, Vogue and the Economist. She first visited Afghanistan in 2013 with fellow team member Christa and has been actively involved with the school ever since.
Founder of international fashion label , Arabella Pollen at the age of 19, Pollen was nominated for numerous awards during her thirteen years in the industry.
Author of five novels she has tackled a broad spectrum of topics from the decline of the Aristocracy in the best-selling Hunting Unicorns to the Mexican border in Midnight Cactus to the Cold war in the critically acclaimed The Summer of the Bear.
Pollen works one to one with both young writers and established authors. She is a fellow of VCCA in the US, Moulin à Nèf, France, and The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland.
Her recently published memoir, Meet Me In the In-Between, a part-graphic memoir about the author’s search for home has been described as “ disturbing, very funny , visually stunning and full of moving profundities.”
Jeffrey E. Stern
Jeffrey E. Stern is a journalist, author, and development worker. His book’s include The 15:17 to Paris, which was turned into a major motion picture by Clint Eastwood and Warner Brothers, and The Last Thousand, which received honorable mention for best book of the Year by Library Journal. He has reported from Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Kashmir, the epicenter of the west African Ebola outbreak, and Oklahoma’s death row.
His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and other outlets. In 2019, he received the Overseas Press Club award for the best human rights reporting in any medium, and the Amnesty International award for foreign reporting. Stern’s development work includes launching the Goldman Sachs 10,000 women imitative in Afghanistan, and he sits on the on the board of the Bamyan Foundation. Stern received his bachelor's degree from Duke University and master's from Stanford University
Mohammad Behroozian is an independent media producer and researcher. A communications professional with nearly a decade of experience in designing and leading outreach initiatives in Afghanistan, Mohammad is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at Northwestern University School of Communication. Mohammad is passionate about media, youth and development.
Jennifer Selendy is a founding and managing partner of Selendy & Gay, a premier litigation firm headquartered in New York. Under Jennifer’s leadership, women are positioned at every level of firm management, including its C-suite. The firm is also renowned for taking on industry-shaping cases and high-impact public interest work.
Jennifer is an experienced trial attorney recognized as a leader in her field by Benchmark Litigation, Lawdragon, and Legal 500. In both 2020 and 2021, she was named one of the most influential women in law by Crain’s. Her public interest practice focuses on poverty, women’s rights, climate change, and education.
Jennifer graduated from Harvard Law School after completing an M.Phil. in International Relations at Oxford (St. Antony’s) as a Marshall Scholar. She served as Board Chair for the National Center for Law & Economic Justice, a national legal services organization focused on justice for the poor. She is also the co-founder and Board Chair of The Speyer Legacy School, an independent school for gifted children, with a special interest in low-income, high-achieving students. Jennifer is the Vice-Chair of the Advisory Board of the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University.
Manizha Baraki is a development practitioner with a decade-long focus on empowering women and girls and working for gender equality. Manizha has worked with the Afghanistan chapter of the UN Women’s International Unite Campaign to End Violence Against Women.
As Partnership and Evaluation Consultant for Bikes Not Bombs, Manizha has worked with Women’s Bike programs that benefited hundreds of women in the marginalized Mathare slums of Nairobi, young mothers in outskirts of Kigali, and indigenous people especially women of Iztapa in Guatemala, and a youth led environmental organization in El Salvador.
Manizha has actively represented Afghan women and youth on international platforms. She has received training on transnational feminism at EWHA University in Seoul, participated in Debate and Media Camp in Bishkek and Esykol, and is as an active member of Asia Society’s Afghan Young Leaders Initiative. Currently, Manizha is an active member of the UN Women’s Chicago Chapter where she helps with fundraising to Support UN Women’s international programs.
Manizha received her bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Kabul University and her master’s degree in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University.
Manizha is the mommy of a delightful 11 month old girl, Raya.
Director of Community and Mentorship
Dr. Susan Antolin is an accomplished educational leader, with extensive experience in research, program development, and nonprofit management. As the daughter of Afghan refugees and a passionate advocate for human rights and social justice, Susan has dedicated her career to maximizing opportunities for underrepresented communities.
With a doctorate in education from NYU, her research focuses on designing and implementing leadership and empowerment programs for marginalized girls and women. Susan is the Co-CEO and Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Advancing Girls, a global nonprofit organization that provides research-based tools and resources for educators and mentors working with underrepresented girls and women. Additionally, she has served as an administrator, program director, and humanities instructor at an all-girls high school, where she prioritized a student-centered approach through culturally responsive pedagogy.
Susan is also a Board Member for STEER for Student Athletes, a nonprofit organization that provides individualized mentorship, services, and financial support to ensure students thrive academically, develop socially and emotionally, and excel athletically. Susan holds a B.A. in English from UCLA and an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of San Diego's School of Leadership and Education Sciences. She is fluent in Dari.
Chief of Staff
Amy Madsen is a passionate advocate for the power of human connection and the ability of individuals to make a positive impact on the world. As a former U.S. diplomat who served in Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates, Amy has seen firsthand the challenges faced by women in conflict zones.
Inspired by the resilience of local women in the face of adversity, she co-founded Undivided: Women, War & The Battle for Peace, a nonprofit organization that works to amplify their voices and promote peacebuilding. Amy holds a Master's degree in International Relations from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, with a focus on intercultural communication and negotiation.
She is also the author of Green Zone Diary: A Diplomat's War Story, a memoir that explores her experiences living and working in Iraq. Additionally, Amy serves on the Board of the Foreign Service Association of Northern California and volunteers with organizations that promote international women's rights and empowerment.