Afghan girls attend school thanks to Edmonton woman

An Edmonton woman who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to build schools for girls in Afghanistan is close to opening her fifth school.

University of Alberta student's own struggle inspired school-building project

A University of Alberta student who began raising money to build schools for girls in Afghanistan two years ago is now close to opening a fifth school.

The schools are part of the 100 Classrooms Project, a charity founded by Azalea Lehndorff in 2010.

"I really connected with the fact that girls aren't going to school and they want to," said Lehndorff, who has raised $500,000 for the project.

The four schools, or 32 classrooms, teach about 8,000 students in the relatively secure northwestern part of the country.

Afghan girls living in rural areas face numerous barriers preventing them from going to school, Lehndorff said.

If schools are too far away, parents worry about their daughters' security.

"Girls are expected to care for their siblings and work in the fields, to help their mom," she said. "It's a major sacrifice when parents decide they're going to let their girls to school."

And in a country where girls as young as 13 are placed in arranged marriages they may not feel it's worth going to school.

"Why learn to read and write when you're just going to have kids right away ... (and) stay in the home and not ever go out into a public place."

The project was inspired in part by Lehndorff's own struggle to achieve an education despite her mother's mental illness which prevented the family from settling down.

Her parents and their two daughters moved dozens of times across the United States limiting any opportunity for formal education.

Finally while living in rural New York, she and her sister decided to take their education into their own hands, borrowing their mother's address book and looking up 90 of her friends.

"We said, 'Would you support us? We need to go to a boarding school. We have no place to live."

Ended up running away to school

Her parents objected, but the pair ended up running away to school.

"We found someone to pay for a Greyhound bus ticket," she said.

She never looked back.

"Graduatiing from high school was one of the most amazing accomplishments at that time in my life." she said.

After high school she moved to Canada to attend Canadian University College in the small central Alberta city of Lacombe.

It was there she hooked up with the Lacombe-based charity A Better World Canada, which would be a key player in the project.

Its founder Eric Rajah is one of Lehndorff's biggest supporters. 

"When she first came she was 22 years old," he said. "I had a difficult time first of all believing the sustainability of her spirit.

"As I started getting to know about her background as to why she wanted to do this I convinced our board we need to allow her to fulfill her passion."

He has attended all of the schools' grand openings.

"The main difference that I see standing on a street in Afghanistan is seeing thousands of girls walking to school," he said.

Lendorff said she has spoken at 80 schools and churches, largely in central Alberta, after returning from her first trip to Afghanistan.

Her message?

"Literacy can change a country," she said. "If they can read and write and critically evaluate what they're being told, it can make a huge difference," she said.

With files from CBC's Gareth Hampshire