By Laura Olson
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Halfway around the world, in western Afghanistan, the sign for a recently opened eatery bears a familiar name below its Arabic script: “Scranton Restaurant,” it reads in both languages.
The northeastern Pennsylvania city’s moniker ended up on the country’s first female-only restaurant after a series of Scrantonians — from Vice President Joe Biden to Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey to dozens of local donors — helped scrape together money and other assistance that allowed the owner to open its doors in Herat Province.
For Casey, the restaurant’s development was a tangible example of an issue he repeatedly spoke out on during his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Democratic lawmaker has advocated for aiding Afghan women who saw their rights to work and go to school diminish under the Taliban regime.
When Casey met Suraya Pakzad, a 42-year-old activist who runs a nonprofit that provides shelter, job training and literacy classes to Afghan women, her resolve to restore the rights of women in her country left an impression on him.
She’s experienced firsthand the struggles the senator has highlighted in speeches and legislation. Those who work with her describe how Pakzad began teaching girls in her home after the Taliban banned such classes, a risky decision that carried with it potentially grave consequences.
Pakzad has drawn international recognition for her work. She received an International Women of Courage award from the U.S. State Department and was recognized by Time magazine in 2009 as one of the world’s most influential people.
She “has a quiet but burning desire to help women in Afghanistan who face the kind of discrimination or oppression or opposition and real degradation sometimes that we can’t even imagine,” Casey said in a mid-November interview.
While Afghan women have regained some ground since 2001, when U.S. troops removed the Taliban government from power, they continue to face significant societal obstacles, according to a recent survey by the Asia Foundation, a San Francisco-based international development organization.
The researchers found that an increasing number of Afghan woman are working outside the home, but that the shift may be due more to economic necessity than to any broader cultural shift. Jobs in certain fields, like the military and police, remain mostly closed to women.
Women also face challenges in parts of the country where forced marriages and honor killings are still practiced, and where they are less likely to have control over their own income, according to the survey.
Casey and Pakzad met during a 2010 event in Montgomery County, but it wasn’t until about two years later that her idea for an all-women restaurant got underway. The business was to become a training center for women with little work experience or professional skills, as well as a meeting center for women in the male-dominated country.
Pakzad began working with two Scranton women — Sondra Myers, a senior fellow for international, civic and cultural projects at the University of Scranton, and attorney Judith Price. She told the women that while she had access to a building that could house the restaurant, she would need help raising money to buy equipment, furniture and other supplies.
Price, a graduate of Central Catholic High School in Allentown, said the women asked how much Pakzad would need and got to work.
Casey lent a hand, giving the effort credibility and the ability to tap some of his supporters. He and his wife, Terese, co-chaired fundraisers in the area, including one at the home of Myers, a neighbor.
Casey said working with Pakzad flowed naturally from his work on international women’s rights in the Senate, which included adding a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act in 2013 aimed at increasing the number of female security personnel in Afghanistan.
He pointed to the increasing number of girls attending school in Afghanistan, describing that shift as an outcome that has positive results for the United States as well.
“I think it’s a gain for all of us, because it creates a foundation that will lead to less terrorism, less extremism, when kids are in school, when they have economic security, when they can live a full life,” Casey said.
His Scranton-area neighbors seem to have agreed. Pakzad’s supporters there eventually raised $18,000, which allowed her to begin serving customers in October.
Price and the others found significant interest in the area as they detailed Pakzad’s project, but also some trepidation. A few potential donors were concerned about whether the restaurant would become a target for the Taliban, endangering the women they were trying to help.
Price recalled Pakzad’s response when asked about possible risks: “She answered very eloquently, saying ‘We have to show them we’re not afraid.’ ”
In addition to the fundraising help, Pakzad’s relationship with Casey also allowed her to make other high-profile American connections.
One of her trips to the United States coincided with an appearance by President Barack Obama and Biden in Scranton last year. Casey ensured that Pakzad got to briefly meet Obama and then have a longer chat with Biden after the event.
“It was the best conversation and [it] had a good impact in my work,” Pakzad wrote in an email.
Pakzad said she named the restaurant after the city that helped as a signal of her gratitude for the money and interest that came from northeastern Pennsylvania.
Pakzad said the business is thriving, and that frequently its six tables are too few for the steady flow of customers. (Male customers aren’t completely excluded — they can order food outside from a walk-up window, she said.)
She gets asked several times a day when she’ll be opening a second location. The group of Scranton women are organizing more help for that effort, and hope for a fundraiser in Philadelphia. They also are seeking to assist with her plan for a women’s leadership institute, which would help mentor female candidates for public office.
Casey, who has traveled to Afghanistan three times, has never been to the western province that Pakzad calls home. He says he’d like to visit Pakzad and see the restaurant, but in the meantime, he’s taking her story on the road with him.
The issue of women’s rights took him to an international conference in Norway last weekend. In talks like that one, Pakzad is now part of the pitch, giving a face to the policies that he describes.