August 18, 2019 | 74° F

U. alumna raises funds to benefit Afghan women

Most birthday presents range from iPads to birthday cards, but Rutgers alumnus Taylor McKay asked for a much larger gift for her birthday on Nov. 18 — she wants $10,000, and has already raised $2,065.

But McKay does not want the money for herself. All funds will benefit the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund, an organization that impacts her on an extremely personal level.

During her senior year of high school in 2008, McKay made a new, unlikely friend who made the whole organization possible.

That year, Shamila Kohestani transferred to McKay’s high school, Blair Academy in Blairstown, NJ. Since Kohestani had just moved from Afghanistan, McKay said her and her classmates felt uncertain about her.

“It was as if she was walking on eggshells,” McKay said. “But I soon learned that we were a lot alike, she was like every other teenage girl.”

Kohestani grew up in Afghanistan, where she lived under Taliban rule for six years. She was deprived numerous freedoms, including access to an education.  

“I had no limitations in America,” she said. “I had the freedom to wear what I want, say what I want. I was looked at as a human being and as a woman. I appreciated the basics. I was able to play soccer and get an education, and to me, that was freedom.”

When she moved to America, Kohestani knew very little English, but McKay and the many tutors at the academy helped her adapt to American culture. The McKay family helped ease this transition.

“I took her home with me one holiday weekend, and my family got along with her instantly,” McKay said. “Shamila became my sister as well as my parent’s daughter.”

As the girls became closer friends, Kohestani told McKay that she would give up her life to go to college but could not afford it. McKay realized how serious she was and decided she needed to help.

“I sent letters to Oprah and Ellen Degeneres, thinking ‘there’s no way they wouldn’t help me.’ When I got no response, I was so frustrated,” McKay said. “I didn’t have the means to send Shamila to school.”

McKay asked classmate Alex Motiuk for help, who turned to his father, Leo Motiuk, for advice. Leo Motiuk then called Rutgers alumnus David Bugen, asking him to take action.

“Alex was so troubled — my wife and I knew we needed to take action. I reached out to David, and he and I called the president of Drew University,” Leo Motiuk said. “He provided a scholarship, and she was enrolled the very same day.”

From this, AGFAF began, and now the program supports 25 Afghani women and one Afghani man. AGFAF provides recipients with a host family and secondary school education to help them assimilate to American culture. After, they can attend the university of their choice.

AGFAF provides students with transportation, allowances and basic needs for their stay in America.

“There are about seven to eight people on the committee. We interview girls and search for potential recipients. It is all non-profit. We are all volunteers,” Leo Motiuk said. “No one wants compensation. It’s a privilege to do what we do.”

Beneficiaries have attended a wide range of schools, including Drew University, Skidmore College and Yale University.

AGFAF is very selective in deciding who receives aid. They only accept extremely self-motivated and active students, Leo Motiuk said. Students can apply to the program, but AGFAF works very hard to find the students themselves.

“There is no government funding so all of the money we have is given to us by donors,” he said. “We don’t receive any compensation. My compensation is seeing these students succeed.”

Because the organization is non-profit, it has very limited funding and therefore AGFAF can only accept a limited number of students to cover all their needs.

In response to the financial need of the organization, McKay created her fundraising campaign called “Taylor’s Ridiculous Birthday Wish,” where she hopes to raise $10,000 by Nov. 18.

“What’s so inspiring about the fundraiser is [it’s] young people helping young people,” McKay said. “Knowing that some one at Rutgers skipped their coffee at Au Bon Pain to donate two dollars to the fundraiser  — that’s a reality check. It shows me people really care.”

From Kohestani’s success, McKay sees that AGFAF can have an enormous impact. Kohestani graduated from Drew University and holds degrees in both political science and women’s studies.

Kohestani currently lives in Washington D.C. with McKay’s biological mother, Cathy McKay, who she calls “mom.”

“I want to go back to Afghanistan and make things possible that weren’t when I was growing up,” Kohestani said. “I want women to be able to play soccer like me, to go out in public and to get an education. I would never be where I am if it wasn’t for the help I’ve gotten.”

By Erin Walsh

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