Three shots of a woman wearing a lab coat, a man in a food truck, and a man standing in a desert
Category: Spirit of Georgetown

Title: 3 Alumni Making a Difference in Afghanistan, Rwanda and on a Food Truck

Date Published: March 11, 2022

An airplane in Kabul

August 15, 2021, was the worst, most difficult day of my life. 

There were no flights out of Afghanistan. I was on the tarmac in the dead of night with nowhere to go. The Taliban was all around the airport, and my country had just fallen under their control. I hadn’t eaten or slept in 36 hours. I watched desperate attempts to leave, including a mother in distress after being separated from her two-year-old daughter.

But I never panicked. In those 36 hours at the airport, I knew there were people trying to help. I was embedded in a broader community of humans, who, on the worst day of my life, were there to try to take care of me and help me.

I’ve often found that acts of unexpected kindness have changed the trajectory of my life. 

1993: A Refugee in Pakistan

Shuja Jamal (MPP'19)
Shuja Jamal (MPP’19) pictured a few years after he and his family left Afghanistan to become refugees in Pakistan.

I was about six years old when my family left Afghanistan to become refugees in Pakistan. It was during the country’s civil war. Our journey to the border was similar to the protagonist’s journey in “The Kite Runner.”

One night, my mother and I were in a wobbly taxi driving through checkpoints with men with guns. Night fell, and we stopped in a rural village. A family took us in and fed us rabbit soup. They didn’t have much, and they were from the opposite, dominant ethnic group. There had been violence between our two groups. But we came to their village, and they took care of us. 

My mother and I made it to Pakistan safely and reunited with my father. 

*

As a refugee, you have to work harder to distinguish yourself. My grandfather persuaded the teacher at our community’s English learning center to teach me English for free. That made all the difference – English is what really helped me get out of that dusty town. 

In high school, an American family working in his community encouraged Jamal to study in the U.S. They bought him an SAT preparation book and signed him up for a test in Islamabad. A few months later, he received a scholarship from Berea College in Kentucky.

I thought maybe I can do something more. All the possibilities of life opened up. 

That family’s decision to take us in that one night had a lot of positive effects. My grandfather making sure I learned English, an admissions committee taking a chance on me – kindness changed the entire direction of my life.

2012: A Return to Afghanistan

Shuja Jamal at the Salang Pass in northern Afghanistan.

After graduating from Berea College in 2011, Jamal began working for a nonprofit in Washington, DC, where he proposed and ran a scholarship program to fund college opportunities in the U.S. for students in Afghanistan.

I wanted to give other kids the same kind of opportunity that I had. I reached out to colleges to secure a full ride for scholars, primarily young women. We ended up helping five kids.

An opportunity to study in the U.S. had made all the difference in my life, and I thought that would change other people’s lives as well. 

*

A year later, I went back to Afghanistan. A lot of people told me that was the wrong decision. Everybody was leaving. Why are you coming back?

I realized that Afghanistan was a place where you could work and make a difference. The U.S. was so well-built that somebody like me could only be a brick in that wall. But in Afghanistan, there was this possibility of helping to build that wall. I wanted to be part of that rebuilding process.

Rebuilding With a New Tool

Shuja Jamal conducts field research in Kabul, Afghanistan.
While working for Human Rights Watch, Jamal conducted field research in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Jamal worked at Human Rights Watch for four years. While at the organization, Jamal also co-founded Impassion Afghanistan, the country’s first digital media agency that empowered citizen journalists to monitor voting conditions across the country and encourage Afghans to vote. During this time, he realized that fighting for human rights involved more than advocacy.

While working for Human Rights Watch, it became clear that activism was about building a case slowly over time. With policy, given the right window, you can slam-dunk. I thought it was easier to make a difference in policy. The laws and policy you make have a bearing on the rights of people. A sort of lightbulb popped up.

I was offered a Fulbright scholarship, and decided to study at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown. In my admission essay, I wrote that public policy is an important instrument to further human rights.

I wrote that because, when I was very young, we lost my younger sister, Shogofa, to something that was preventable. She was three years old. 

After her, we lost my brother, Qiyam, to pneumonia, another preventable cause. He passed away around the age of six months.

Shuja (right) with his sister, Shogofa, (left), who passed away a few years after this photo was taken.

Children in the developing world die of preventable causes, like pneumonia. And that is not a failure of medicine. That is not a failure of nutrition. It’s a failure of public health. It’s a failure of public policy. I wanted to get the skills at McCourt that would help me make a difference in human rights and the right to life through public policy. 

I decided to study at Georgetown primarily because of the DC location. If you’re studying public policy, there’s no other city more conducive to that study. And the city has the most powerful legislature in the world whose decisions can make or break nations and make a difference in the lives of young boys in Afghanistan, dying of pneumonia.

2017: Applying Jesuit Ethics to the Taliban

Shuja speaks at a launch event for the Georgetown Public Policy Review.
Shuja speaks at the launch of Rethinking Governance, Georgetown Public Policy Review’s flagship peer-reviewed academic publication where he served as editor-in-chief.

At McCourt, Jamal served as the editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Public Policy Review, the school’s peer-reviewed academic publication. He took classes at the McDonough School of Business, the Walsh School of Foreign Service and Georgetown Law to tailor his curriculum to his career needs. And he encountered the school’s Jesuit values and approach to education for the first time.

Shuja Jamal at his graduation from the McCourt School of Public Policy in 2019.
Shuja Jamal at his graduation from the McCourt School of Public Policy in 2019.

One of the things that really struck me about McCourt was its class on ethics in public policy. Because of Georgetown’s roots in Jesuit teaching, the curriculum helped us think about ethics when we were making policy — what sort of policy choices would advantage or disadvantage one group over the other. Cold, hard data alone does not always tell you what to do for the greater good, which is why you need ethical and equitable frameworks to work with. And that’s what the ethics class was all about.

*

After graduation, I joined the National Security Council in Afghanistan as director for peace and reconciliation initiatives. My job was to offer support at a policy level to the team that negotiated with the Taliban. I also worked on policy procedures that would reduce civilian casualties in war time. In a later position, I helped make sure that Afghanistan’s national security diplomacy abroad reflected our national security priorities.

I think one of the clear victories from my time in government was to try and inject a bit of human rights and ethics in a world of national security policy. 

–Shuja Jamal (MPP’19)

I was involved in very high level, delicate negotiations with the Taliban that included a release of Taliban convicts. Through a memo to government leadership, we arrived at a policy decision not to release Taliban convicted of crimes that could not be pardoned by presidential powers. Events overtook this decision, but if somebody was going to study our history in 50 years, I think they would find evidence that we made the ethical policy choice at that moment.

When the U.S. military withdrew in August 2021 and the Taliban began to sweep the country, Jamal’s ties to the former government left him vulnerable. He fled to the airport, where his McCourt friends banded together to fundraise and brainstorm ways to help him escape. After 36 hours, Jamal was able to evacuate to Turkey through an alternative method.

2022: Continuing the Fight for Afghanistan

Shuja Jamal pictured in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Shuja Jamal pictured in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Jamal now works as a special advisor to the Refugee Council of Australia, where he recently testified before the Australian Senate about the dire situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime and the actions Australia can take to support the Afghan people and amplify their voices.

When I went to the U.S. and had the opportunities that I had, I had a distinct sense that I was doing this work for my little sister and for all of the other people in my community who were marginalized, who were massacred, who died in terrorist attacks. 

Working in the government and seeing more has given me a sense that I’m doing this work for the Afghan people. For the soldiers who ran out of food and ammo and water and resisted to the bitter end. For the whole country talking about hope having died with the Taliban coming back again, taking the aspirations of all young people with them. 

The policy environment has radically changed in Afghanistan and the world.

I used to do this work for my community and my sister, but while the commitment has remained the same, my sense of community has expanded.

As time passes, I’m beginning to see how I’m embedded in a bigger community that is not just the community of people helping me, but also the community of people whom I could do a little something for, in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

*

Alumni Spotlight: The Doctor with No Borders

“Every child should have a chance at a healthy life.”

— Dr. Christina M. Hanna (SFS’08, M’14)
Dr. Christina M. Hanna (SFS’08, M’14)
Before the pandemic, Dr. Christina M. Hanna (SFS’08, M’14) volunteered at a hospital in the Butaro Cancer Center in Rwanda every three months. Photo by Alice Kayibanda.

On a Thursday in February, Dr. Christina Hanna (SFS’08, M’14) left her 80-hour-week schedule in Philadelphia behind for South Africa. 

Hanna, a pediatric oncology doctor, was hoping to establish a collaborative global health project there — and re-establish her bicontinental work schedule from before the pandemic. 

Since 2017, Hanna has left her job at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) every three months to volunteer with young cancer patients at a hospital in rural Rwanda. The hospital is three hours north of the capital Kigali in a mountainous, remote town — and, at the time, was the country’s only cancer center. For Hanna, the two jobs combine her interests in children’s oncology and global health justice – passions that sprouted at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.

“Every child should have a chance at a healthy life,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense to me that a border means that a child doesn’t get care or equitable care or even sufficient care.” 

An Eye-Opener in Medical School

Hanna, who received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Cairo, Egypt, after graduating from the Walsh School of Foreign Service, nurtured her interest in social justice at the School of Medicine. She volunteered for the Hoya Clinic, a student-run clinic that provides free care for patients in Washington, DC, and joined the Health Justice Scholar Track, a university program through which she helped identify barriers to HIV testing practices in DC.

“I started thinking about how I could level the playing field for vulnerable patient populations,” she says. “Medical school opened the door to actions I could start doing to protect the greater good and instilled this idea of health justice into my early medical career that I carried forward.” 

Hanna was drawn toward pediatric oncology and hoped to practice in global health care settings. In 2017, she first began volunteering in Rwanda while a resident at the University of Pennsylvania. She kept going back every three months for the next year.

“What strikes me in every country I go to is the unconditional love that parents have for their children. They will never stop from trying to make sure their kids have proper care,” she says. “And I think that we need to make that opportunity possible worldwide.”

Continuing Care Worldwide

Now, Hanna works with global health researchers at CHOP and oncologists at St. Jude Hospital to assess health policies and health system structures to help children receive continuous cancer care. While finishing her training in pediatric hematology and oncology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, she also researches how to effectively implement cancer treatments in global settings – all while completing her second master’s degree in clinical epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania.

She doesn’t intend to stop. 

“I spent eight years at Georgetown immersed in the spirit of men and women for others, and it was the best habit I ever formed,” she says. “And one that I don’t intend to lose now.”

Dr. Christina M. Hanna pictured in Rwanda. Photo by Alice Kayibanda.

*

Alumni Spotlight: Serving up Support for Veterans on a Food Truck

“If nobody is fighting for veterans trying to start their own businesses, who better than us to fight for their success.”

— Jordan Foley (L’21)
Jordan Foley (L’21) founded Chow Corp., a nonprofit that helps veterans become food truck or restaurant owners, in 2020.

In 2019, Jordan Foley (L’21) was studying at Georgetown Law when he received devastating news: A friend and fellow Navy veteran had died by suicide while struggling with debts in launching his startup business.

“After looking into it, I realized, why weren’t there resources available for him? Did he not have support? How can we reduce those startup fail rates?” he says. “I knew there were many nonprofits helping veterans start businesses, but I wanted to help them long-term. I wanted to honor him.”

Foley began considering his long-time passion for food as a pathway to business ownership.

Connections Over Meals in the Kitchen and on a Submarine  Jordan Foley (L’21)

Foley has long been aware of food’s power to connect generations and cultures. He remembers standing on a footstool next to his grandmother while she cooked growing up. He remembers sharing a homemade deep dish pizza with a Navy member he didn’t know well in a submarine thousands of feet below the sea. He remembers a friend’s grandmother in China handing him a plate of dumplings and squeezing his shoulder when he felt alone during an overseas stint.

So Foley was drawn to the culinary industry as a pathway to help veterans — particularly as so many members of the veteran community he knew were interested in cooking. 

“It’s like, you have served your country honorably. We want to help you get to the next step. How can we help you achieve your goals?” he says. “I wanted to hyper-focus on the culinary industry so that we can take a veteran from zero knowledge to business ownership and where they could start a business with a safety net.”

Business School on a Food TruckAn image of a newspaper

Foley started with a food truck as his training ground. He designed a curriculum to help veterans and their spouses gain business and culinary training by running their own food trucks. He pitched the idea at the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Challenge and came in first for Georgetown Law. He relied on resources from the law school to help start his business.

In 2020, he launched Chow Corp., which provides cooking therapy, cookware donations, culinary education and business advice for aspiring food truck or restaurant owners. Three months after he launched, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Foley switched his model to partnering with veteran-owned businesses to fund cooking free meals on his food trucks for those who needed them. Eventually, he pivoted back to his original model.

Chow Corp. has since graduated four participants from its Food Truck Training Program in Annapolis. Foley’s next cohort will involve 15 participants working in food trucks in San Diego, New Jersey and Annapolis. He hopes to continue expanding his program and his partnerships coast to coast.

Foley continues to run Chow Corp. at night after his day job as a Navy attorney. He doesn’t consider himself an entrepreneur. Instead, he says, helping veterans like his friend is what drives him.

“It gets back to being a man and woman for others,” he says. “I don’t want to be cheesy, but I can’t put monetary value on it. I do this for my friend. I do this for veterans. If nobody is fighting for these people trying to start their own businesses, who better than us to fight for their success.”