Building a New Career
As a partner in a prominent Seattle law firm, Julia Bolz lived a comfortable, secure and predictable life. Then, in 1998, Bolz made a major life change.
Feeling drawn to volunteer work in the developing world, Bolz relinquished her investment in the firm and left her life as a business immigration attorney to serve as a legal and business adviser for humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In the past six years she has worked with dozens of NGOs on five continents.
The 2001 terrorist attacks prompted Bolz to focus on Afghanistan. “After Sept. 11, I was deeply affected by a sign held up by a Pakistani protestor that said, ‘Americans, think! Why are you hated all over the world?’” she says. “My hope is that we would come to understand those who differ vastly in their expressions of religion, culture, language and scope of opportunities, and they would come to understand us.”
Bolz has been to Afghanistan three times since the United States invaded in October 2001. In February 2002 she traveled to the warlord-controlled Balkh Province, a region of north-central Afghanistan that is home to “the poorest of the poor,” Bolz says. She served as a grant writer with Central Asian Free Exchange, located in the north-central Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif.
The need for schools proved most pressing at that time. So Bolz decided to embark on a fundraising push of her own. She returned to Seattle in May 2002 and started the “Adopt an Afghan School” program, giving more than 100 presentations on life in Afghanistan. She displayed photos and encouraged participants to model burkhas and turbans and to sample Afghan cuisine.
Susan Schrecter, a friend from Bolz’s undergraduate days at Smith College, has attended several presentations. One image stands out in her memory — a photograph that shows a group of Afghan women, covered from head to toe in their burkas, riding in the trunk of a car.
That image opened Schrecter’s eyes to the plight of Afghan women. Those awakenings, Schrecter said, might be Bolz’s most important work.
“Julia has a way of weaving herself into a way of life. She is quite adept at taking her experiences and making them understandable,” Schrecter said. That comes through in her presentations. “She has credibility, she presents balanced facts, and she presents information most people haven’t heard.”
Her presentations paid off. With contributions from friends, neighbors, colleagues and more than 10,000 U.S. students —“moneys mostly in dimes and quarters” — Bolz collected $35,000 for the school, which was completed in late summer 2003, less than a year after construction began.
When Bolz returned to Afghanistan last September to celebrate the school’s opening, she distributed a load of donated school supplies. In the eight-room school she found 50 to 60 girls, sitting four to a desk. More than 400 girls, ages 4 to 14, attend the mud- and stone-walled school, which is about the size of a theater stage.
No matter how small, the school signals a step toward liberation for the women and children of Afghanistan.
“The school has been a huge success,” she says. “It is being used as a model for other schools in the north.”
And Bolz continues raising money for her next project — a 3,500-student school in Mazar-e Sharif.
—Susan Daker (J04)