Our Team



These people are not only special by their skills, but they are also truly special by their hearts.

Mahnaz Ahrary

Co-Founder and CEO of F.R.E.E.

M.S. Educational Psychology

Mahnaz is the Co-Founder and CEO of F.R.E.E. and is responsible for the continuous development, administration and execution of programs created to promote F.R.E.E. ‘s mission; to empower female refugees through education and various means of support. She is  a results-driven and detail-oriented senior project manager with over 16 years of experience. Mahnaz has worked on projects to improve processes, manage teams, and deliver solutions that endure. She has managed projects from $200 thousand to over $560 million for the federal government and the private sector.  Mahnaz is also committed to working with a partnering non-profit based out of California (Tourette’s Foundation for Needy Children), to build homes, clinics, and contribute to the food shortages across Afghanistan, Yemen, Uganda, Bangladesh, and Syria. Currently operating in Northern Afghanistan is a Mobile Clinic and a school, along with multiple empowerment projects; investing in farming for vulnerable populations, and purchasing livestock to provide income for families. She participates in the ongoing discussions revolving around creating opportunities for those without access to healthcare, education and clean water. Domestically, she envisions that  F.R.E.E. can continue to empower female refugees, giving them hope to one day influence more newcomers to never give up on themselves, their homeland, and to inspire others who become displaced. 

Sophia Sexton

Co-Founder and CEO of F.R.E.E.

B.S., Psychology
B.S., Communication Sciences & Disorders
M. A., Curriculum & Instructions with Reading Specialty endorsement
M.A. CRT, Professional Writing & Rhetoric

Sophia is the Co-founder and President of Female Refugee Education Empowerment (FREE) non-profit organization. She was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. When she was only nine-years-old, the Former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. She and her family lived under the Russian occupation, and eventually escaped the war in 1982. They found refuge in Islamabad, Pakistan. In 1983, they moved to Arlington, Virginia, as political refugees. She endured poverty, lack of English language, traditional gender-norms, and gained her freedom through education by secretly enrolling at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) after competing her high school degree to pursue her higher education.

Sophia is now an innovative educator with more than twenty-four years of experience as a Speech and Language Pathologist, Reading Specialist, Literacy Coach, and College English Professor. As the Co-founder and President of Female Refugee Education Empowerment, she is responsible for oversight of organizational finances, vision, mission, staffing and long-term goal setting. Sophia is a nationally recognized expert in educational empowerment, mindfulness, teacher mentoring, and special education. She has made numerous national, regional, and local presentations on topics ranging from inclusion and empowerment to student self-determination and teaching.

Sophia has served as a researcher, professor, speaker, evaluator, consultant, and entrepreneur. She has also served as a Keynote Speaker at Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region (CeLCAR) Conference of Central Asian Language and Linguistics (ConCALL-4) at Indiana University; a Tedx Speaker at NVCC titled Defining Moments – the Power of Language and Education; published numerous articles to empower others and shed light on important discussions in local and national news outlets, such as, an op-ed in Newsweek titled Resettled Afghan Fathers Don’t Want Their Daughters to Be Educated, in InsideNova titled Column: Let’s make acclimating easier for Afghan evacuees than it was for me, and in New American Economy titled Afghan Immigrant Studies to Become a Professor While Serving Her Community Along the Way. Sophia is a certified fitness instructor with thirty-two years of experience teaching various weekly classes, and her favorite fitness class is kickboxing.

As a refugee, Sophia has a first-hand experience of the obstacles and hardships women refugees face in America. Her mission is to assist other female refugees to gain their freedom and power through education in order to rebuild their lives, to change their children’s lives, and to become a transformative power in their communities.

Board Members

Yalda Royan

Board Member

Yalda Royan is a senior development professional and women’s rights activist with extensive leadership experience in government, national and international NGOs. She has spearheaded women’s rights initiatives in Afghanistan through various USAID funded projects where she sought to advance women’s political, economical and social participation. When she was evacuated to United States in August 2021, she was working as consultant for World Bank to respond to GBV issues in public health sector. Currently she works at the office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at NOVA Community College and also is a Consultant to VOICE, Afghanistan program. She has vast expertise in designing and leading gender initiatives across women’s empowerment, GBV, conflict resolution, and peace and security, and holds a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies from Kabul University.

Antonina Rodgers

Board Member

Antonina Rodgers holds a M. Ed in TESOL. She is an Associate Dean for Languages at Northern Virginia Community College, where she oversees the departments of World Languages, American Sign Language, and English as a Second Language.  She began as an ESL adjunct faculty in an Intensive English Program in 1992. From 1999 to 2017, she coordinated the American Culture and Language Institute that housed the Intensive English Program and other ESL offerings.  She has extensive experience in teaching, as well as all aspects of program administration including teacher training, placement testing, curriculum development, and customized training contracts. She has been a member of WATESOL, TESOL and ACTFL, participating and presenting at these conferences.  Antonina has represented NVCC ESL Program at the regional, national, and international levels through recruiting efforts, participation in conferences, and collaboration between various institutions in grant-funded projects. She has worked with international students, diplomats, permanents residents and recent refugees.  Her particular focus currently is working with female refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.  Her most recent presentation at the Eastern Communication Conference in Baltimore, MD in 2023 focused on the experience of the elder daughters in the immigrant households.  She hopes that F.R.E.E Promise will be able to assist women who lack access to English languages classes elsewhere.


Freshtah Bais

Outreach Specialist

Freshtah Bais was born in Badakshan, Afghanistan and grew up in Kabul. Bais completed her high school in Kabul then continued her higher education by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She began a career as a news presenter, focused on social and cultural news. She had the wonderful opportunity to interview different kinds of politicians and social activists. Whenever she wasn’t busy working in the television and entertainment industry, Bais worked as a part time model.

Freshtah, along with many other Afghans, was forced to evacuate her home country of Afghanistan in August 2021. She left with her husband and arrived to Virginia. She began to take ESL classes in NOVA and was able to reconnect to her career as she hosted a couple of shows and concerts in Virginia with Afghan channels. Freshtah now works as a program assistant with Female Refugee Education Empowerment (FREE) and hopes to empower other refugee women who have had similar experiences as herself.

Community Leaders

Rachel Okotete

Community Engagement Leader

Rachel is recent graduate from George Washington university now working as a cybersecurity analyst. Rachel grew up in Nigeria and pushed against all odds to achieve her dream of living in the United States with a career that wasn’t initially approved by her parents. Through trying circumstances she was able to make her way to a field and career that is fulfilling to her. She now has a mission to empower immigrant  women like her self who have little support transitioning to a new culture and country. Rachel understands the difficulties this takes as she went through this journey herself. That’s why she has taken on the role of community leader with the FREE Organization to spear head events that would showcase refuge women, develop community engagement that  the FREE organizations mission and create fundraising goals that will enable sustainability towards the continuous funding and empowerment of refugees. 

Interns & Volunteers

Ana Natiello

Ana Natiello is a recent graduate of American University where she received her Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs with a concentration on Human Rights and Global Inequality and Development and a regional focus on Latin America. Ana has interned for Vital Voices Global Partnership where she provided programmatic support for projects on gender based violence and political empowerment. She grew up moving across Latin America having lived in Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and El Salvador. She became passionate about migration and refugee work through her experiences abroad. Ana aspires to conduct research on the best practices to empower refugee women. 

Paola Septien Brown

Paola Septien Brown is a recent graduate from Northern Virginia Community College with an Associate’s degree in Business Administration looking to attend George Mason University Spring 2024 to complete her Bachelor’s degree in Business Management with a focus in International Relations. Paola grew up in Guanajuato, Mexico. With a mission and vision to help other women she participated in different campaigns during High School that assisted Mexican indigenous women in different capacities. She is passionate about languages, global diversity, and inclusion. Aspires to build her own business, to motivate, empower and positively impact women across different communities.

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