October 15, 2015

Refugee award winner Aqeela Asifi: ‘Education is a light to find your way in the darkness’

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Aqeela Asifi helping her students with their work. She remains a trusted mentor and role model to two generations of pupils. UNHCR:S. Rich

Aqeela Asifi helping her students Picture: UNHCR/S. Rich

Aqeela Asifi teaches her daughter Sawera UNHCR/S. Rich.JPG

Aqeela teaches her own daughter Sawera Picture: UNHCR/S. Rich

When she fled from the growing violence in Afghanistan and arrived in Pakistan with her husband and two small children, Aqeela Asifi was shocked.

Not just by the living conditions among the tens of thousands of fellow Afghan refugees who had crossed the border to safety. But by their attitude towards women and girls.

"I was not ready for what I encountered there," said Aqeela. "It was so different from my liberated lifestyle in Kabul. For the first time I realised that there were people opposed to girls getting an education."

Aqeela, a teacher before leaving the Afghan capital, decided she had to act. She was only 26. But she carefully and methodically began to approach families and then the elders of the refugee village of Mianwali in Punjab.

"I was trying to convince them that education is a light with which they find their way in the darkness," she said. Aqeela started a school for 12 girls in a tent in 1992. Eventually that became six tents and then a permanent school building. Two decades later, her single-minded dedication has helped more than 1000 Afghan refugee girls get an education and there are now six schools in the village. 

Aqeela's inspiring work was recognised on the international stage when she was named as the 2015 winner of the Nansen Refugee Award from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. It is awarded annually for "extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced".

Aqeela Asifi Nansen Refugee Award graphic

UNHCR produced a series of illustrations on Aqeela's story

Two days after receiving the award at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland, Aqeela came into A World at School's London office to talk about her life and work in education. She also took time to write a message in our special book containing 10 million #UpForSchool Petition signatures which called on leaders at the UN General Assembly to give an education to every child in the world.

Aqeela talked through a translator about her own childhood in Afghanistan - a far cry from the discrimination she would witness later in the refugee community.

"When I was growing up and going to school in Kandahar and Kabul I never faced any difficulty," she said. "I went to a government school and everything was free. Books, school uniform, transport - everything was provided.

"Everywhere I saw girls and boys attending school equally. I had no clue that there could be places in Afghanistan where girls did not go to school."

In 1992, the Mujahadeen laid siege to Kabul. Aqeela and her husband Sher Muhammad escaped with their young children and went to Mianwali, where his family lived. They were among three million exiled Afghans in Pakistan and their new home was the stifling, remote refugee village of Kot Chandana.

Most people in the camp were from the Kuchi nomadic tribes. Aqeela wanted to help the girls get an education but she had to tread warily among people with conservative cultural views about females.

Aqeela Asifi with her children Nadia, 12, and Haseena, 9, who are at her school picture UNHCR:Sebastian Rich

Aqeela Asifi with her children Nadia, 12, and Haseena, 9, who are at her school Picture: UNHCR/Sebastian Rich

Aqeela Asifi receices Nansen Refugee Award

Aqeela Asifi receives the Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva

Aqeela Asifi signs the #UpForSchool Petition book

Aqeela writes a message in the #UpForSchool Petition book

She said: "I started meeting the families at social occasions like weddings. We would talk about education - giving the example of myself as an educated woman who became a teacher and was not relying on my husband’s salary. I could read directions to find my way. I knew when my child’s vaccine was due. I could contact my family through writing letters to them.

"Then I had to convince the elders of the community because it would not have been possible to establish anything for girls without their consent."

While there was still resistance, Aqeela was allowed to start a school for 12 girls in a tent in her back yard. But she was careful to reflect Afghan cultural traditions in her teaching.

"I knew others would be convinced if I succeeded in bringing about positive change in the lives of those 12 girls," she said. "I prepared a course. Basic literacy using handwritten notes on how to read and write. And home economics - how to treat your guests, be a good daughter, take care of the family. Gradually, the parents noticed a visible change in the behaviour of their daughters."

She spent what little money she had on pencils and notebooks - cutting sheets of paper into pieces to share among her students.

One of those first students was Salma, whose family had been nomadic livestock herders. She remembers well the first tented classroom - there was no drinking water, nothing to sit on, no fans and no textbooks.

Aqeela Asifi Nansen Refugee Award graphic

Now she is a mother of seven children - three of them enrolled in Aqeela's school. As the only literate person in her extended family, she can read their medication labels and help with homework. Salma said: "I always wanted to be like Aqeela. To speak wisdom."

Until 1996, Aqeela had just one tent. But this suddenly grew to six and in 1997 she was given a permanent building for her school. 

"There were lots of conditions but I agreed to them all," she said. "Because I wanted more girls going to school."

Twenty-three years after she fled from her home, Aqeela remains a trusted mentor and role model in the community. She has helped to guide more than 1000 girls through to the eighth grade. Some of them have gone on to become teachers themselves. Another 1500 students - 900 of them girls - are enrolled in Kot Chandana's six schools.

But conditions can still be bleak for children in the refugee schools.

Aqeela explained: "The classrooms are dark, with no electricity. In the summer it is extremely hot, in the winter extremely cold. There is no drinking water, no toilets and no labs or computers - which is a basic requirement for today’s world. Children still sit on the floor.

Aqeela Asifi - Young Afghan refugee girls at Asifi's school encouraged by Asifi’s early example 1500 young people are enrolled in six schools throughout the refugee village UNHCR S. Rich

Girls at Aqeela's school in Kot Chandana Picture: UNHCR/S. Rich

Aqeela Asifi with her husband Sher Muhammad in their home he has championed her work with refugee girls from the beginning UNHCR:S. Rich

At home with husband Sher Muhammad, who has championed her work with refugee girls Picture: UNHCR/S. Rich

Haseena nine years old and Nadia, 12 the sisters are the second generation of Afghan refugee girls to attend Asifi’s school their mother Salma was among the first girl students two decades ago UNHCR:S. Rich

Sisters Haseena, nine, and Nadia, 12, are the daughters of Salma - one of Aqeela's first students Picture: UNHCR/S. Rich

"There are also few incentives for teachers. They are people with families who have their own children who they have to feed and educate as well. The salaries are extremely low. How can you expect a teacher to give everything to the school when they have to feed their own family?"

Aqeela believes passionately that investment is the key to providing education in emergencies, such as war and natural disasters. When she arrived in Pakistan, she thought she would be there for a few months. 

Refugees who flee from emergencies across the world can spend many years - often generations - away from their homes. Of the three million Afghans who moved to Pakistan in the early 1990s, 1.5 million are still there.

Aqeela said: "In my Nansen Refugee Award acceptance speech in Geneva, I highlighted the need to invest more in education. Whatever you spend on the first few priorities - like food, shelter and security - is not sustainable.

"If world leaders and donors want underdeveloped countries to progress they should invest more in education. Every child should have the right to education.

"Education is not a one-time investment. It is the only sector where you invest and it never finishes because it goes from one generation to another. If you construct one school and that stays there for ever, so many generations will benefit from that school - but how many people can use one tent for how long?"

With the Nansen award comes a $100,000 prize to be spent, in conjunction with UNHCR, on a project for refugees or displaced people.

Aqeela Asifi Nansen Refugee Award graphic

It also comes with responsibilities, said Aqeela. "People’s expectations will rise. Everyone was so happy about the award - but now everyone is expecting me to do more. I am just one person, I am not an organisation so I cannot do bigger things."

What she is planning to do is return permanently to Kabul, more than two decades after she and her family left. She recently went back to research how and where she might spend the prize money.

She said: "I met communities of refugees who returned from Pakistan. These are people who are not originally from Kabul but who could not return to their own areas because of ongoing war and a lack of job opportunities. They are living in the suburbs and their children are not going to school.

"Some of them are not sending their girls to school because of cultural reasons. Others because it is a long walk to the nearest school in Kabul.

"I plan to come up with a project proposal for those children who cannot attend school, to take school to them following my model in Pakistan. Set up a small thing within the community - it could be the house of an elder  - so that children and particularly girls have access to at least basic literacy. This may not sound big but it's the start of something."

Aqeela Asifi reminisces over old family photos. She misses her mother and the family she left behind in Kabul when she was forced to flee in 1992. UNHCR/S. Rich

Aqeela reminisces over old family photos - she misses her mother and the family she left behind in Kabul Picture: UNHCR/S. Rich

Aqeela's long journey will end soon where it began. Back in Kabul. Back in a school, helping underprivileged girls to get an education.

Her own children have been fortunate to have her both as a mother and a teacher. 

Her youngest daughter Sawera is 11 and attends Aqeela's school - just 20 paces from her home in Kot Chandana. She said: “Education is equally important to your boys, girls, sisters, children, everyone. Once your children receive an education, they get to know what is right or wrong. Education gives you knowledge and understanding,”

Generations of Afghan children have never seen the country of their parents and grandparents. But Sawera is looking forward to her family moving back there.

She said: “I would like to be a doctor in Afghanistan. My dream is to become an eye doctor - to bring light to people who cannot see.”

  • Act
  • Related News