December 16, 2016

Afghan refugee girls can stay in school past the age of 14 thanks to teacher Aqeela Asifi's prize money

Aqeela Asifi with some of the girls at her Kot Chandana school in Pakistan

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Aqeela Asifi said her "dream is a reality" after she opened new facilities at her school in Pakistan to help older Afghan refugee girls continue their education.

When Aqeela Asifi won the Nansen Refugee Award in 2015, she promised to use some of the $100,000 prize money to expand the school where she has helped more than 1000 Afghan girls get an education.

That goal was achieved when she opened three new classrooms, a washroom and a fully-equipped science laboratory at the school in remote Kot Chandana village in Pakistan.

Until now, students had usually finished their schooling by the age of 14 because the priority was to help younger children get an education.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Aqeela said: “My students would always ask for the same thing - to be able to continue their education past the eighth grade. Now we can make this dream a reality.”

The teacher has also used the money to hire new teachers, buy books and teaching materials, furnish the extra classrooms with desks, chairs and a blackboard.  

Palvashey is one of the students who will be able to continue their education. 

In the new science block where girls learn chemistry, biology and physics, she said: “Although English is my favourite subject at school, I want to become a doctor and save lots of lives.” 

Aqeela's amazing story began when she fled conflict in Afghanistan with her husband and two small children in 1992. 

Arriving in Pakistan with tens of thousands of other refugees, she was shocked by the conditions she saw - and the attitudes towards girls being educated.

In an interview with Theirworld after winning the Nansen Refugee Prize, Aqeela told how she had to convince village elders and families that "education is a light with which they find their way in the darkness".

Aged only 26, she started a small school for 12 girls in a tent. More than two decades later, she has helped to educate more than 1000 Afghan refugee girls and the village has six schools.

Her inspiring work led to her being awarded the prize by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

A young girl who attends the school at Kot Chandana in Punjab province

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

Aqeela talks to the students during morning assembly

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

Afghan girls attend their class at the school set up by Aqeela

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

Aqeela helps a student to read the lesson at her school in the refugee village

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

A young girl reads the daily lesson in her class

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

UNHCR country representative Indrika Ratwatte inaugrates the new block of the school

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

Girls wait for their friends early in the morning to walk to the school

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

Aqeela Asifi gives out new uniforms to the students

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

Young girls walk out of the school at the Kot Chandana refugee village

Photo credit: UNHCR/Sara Farid

There are still more than 1.3 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan - half of them children.

At the Kot Chandana school ceremony, Indrika Ratwatte - UNHCR’s Representative in Pakistan - said: “Aqeela’s dedication to promote education for Afghan refugee girls in Pakistan is outstanding."

Aqeela plans to go home to Afghanistan and will use the rest of the prize money to help other returning refugees rebuild their lives.

She said: “When I see a pen in the hands of my students and I see them writing and learning, this sight strengthens my resolve. This sight gives me the courage and resolve to continue my mission to educate until my last day.”

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