Life for refugees of war-torn nations can be tough. But one woman is being honored by the United Nations for her work to help young girls get an education, even while in exile.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has chosen to honor Afghan refugee and teacher Aqeela Asifi for its 2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award.
Asifi knows firsthand what it’s like to be forced from one’s home. When war broke out in Afghanistan in 1992, she had to leave her home in Kabul. With it, she also left behind her career as a history and geography teacher.
Before the war, Asifi described Kabul as a “prosperous, vibrant city.” She told BBC News that “There was no difference in the way men and women were treated. I lived in a time in Afghanistan that many haven’t seen.”
Leaving her life behind at the young age of 26 was a painful experience. “It took us six years to build our house back in Kabul and I left without even packing,” she told BBC News.
After she left the country, she wound up in Pakistan — specifically, the Kot Chandana refugee village in the conservative Mianwali, in Punjab province. Not only was the region more traditional, but so were the other Afghans she encountered in the village.
When Asifi first arrived in the refugee village, she saw a need to educate almost immediately.
“The people were generous and kind at heart but also very traditional,” she said. “Girls weren’t allowed to leave the house, let alone get an education.”
In order to convince families to let their daughters receive an education, she and her husband went door to door to spread more information about what they could offer. Although the human brain grows until age 18, it has reached 90% of its adult weight by the time a child turns eight years old, which makes primary education a necessity for young children.
Once she had convinced a few families to allow their daughters to attend school, she was able to begin offering lessons. Her classroom — at the time just a tent — started out small with only a few students.
Asifi’s first lesson was in home economics and personal hygiene. She explained that she wanted the girl “to know that education was nothing to be scared of, it just helped you live your life better.”
It wasn’t easy at first, according to the UNHCR’s press release. Asifi had to write out worksheets for her students by hand.
Eventually, her class sizes grew, and she began working in shifts in order to meet with all students who wanted to attend.
Today, thanks to more than two decades of hard work by the 49-year-old, that classroom is in a permanent building rather than a tent, and she has taught more than 1,000 students in the village over the course of 23 years. Some of her former students have even become teachers themselves, and today all girls in Kot Chandana attend the school.
Asifi will receive her award at a ceremony on October 5 in Geneva, Switzerland. Previous winners of the Nansen Refugee Award include Eleanor Roosevelt, Graça Machel, and Luciano Pavarotti.