Award-winning Afghan refugee whose tent school empowered a thousand girls

When Aqeela Asifi accepted the Nansen refugee award in Geneva this month, the 49-year-old Afghan teacher appeared with her husband, Sher Mohammed, and youngest daughter, Sawera, 11. It was a moment to celebrate Asifi’s “brave and tireless dedication to education for Afghan refugee girls” in Pakistan.

But the fact that Asifi says she feels like a failure when it comes to the education of her older daughters reveals just how difficult it is to slice through the Gordian knot of poverty, cultural sensitivities and lack of resources that stymies education for all refugees, but particularly girls in conservative societies.

Asifi’s four daughters all went to school, but the older three stopped soon after eighth grade – the end of middle school – because of community pressures and the lack of secondary facilities in Kot Chandana village in Punjab’s Mianwali district, where they have lived all their lives. One of her daughters is now married.

“For the older three, I feel I was a bad mother because I couldn’t give them the kind of education I wanted to give them,” said Asifi, who was visiting London after accepting the award from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Now, she hopes to return to Kabul to continue her work as an educator, but also to give her daughters a chance to pursue their studies.

“When I went to Kabul [last month], I met girls their age and I saw them progressing. I saw them going to university and college, and I felt like I’d failed my own daughters. I’m a strong advocate for education, but my own girls could not continue,” she said, speaking in Pashto.

Asifi fled Afghanistan in 1992. With her husband and two small children, the teacher, then aged 26, settled in the remote Kot Chandana village. She was dismayed by the lack of schools and determined to do something about it, but realised she had to tread carefully in this conservative society.

She went door-to-door, persuading refugee parents to let her tutor their children. She began with just 20 pupils, but soon had permission to open a tent school. She worked hard – copying out worksheets by hand – and eventually got funding from the Pakistani government. Her tent school expanded and Asifi started taking in local girls as well.

Aqeela Asifi teaches Afghan refugee and Pakistani girls at her school in Kot Chandana refugee village in Mianwali, Pakistan.  (AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / UNHCR / SEBASTIAN RICH)
Aqeela Asifi teaches Afghan refugee and Pakistani girls at her school in Kot Chandana refugee village in Mianwali, Pakistan. (AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / UNHCR / SEBASTIAN RICH)

Today, the school has a permanent building and Asifi’s work has seen 1 000 girls attend school, with many receiving national lower secondary certification. But she prefers to look at what remains to be done – ensuring girls can continue their studies into secondary level and beyond.

“There are many talented girls who could become professionals, but that is only possible if there are facilities for them. If a woman is not allowed to walk far from her home to go to school, this is a talent wasted. I had many brilliant students but since they had no option to continue their education, they are just sitting at home, doing nothing,” she said.

With the $100 000 from the award, which is named after the Norwegian explorer and first high commissioner for refugees for the League of Nations, Fridtjof Nansen, she hopes to start a project in Kabul to provide education to internally displaced communities and returnees living on the fringes of the city.

Asifi says refugees’ education is generally neglected – a warning that rings ever more true as the world grapples with its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Pakistan has hosted Afghan refugees for about 35 years, and the 1.5 million in the country represent 14% of the world’s refugee population. One in five refugees in the world is from Afghanistan, of whom more than 50% are children.

Globally, it’s estimated that only half of refugee children are able to go to primary school, and only a quarter attend secondary school. Around 80% of Afghan children in Pakistan are out of school.

“When people are displaced, the focus is mainly on providing them with shelter and food assistance. Education is always the last thing that is thought about,” Asifi said. “Where I come from, all the basic facilities that should go with quality education are lacking, such as spacious schools, brighter classrooms, more school supplies, science laboratories, basic libraries, clean drinking water and playgrounds … everything is missing.”

But she acknowledges that in this world of overlapping, protracted crises, humanitarian budgets are stretched. The answer, she says, is for individuals to step up to the plate.

“Every individual has a responsibility when it comes to education because if you talk about the progress of society, that is only possible through education. The best thing would be if every educated person could try to support education. Fund a child if you can,” she said. “It’s not the responsibility of one organisation, one country, one teacher. It’s the responsibility of every single person.”

In a report last month, the UNHCR and Norwegian Refugee Council said that when refugee girls lack access to education, this can reinforce the negative gender roles and cultural norms that restricted their access in the first place, leaving them more vulnerable to child marriage, marriage without consent, teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence. But Asifi’s work, it said, had helped to shift entrenched gender roles.

“There is a lot of awareness about education,” Asifi said. “Fathers do come and check that their daughters are doing well. This is the very community that was once not ready to send their daughters to school.” Some families ask her to help them research higher education options for girls. But boys also need support, she added.

“Let’s not forget that Afghanistan is a country of youngsters. The majority of Afghans are young people, and they are the makers of our future. When you talk about education, there is the basic literacy, which I can take care of, but then the youngsters need empowerment through education, through skills programmes,” she said, arguing that the international community and government of Afghanistan should support male refugees who want to return to Kabul for further education.

It is this world of possibilities that she wants to open to her own daughters, including Sawera, who hopes to become an eye doctor. “My eldest daughter is married, and even for [a small amount of money], she has to ask her husband. If she was educated, she could be teaching somewhere, or doing something to support the family and support her husband.” – By Clár Ní Chonghaile

Image – Afghan refugee and educator Aqeela Asifi accepts the 2015 Nansen Refugee Award medal during the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award ceremony in Geneva on October 5, 2015. (AFP / UNHCR / MARK HENLEY)