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Kandahar to Carleton U.: Afghan woman's risky pursuit of education

Maryam Sahar Naqibullah, once the Canadian Forces' only female translator in Afghanistan, has followed a risky path that has taken her from a classroom held on patch of desert in Kandahar, to the halls of Ottawa's Carleton University.

'That’s amazing - not being afraid of being shot for going to school.'

As a teenager, Maryam Sahar Naqibullah attended this school in the Afghan desert and was the only female interpreter for the Canadian forces in Afghanistan. Now 20 and living in Canada, she has just completed her first year at Carleton University in Ottawa, where she is majoring in international relations. (CBC)

Her first classroom was a patch of dry land in the desert in Kandahar. An unlikely oasis, but to an eight-year-old MaryamSaharNaqibullah, that's just what it was.

"I was the first female in my family who got the opportunity to get an education," says Naqibullah, now 20. "My parents are uneducated. I was lucky to go to school. For me and my family, it’s a really big thing. I call myself the luckiest girl."

Naqibullah and the other 12 Afghan students in her class - all eager, all of them girls, dressed head to toe in their burqas – walked hours to get there. They sat under the hot Afghan sun on little square mats hand-stitched by their mothers, and drank in their first lessons.

Maryam Sahar Naqibullah's two best friends were killed by the Taliban in Kandahar right after they graduated from high school. She says adjusting to life in Canada has been an enormous change. "When I leave my house in the morning, I don’t have fear of who might kill me because I'm going to school." (CBC)
Those lessons offered the promise of a better life, but also meant danger. Naqibullah's two best friends were killed by the Taliban in Kandahar right after they graduated from high school.

"They’re in my heart every day. They died because they were working for women’s rights. They died because they wanted to make a difference. They died because they were exercising their rights," Naqibullah says.

A lot of women have died like this in Afghanistan, she adds. "In all the provinces they’ve killed these women. But it makes us work harder for a better Afghanistan, to change Afghanistan for women."

She has come a long way down a complicated road since then, both academically and geographically.  

The Sunday Edition

On CBC radio's The Sunday Edition on April 20, 2014, starting at 9 a.m.:

  • Michael Enright on hockey violence.
  • The moderator of the United Church of Canada Gary Paterson brings us a poem by E. E. Cummings.
  • Fifty years after "Unsafe at Any Speed," Michael talks to Ralph Nader about car safety.
  • The urban myth of Kitty Genovese.
  • Tributes to Jesse Winchester and Sue Townsend.

As a teenager, Naqibullah was the only female interpreter for Canadian forces in Afghanistan. The ties she made helped open doors for her. A Canadian program supporting people who acted as interpreters for Canadian soldiers and diplomats in Afghanistan — sometimes at the risk of their lives — has resettled several hundred Afghan "terps" and their families in Canada in recent years.

On Oct. 22, 2011, Naqibullah immigrated to Canada under the program.

"When I leave my house in the morning, I don’t have fear of who might kill me because I’m going to school," she says. "That’s amazing - not being afraid of being shot for going to school."

Naqibullah says life in Canada is a radical change in other ways, too.

"Not wearing a burqa is a wonderful feeling. You can wear anything you want. I don’t need a male escort here. I can get on the bus by myself. I can go home at 9 p.m. by myself. In Afghanistan, women can’t go out without a male escort.

"My life is completely different than my mother and father. I have my rights here and I’m allowed to exercise that. No one tells me what to do and what not to do."

The 20-year-old is now studying at Carleton University in Ottawa. She has just completed her first year, majoring in international relations.

Maryam Sahar Naqibullah (in blue, crossing a street in Kabul as a teenager), says living in Canada offers freedoms she didn't have growing up. "You can wear anything you want. I don’t need a male escort here. I can get on the bus by myself and I can go home at 9 p.m. by myself. In Afghanistan, women can’t go out without a male escort." (CBC)
Getting a university education is the beginning, she says, of a second life.

"I never thought I’d be a student in Canada," she says. "I sometimes still think that I’m dreaming, that I’m not at university at all. How can I be sitting in a class at Carleton with a computer in a beautiful lecture hall … an Afghan girl [who grew up] with no paper, pens or chalk?"

She adds that she still feels responsible for Afghanistan and emotionally connected to the country, but she also wants to live a life with the freedoms and opportunity Canada offers.

"This country protected my life. It gave me freedom, gave me things I didn’t have in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is my soul, Canada is my body."

[Listen to The Sunday Edition's audio documentary about Maryam Sahar​ Naqibullah, called "Where I Want to Go," in the audio player at the top-left of this page or on CBC radio starting at 9 a.m. EDT on Sunday April 20.]

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