It is hard, at first—almost impossible—for Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz to say much without invoking Malala Yousafzai’s name.

It’s their way of acknowledging her tireless efforts at fighting for girls’ education—at being so accomplished at it, and at such a young age being so composed in the fierce international spotlight.

It’s also a nod to her key role in their attending the elite international school in the remote British countryside they now call home.

It is there that we have a chance to meet and hear their story for the first time.

The school prefers not to be named, out of security concerns.

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Kainat Riaz, 17, in her first interview since moving to the UK in September to attend college. She was shot a year ago in the same attack that almost killed Malala Yousafzai. (Richard Devey/CBC)

Shazia, 15, and Kainat, 17, were ordinary Pakistani schoolgirls, but for the fact they lived in the lush and conservative Swat Valley — once ruled by the Taliban — and that they both wanted to be doctors.

And, on the day we spoke, one year ago exactly, they happened to be sitting on either side of Malala, when she was sought out by a Taliban gunman.

He opened fire, point blank, shooting Malala in the head, while Shazia was hit in the left shoulder and hand, Kainat in the upper right arm.

From that moment on they forever ceased to be ordinary schoolgirls, and their futures were bound.

Fear, nightmares and uncertainty

Shazia and Kainat prefer not to discuss the details of that day. Even a year later Shazia still has nightmares. For Kainat the memories of the threats, and of an explosion near her home, are as present as the scent of freshly cut grass here.

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Police gather at the site of a bomb attack near the house of Kainat Riaz in Swat valley, Pakistan, Dec. 4, 2012. One woman was killed and six others, including children, were injured in the bomb blast ,That was two months after Riaz and Shazia Ramzan were shot by a Taliban gunman trying to kill their classmate, Malala Yousafzai. (Hazart Ali Bacha/Reuters)

“Fear was just in our faces,” she said through a translator in her first interview since arriving in the UK last month. “Especially after the Malala incident. They blew up a bomb behind my house, and after that the fear grew a lot.”

After surviving the attack, the girls had graduated to uncertainty. They returned to school, but only under the protection of armed guards. Both families, seen by neighbours as targets, were eventually forced to move.

'I Am Malala' on The Current and The National

You can listen to Anna Maria Tremonti's full 45  minute interview with Malala Yousafzai online.

On TV tonight, The National has extended coverage of the interview and more.

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They were then invited to attend a UK college on a scholarship after Malala turned it down and suggested they go in her stead.

For the girls it is a dream come true—by way of a nightmare.

“I was a common girl from Swat valley … I’ve come so far, my parents could not afford it, so it’s a big day for me,” she said. “I have so much freedom, unlike Swat. I can do whatever I want here.”

Despite the nightmares—and the lack of proper Pakistani food—Shazia actually feels comfortable here and for the first time in years also feels safe.

So much has changed since their shared trauma. Kainat sagely suggests theirs were small sacrifices for a greater good.

Sending girls to school

“Before we were shot there was hardly any concept of sending girls in Swat to schools, but now parents have started to do that,” she points out.

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Shazia Ramzan, 15, was sitting beside Malala Yousafzai in the schoolbus that came under attack by the Taliban and was also shot, along with Kainat Riaz. (Richard Devey/CBC)

What she and Shazia both want most are medical degrees they can eventually take home.

“I will complete my studies so I will go back and help these people and help these girls,” says Shazia.

Away from Malala’s limelight her seatmates are starting to bask in their own. They insist, though, Malala is the main role model.

“But you’re a hero too,” I ventured.

“Yeah,” Shazia concedes, with a promising smile.

 

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Since September, Kainat Riaz (left) and Shazia Ramzan have been attending school in the U.K. (Ellen Mauro/CBC)