After fleeing Afghanistan, this formerly homeless 26-year-old is becoming a nurse

Shamim Ahmadi, 26, came to Toronto after fleeing Afghanistan. After getting help from Toronto's Covenant House, a homeless youth shelter, she's now beginning her nursing residency.

Shamim Ahmadi risked her life to educate herself and now she wants to inspire others

Shamim Ahmadi is beginning her residency as part of Centennial College's Practical nursing program this month. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

Shamim Ahmadi heard stories about girls who tried to go to school in Ghanzi, the city in central east Afghanistan where she grew-up.

"The Taliban in our area, they were putting acid on their faces," she said.

"These stories was scary for everyone and to my family as well. One day in the summer the school in my village was burned by Taliban and everyone was scared to go back."

Even at the best of times, when the Taliban fell and she reached the classroom, girls in school faced discouragement from the community.

"It was like, 'No, education is not important for a girl. Girl is for home. Girl is for kitchen. They should learn how to clean, how to cook,'" Ahmadi said. "But my father, I remember one thing that he told me … 'You can be a leader.'"

And now, she is.

After fleeing violence in her home country, being smuggled into Toronto and getting help from a local homeless shelter for youth, Ahmadi, 26, is now beginning her nursing residency with dreams of becoming a doctor.

"I have my status, I have my life in Canada, and now I'm going for my higher education and there is nothing to stop me."

Fleeing home

Ahmadi can clearly remember her first day of school. She'd been learning the alphabet at home, and through the mosque, when the Taliban fell.

Shamim Ahmadi at age six while living in Afghanistan. (Shamim Ahmadi)

"I was with few other girls, the first girls going to school. I remember that day. I feel ... always when I close my eyes it feels a sunny day, a bright day, a very hopeful day."

Her parents, who'd never gone to school themselves, supported her, despite some in the community telling them they were wasting their time.

"It was a huge risk for me and my family that we took it, but there was two ways. One way that we could die forever, or one way that we could live our lives forever, and I think going to school made us to survive forever, and have a voice and have a life, a better life, a free life," Ahmadi said.

Despite their resolve, they still felt unsafe.

'As a doctor, I could help them'

They fled to Pakistan where, without status, her family found it hard to get work. At about 12-years-old, Ahmadi decided to help her father making coats and clothes, which left little time to study.

At the same time, Ahmadi's six-month-old brother became ill.

Her family took him to the doctor, and "they were in the line-up and he passed away, and that totally shocked me," she said.

"I felt that I should go for medical school, and if … I see a family that is struggling, as a doctor I could help them. And that became my dream."

To achieve it, she needed to return to Afghanistan for University, something her parents, at first, forbade because of the danger.

Shamim Ahmadi poses with her Grade 12 classmates. She asked CBC Toronto not to reveal their identities. (Shamim Ahmadi/CBC)

"I was putting my Grade 12 books in front of me, I was crying and touching them and no, this is not the last thing. I have to go forward. So when my father saw me like that, he right away decided, 'No, you have to go,'" she said.

She did go, but when the violence became worse, her family told her to flee.

Ahmadi got a visa to the U.S., and then a smuggler helped her get to Toronto by boat.

'I was reborn'

She arrived in the city in July 2013, exhausted and confused. Asking around for help, she heard about Covenant House, a homeless youth shelter.

They gave her a room, sent her to English classes and found her a school. They helped her with immigration papers, and now, Ahmadi is a permanent resident and hopes to one day bring her family here.

"They have helped me a lot ... I feel like I was reborn in Covenant House and they gave me another life," she said.

Shamim Ahmadi studies at her apartment in Toronto, where she now lives as a permanent resident. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

This month, Ahmadi will begin her residency as part of Centennial College's Practical nursing program. After she graduates, she plans to attend medical school.

On top of that, she works as a tutor, motivational speaker and a caregiver for seniors and for students with disabilities.

"I am looking forward to give back more and more to Canada, to the people," she said.

She's also started a charitable organization, the Ahmada Development Organization, which provides scholarships for Afghan students.

Ahmadi took a trip to Kenya in March, where she was teaching and playing with students as well as painting classrooms. (Shamim Ahmadi)

Her family and community back in Pakistan are following her accomplishments.

But her home country is still in conflict today and attacks continue.

Still, she has a message for young people trying to follow her path.

"Keep one thing in mind: that education is important and that will change your life, and that's what I have done."

About the Author

Taylor Simmons

Associate Producer, CBC Toronto

Taylor Simmons works in all areas of the CBC Toronto newsroom, from writing for the website to producing TV and radio stories. Taylor grew up in Mississauga, Ont. and studied journalism at Western University. You can reach her at