DNTO

Life in Afghanistan as Canada's only female interpreter

Maryam Sahar Naqibullah was just 15 when she started working for the Canadian Armed Forces in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Her next three years would see her schoolmates attacked with acid, her brother kidnapped, and finally a move to Canada.

It was hell. Every day explosions, every day assassination. Every day women dying.

Maryam Sahar Naqibullah (right) interpreting a speech for Leslie Wright on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2011 in Kandahar. ( Naqibullah )

Maryam Sahar Naqibullah grew up in Kandahar, where life was pretty routine. She got up at 6 a.m., walked two hours to school, came back at noon, attended English school, did her errands, then watched TV with her family.

But in 2006, their peaceful lives were shaken up as the Taliban regained power in many parts of Afghanistan.  Amidst the violence, Naqibullah was offered a job as an interpreter for the Canadian Armed Forces. She was 15 years old.

It was a tough role for a young woman, especially when she first had to convince her family to let her do it. Her mom did not approve, but her father finally agreed it was important for Naqibullah to serve her country.

Despite Maryam's efforts to keep a low profile, the Taliban began to notice the woman being escorted to the army base in Kandahar. The Taliban kidnapped the escort, Naqibullah 's younger brother Omer, to find out who the woman was and what she was doing.

Omer was gone for two days and he returned home, beaten. But he managed to keep Naqibullah's secret. And Naqibullah continued to work for the Canadian and American armed forces.

During this time, in 2008, there were more threats. Two of her classmates had acid thrown at them for attending school.

Naqibullah decided not to go back. But her father convinced her that it was important to go to school, that staying at home wasn't safe either. So, Naqibullah went. She discovered that every one of her classmates had also returned to school. They were determined to send a message that they would not be intimidated.

Eventually the military and Naqibullah's family decided it was no longer safe for her, and the family was forced to leave Kandahar province.

It was hell. Every day explosions, every day assassination. Every day women dying. - Maryam Sahar Naqibullah

In 2011 Naqibullah came to Ottawa under the Afghan Interpreter Immigration Program. The program is available only to interpreters, their spouses, and their children, so Naqibullah had to come alone.

She now studies International Relations at Carleton University, but plans one day to return to her country.

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