In Belgium, Afghan teen dreams of empowering girls at home

In a new online project, 16-year-old Madina from Afghanistan shares her hopes of equality for women in her homeland.

Madina dreams of empowering girls back home in Afghanistan.   © UNHCR/Humans of Amsterdam/Fetching_Tigerrs

BRUSSELS, Belgium – “Back home people would tell me to change my shoes because they were boys' shoes,” says 16-year-old Madina from Afghanistan. Now in Belgium, where she found safety from the conflict at home, there is only one thing Madina wants to change.

“Here in Belgium people don’t care if I wear these sneakers under a dress,” she says. “In Afghanistan, girls are not treated the same as boys. My biggest dream in life is to set up a school for girls so they can learn how to read and write. I want all the girls in Afghanistan to know that they can do anything boys can do.’’ 

Madina is one of 12 refugee and asylum-seeking children in Europe who star in a new project that lets their imagination run free. In The Dream Diaries, the youngsters reveal their hopes and dreams from the safety of their new homes in Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The series was produced by Humans of Amsterdam photographer Debra Barraud, her colleague Benjamin Heertje, graphic designer Annegien Schilling, film-maker Kris Pouw and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

"I want all the girls in Afghanistan to know that they can do anything boys can do.’’

In it, Madina shares her hopes of one day building a school and empowering girls in Afghanistan. Two and a half years of living in Brussels, Belgium, with her mother, have given her the confidence to dream big and be true to herself.

“In Afghanistan, there were a lot of things I wasn’t able to do like playing soccer or wearing certain clothes,” she says. “Now that we live in Brussels, everything is different. I can become friends with whomever I want to be friends with, I can play soccer and I can wear whatever I want to wear. People don’t care if I wear these sneakers under a dress.”

In 2017, over 12,000 asylum-seekers were granted refugee (and subsidiary protection) status in Belgium. Most have fled conflict and persecution in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Over half of the world’s refugees are children and many will spend their entire childhoods away from home. However, children are incredibly resilient – with help, they can find ways to cope and look forward to the future once more.

“When children flee their home countries, they leave everything behind, except their hopes and dreams,” says co-creator Debra Barraud, whose Humans of Amsterdam photography project has over 400,000 Facebook followers. “Through the project we saw the strength of these children and how with the right support they can achieve anything.”

Audiences are being encouraged to stand #WithRefugees by signing UNHCR’s global petition, which asks decision makers to grant refugees safety, education and opportunities – turning their dreams into reality. You can follow The Dream Diaries series via Humans of Amsterdam, Fetching Tigerss and UNHCR’s social accounts.

When asked what made her happy, Madina’s answer was simple.

“Freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of expression,” she says. “When I see that girls are catching up to boys all around the world.”

Quotes are from the full stories by @humansofamsterdam


See more stories from The Dream Diaries