ISLAMABAD, Sep 29 (UNHCR) – Speakers at a reception Tuesday paid rich tributes to Aqeela Asifi, winner of the prestigious 2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award for her extraordinary humanitarian work on behalf of refugees.
Afghan refugee teacher Aqeela Asifi dedicated her life to bringing education to refugee girls in Pakistan. Her brave and tireless commitment has helped thousands of refugee girls acquire access to quality primary education despite minimal resources and cultural challenges.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is celebrating the achievement of Ms. Aqeela Asifi. To pay tribute to her services, an event was arranged by UNHCR that was attended UNHCR’s Representative in Pakistan Mr. Indrika Ratwatte, ambassadors from different countries, senior UN and government officials and representatives from civil society. Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions, Lt. Gen. ® Abdul Qadir Baloch was chief guest at the occasion.
Aqeela Asifi, 49, is being recognised for her brave and tireless dedication to education for Afghan refugee girls in the Kot Chandana refugee village in Mianwali, Pakistan – while herself overcoming the struggles of life in exile. Despite minimal resources and significant cultural challenges, Asifi has guided a thousand refugee girls through their primary education.
Afghanistan is the largest, most protracted refugee crisis in the world. Over 2.6 million Afghans currently live in exile and over half of them are children. Access to education is vital for successful repatriation, resettlement or local integration for refugees. Yet globally it’s estimated that only one in every two refugee children are able to go to primary school and only one in four attend secondary school. And for Afghan refugees in Pakistan this falls further, with approximately 80 per cent of children currently out of school.
UNHCR has released a contextual report Breaking the cycle: Education and the future for Afghan refugees. The report outlines the challenges that children, especially refugee girls, face in accessing education in Pakistan.
Asifi is a former teacher who fled from Kabul with her family in 1992, finding safety in the remote refugee settlement of Kot Chandana. Asifi was dismayed by the lack of schooling for girls there. Before she arrived, strict cultural traditions kept most girls at home. But she was determined to give these girls a chance to learn. Slowly but surely she convinced the community, and began teaching just a handful of pupils in a makeshift school tent. She copied out worksheets for the students by hand on sheets of paper. Today the tent school is a distant memory and over a thousand children are attending permanent schools in the village thanks to her early example.
She believes that instilling a belief in the power of education for girls in this generation will transform the opportunities of the next. “When you have mothers who are educated, you will almost certainly have future generations who are educated,” she said. “So if you educate girls, you educate generations. I wish for the day when people will remember Afghanistan, not for war, but for its standard of education.”
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 5.7 million Afghans have returned home, yet insecurity still remains. UNHCR has embarked on a strategy to assist remaining Afghan refugees to return home and a key element of this is ensuring they can access quality education. A ministerial level meeting in early October in Geneva will seek to advance this strategy with key regional partners.
UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced, and names Eleanor Roosevelt, Graça Machel and Luciano Pavarotti among its laureates. The 2015 ceremony will be held on 5 October in Geneva, Switzerland. Speakers and performers at the event will include UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ger Duany, singer Angelique Kidjo and visual artist Cedric Cassimo.