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Nansen Award winner turns girls' dreams into reality

Pakistan. Aqeela Asifi running girls school at Afghan refugee village

Nansen Award winner turns girls' dreams into reality

2015 Nansen Refugee Award winner Aqeela Asifi expands her school in Pakistan, giving Afghan refugee girls access to secondary education for the first time.
12 December 2016
A student clutches her textbook at the Community Girls School in Kotchandana refugee village, Pakistan.

For young Afghan girls like 13-year-old Palvashey, who live as refugees in remote Kot Chandana village in Pakistan, education usually ends on their 14th birthday.

Their makeshift school, itself a converted health clinic, has only five rooms, and furniture, school supplies and resources are severely limited. The lack of space and educational materials mean younger children are prioritized by the teachers, and the older ones have to sacrifice their schooling at the end of the eighth grade. But all that is now changing.

Afghan teacher Aqeela Asifi, who won the 2015 Nansen Refugee Award for her dedicated work providing education to refugee girls, has expanded this small school in Kot Chandana using some of the US$100,000 prize money.

“My students would always ask for the same thing – to be able to continue their education past the eighth grade.”

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate the new building in September 2016, Aqeela talked about her motivation. “My students would always ask for the same thing – to be able to continue their education past the eighth grade,” she said. “Now we can make this dream a reality.”

Thanks to Aqeela’s investment of more than US$64,000 in three new classrooms, a washroom and a fully-equipped science laboratory, the first class of ninth grade girls have a space to continue learning. New teachers have been hired, books and teaching materials purchased and the classrooms furnished with desks, chairs and a blackboard.  

Palvashey is one of the students about to start the grade. She has not missed out on any schooling, but some of her new classmates were not so lucky. Many had no option but to drop out of school and are returning after a lengthy break. The class of 11 students now has the chance to complete their high school education and a shot at a brighter future. 

The walls of the new science block are filled with posters depicting human anatomy and books crowd the shelves. Test tubes, Bunsen burners and microscopes are set out on tables, ready for the first class to begin their chemistry, biology and physics studies. And it is these skills that will make Palvashey’s ambitions come true. “Although English is my favourite subject at school, I want to become a doctor and save lots of lives,” she says.

Afghanistan is one of the largest and most protracted refugee crises in the world. Of the 1.34 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, nearly half of them are children. Access to education is considered to be a vital tool in enabling successful repatriation, resettlement or local integration. 

Aqeela’s school is one of only a small handful in Pakistan that offer education to refugee children older than 12 years - a situation that is unfortunately far too common. A report released in September by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, found that more than half – 3.7 million – of the six million school-age children under its mandate worldwide have no school to go to.

Some 1.75 million refugee children are not in primary school and 1.95 million refugee adolescents are not in secondary school, the report found. Refugees are five times more likely to be out of school than the global average, while only a fraction – one per cent – go on to further education.

The school extension in Kot Chandana marks yet another important milestone for Aqeela, who escaped from the Afghan capital Kabul with her husband and two small children in 1992. She was just 26 when she arrived at this remote refugee camp in the Punjab province of Pakistan, with no idea that she would spend decades of her life as a refugee.

From humble beginnings – a borrowed tent and handwritten texts – Aqeela has developed a small school and helped more than 1,000 student girls through to the eighth grade.

“When I see a pen in the hands of my students and I see them writing and learning, this sight strengthens my resolve."

During the inauguration ceremony of the school, UNHCR’s Representative in Pakistan Indrika Ratwatte paid tribute to her commitment. “Aqeela’s dedication to promote education for Afghan refugee girls in Pakistan is outstanding,” he said.

For Aqeela, who has devoted her life to giving girls learning opportunities, seeing classrooms filled with animated students is an inspiration. “When I see a pen in the hands of my students and I see them writing and learning, this sight strengthens my resolve,” she says. “This sight gives me the courage and resolve to continue my mission to educate until my last day.”

And now, Aqeela is one step closer to achieving her own dream – returning home to her native Afghanistan to help returned refugees rebuild their lives. She plans to spend the remaining Nansen prize money to establish small informal learning centres in Kabul, for children who may have missed out on schooling while in exile.

“If you want to help people, I believe providing an education is the best service one could offer to society,” she says.

If you know of an individual or organization dedicated to improving the lives of people forcibly displaced from their homes, nominate them for the Nansen Refugee Award today.

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