Among the millions of Afghans who fled to neighboring Pakistan amid the tumultuous early 1990s was a 26-year-old schoolteacher called Aqeela Asifi.
She escaped Kabul with her husband and two children and found shelter in a refugee settlement called Kot Chandana in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
There were no schools in Kot Chandana then, and certainly not for Afghan girls. But Asifi managed to persuade some parents in the socially conservative community that their daughters should be learning. She borrowed a tent and her makeshift school was born.
The effort paid off. There are now several schools in Kot Chandana attended by Afghan refugee girls. In 2015, Asifi won the U.N.’s Nansen Refugee Award honoring outstanding service to refugees. She spent some of her prize money on building new classrooms in Kot Chandana.
These are difficult times for Afghan refugees in Pakistan and around the world. Nearly 600,000 Afghans have returned to the country since last July under pressure from Pakistani authorities. Nearly 2 million Afghans, both undocumented and registered refugees, remain in Pakistan ahead of a December 2017 deadline for them to leave the country. Meanwhile, refugee recognition rates for Afghans are plunging across Europe.
We spoke to Aqeela Asifi about her work educating refugee girls, the challenges caused by the mass returns to Afghanistan and the hope that her former pupils give her.
News Deeply: What are the main challenges to providing an education for refugees in Pakistan?
Aqeela Asifi: The objective of my life is to educate Afghan refugee girls in Pakistan. There were numerous hurdles and problems I confronted in the beginning when I started educating Afghan refugee girls in Kot Chandana refugee camp near the northwestern city of Mianwali, in Pakistan in 1992. In the beginning I had no textbooks, curriculum or formal school. I used to set the agenda at night and taught girls in the morning without books in the tents.
The biggest challenge was early marriages, in which I have to get permission from girls’ in-laws to educate them. The other issues were conservative parents strictly following culture and not allowing their daughters to travel to another city, Kalabagh, for board examinations. They were also not providing photographs of their daughters that are mandatory for admission forms.
It was a disappointing moment for me amid the conservative tribal culture. I kept motivating them and started with Islamic education so that parents would agree to send girls. Once they sent their daughters, I expanded to basic education and social values and succeeded in establishing two classes for girls with reasonable numbers. I provided free books without any assistance for three years. Those were hard days.
Three years passed, and I remember on December 12, 1996, UNHCR officials visited our refugee camp and talked to me about the education of refugee girls, and provided a formal shape to my school including curriculum, textbooks and, most importantly, advocacy campaign sessions with parents on girls’ education. First, they provided us with five tents, and after a year, they constructed a five-room school for us.
News Deeply: Have your students been affected by the pressure on refugees to return to Afghanistan?
Asifi: There is no pressure from the Pakistani government on us. But amid the current political tensions between the two countries, and the growing number of refugees going back, all of our students need to get as much education as quickly as they can, as they are from remote areas of Afghanistan where there are no schools at all. They are happy here in Pakistan, as they were born and raised here and consider it their home.
My previous and current students are committed to the cause of education. Some of them who left for Afghanistan are already engaged in providing education to girls in remote parts of the country.
News Deeply: Do you and your family have plans to return?
Asifi: Migration is not a voluntary process. It is a terrible experience to live as a refugee. I also wish to live in my motherland, Kabul. Passing all these years waiting to go back to a peaceful Afghanistan is a horrible experience. But there are certain hurdles [to returning to Afghanistan], including the current state of affairs, lawlessness and continuous war.
News Deeply: If you return to Afghanistan, will you continue your education work?
Asifi: If I return and get resources then I will continue the cause of educating girls in Afghanistan with the same devotion. I will educate returnees as well as local girls in order to better the lives of women.
News Deeply: You have championed education for girls despite resistance from conservative communities around you. How do you think returning to Afghanistan will impact girls’ prospects for education?
Asifi: I worked 24 strenuous long years providing education to girls in difficult situations. All girls need education In Afghanistan. This is even clearer for Afghan returnees, due to their lack of resources and [the challenges of] restarting their lives in a war-torn country. It will be another challenge for me to promote education in relatively conservative communities, but my commitment to the cause is strong, and hopefully I will succeed.
The returnees who went to Afghanistan are already engaged in the promotion of girls’ education, starting from a single room – the way I started here years ago. They have lit the candle, and its light will spread in Afghanistan. I met with some of my students who returned to the Logar, Kabul and Kunduz districts of Afghanistan and have started educating girls. They often visit Pakistan to meet their relatives and share their stories. I feel happy about their commitment.
News Deeply: What impact do you think the influx of returnees to Afghanistan will have on the country’s education sector? How will this impact Afghanistan’s future?
Asifi: The majority of the refugees come from far-flung areas where there are no schools and in conservative societies, girls’ education is taboo. Unfortunately, the influx of returnees will have a negative impact on and create a burden for an already struggling country in all sectors.
But the educated returnees will definitely break the taboo and promote education in every phase of their lives, including their children. This is a gift they carry with them [to Afghanistan] for their children.
Without education, nations and countries can’t progress, and girls’ education is most important for the betterment of society. I urge the people of Afghanistan to educate girls to end deprivation and help build Afghanistan. It’s time to end the customs that are hurdles for a progressive, peaceful and educated Afghanistan.
The interview was conducted by phone on February 22 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
This story originally appeared on Refugees Deeply.