Afghanistan + 1 more

Refugee voices: Opportunities in exile - educating Afghan girls in Pakistan

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With her frosty blue nail polish, confident smile, and almost flawless American-accented English, 20 year-old Rahila challenges most stereotypes of Afghan women. We met her as she was surfing the web at Mars Computer Center for refugee girls in Peshawar, Pakistan and talked to her about her impressive educational accomplishments and her dream of one day returning to Afghanistan to become either a computer programmer or a doctor.
Rahila came to Peshawar with her parents and nine siblings only three years ago, after the Taliban captured her hometown, Mazar-e-Sharif. Under the Taliban, girls were forbidden to pursue an education, something unthinkable to Rahila. Soon after, her family packed their belongings and moved to Pakistan so that Rahila and her sister could continue their studies, a reason that other families also gave for leaving Afghanistan. "After the Taliban came, my Aunts got married because they could not work. I feel so sorry for them," Rahila said with great empathy. Her father, an educated writer and former politician told his daughters, "Staying here under the Taliban is a waste of your time." Later, to motivate them to study, he admonishes, "I came here because of you, so that you may get an education."

"The educational opportunities are good for Afghans in Pakistan. There are good colleges and we can study many subjects. We didn't have many opportunities in Mazar. Afghanistan is not a developed country. Here we can study computers and English " explained Rahila. Without doubt, Rahila has maximized the opportunities available to her - opportunities available to a lucky minority of Afghans living in Pakistan. Not only is she enrolled in her diploma course in Information Technology in a Pakistani College, she is also attending the Afghan University in Peshawar where she is studying to be a doctor. In her spare time, she teaches English three hours a day at the Iranian Council. With the money from her teaching she supports all her school expenses. "I don't get any support from my family," she proudly told us. "I do this by myself."

When RI staff asked Rahila if she faced any problems being an Afghan woman studying and working in Pakistan, she hesitated with a hint of impatience at our question and said, "I have never thought about being a girl. I can do anything by myself; I don't need anyone to help me." She went on to add, "Even my Dad doesn't think about me being a girl. He believes I have a right to study." Rahila's father has played a crucial role in encouraging his daughters. He not only wants them to be leaders in their academic studies but he also encouraged Rahila's mother, an educated woman now in her mid-fifties, to work outside the home after they first got married some 35 years ago.

Rahila went on to explain that she wants to be a computer programmer, but her father wants her to be a doctor. "My father wanted all his daughters to be doctors. He forced my first sister to become a doctor and he tried to force my second sister, but she became an engineer," Rahila laughs. "Now she works in Germany and she supports our family." She is still struggling with whether to appease her father or to follow her dream of becoming a computer programmer.

In two years, Rahila will have completed her Bachelor's in Information Technology. She then wants to go back to Mazar-e-Sharif. "I love Mazar-e-Sharif," she says suddenly lighting up. " I want to go back. It is my motherland. I was born there." Rahila plans to continue her education in medicine once back in Mazar so that she can be a doctor to the people of her beloved hometown. At nighttime, she hopes to teach computers to those who were left behind in the technological gap created by the Taliban and 23 years of war. Like many Afghans in Pakistan, Rahila is hoping that peace and security are in Afghanistan to stay and that the promises of the international community to make education a priority will result in the construction of new schools, the re-establishment of universities and in bringing Afghanistan into the information age.

With what seems like her usual determination, Rahila explains that she will not face insurmountable obstacles back in Afghanistan. "If I do my best, it will be easy for me to finish my studies and to find work." She goes on to speculate that perhaps, she could find work in a UN Office. "Afghanistan needs us, the people who are educated."

"What I wish best is to see that Afghanistan has peace." Until then, Rahila will spend her time making sure she is ready for that long-anticipated day.

Michelle Brown and Veronika Martin recently returned from Pakistan and Afghanistan where they were researching differences in girl's access to education.

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