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Afghan refugee makes it to final 10 in Global Teacher Prize

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Aqeela Asifi , who has been shortlisted for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2016 © UNHCR/S. Rich

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb 18 – Afghan refugee teacher Aqeela Asifi, who won the prestigious 2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award for her extraordinary humanitarian work on behalf of refugees, has been included in the top 10 shortlist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2016.

Asifi teaches children at the Kot Chandana refugee camp, in Punjab province. She has been widely recognised for her brave and tireless dedication to education for Afghan refugee girls in Pakistan – while herself overcoming the struggles of life in exile.

The Global Teacher Prize, widely referred to as the Nobel Prize for teaching, was set up to recognize one exceptional teacher each year who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, as well as to shine a spotlight on the important role teachers play in society.

By unearthing thousands of stories of educators who have transformed young people's lives, the prize hopes to bring to life the exceptional work of millions of teachers all over the world.

This year's finalists have been narrowed down from 8,000 nominations and applications from 148 countries from around the world. The winner will be announced at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on March 13 2016.

"I want to congratulate Aqeela Asifi for being selected as a top ten finalist from such a huge number of talented and dedicated teachers," said Sunny Varkey, founder of the non-profit Varkey Foundation.

"I hope her story will inspire those looking to enter the teaching profession and also shine a powerful spotlight on the incredible work teachers do all over Pakistan and throughout the world every day," he added.

Despite minimal resources and significant cultural challenges, Asifi has guided 1,000 refugee girls through their primary education in a remote community in Pakistan, since she herself fled her native Afghanistan more than 23 years ago.

Born to a liberal family in Kabul and educated in Kandahar at the time when education in Afghanistan was free and for all, Asifi trained as a teacher but was forced to leave the country when the Taliban took over in 1992.

When she arrived as a refugee at the Kot Chandana camp in Pakistan there were no operational schools in the local area. Strongly conservative attitudes meant the education of girls was frowned upon and female teachers were unheard of.

Despite the challenges, Asifi set up a school in a borrowed tent and worked hard to overcome resistance and negative attitudes. Twenty families agreed to their daughters being educated and Asifi initially focused on teaching noncontroversial subjects such as personal hygiene, home management skills and religious education.

After gaining the trust of the community, Asifi was able to introduce literacy, Dari language, mathematics, geography and history to the curriculum. There was no money for resources like blackboards so Asifi stitched pieces of cloth with handwritten text to the tent walls and wrote books by hand at night. Her students traced their first words in dust on the floor.

Today, and owing largely to the support by the Government of Pakistan, there are nine schools in the camp with many female teachers and over 1,500 students including 900 girls. With education, early and forced marriages in the community have declined.

From its small beginnings, Asifi's school has produced over 1,000 graduates – most of them Afghan refugee girls, but also local Pakistani children. Some have become doctors, engineers, government officials and teachers in Afghanistan.

UNHCR's Representative in Pakistan Indrika Ratwatte congratulated Asifi and said she truly deserves to win the Global Teacher Award.

"I am inspired by her strength of conviction and perseverance to pursue a cause that she truly believed in," he said. "Aqeela's story exemplifies the power of an individual to institute change and goes on to show that empowered refugees make significant positive contributions to the benefit of all."

By Duniya Aslam Khan in Islamabad, Pakistan