It is way past 10pm and in the flickering candlelight, a weary Aqeela Asifi finally decides to set aside her needle and thread. The last letter of the Urdu alphabet had been stitched on to the wall of her tent, so her enthusiastic pupils would be able to learn it when they trooped in for their morning lessons.
She retreats to bed, ready to rise at 4.30 for prayers and to make breakfast for her family before setting off to teach impoverished children in the refugee village of Kot Chandana in Pakistan’s Punjab province. She’d return home only late in the evening, then would prepare dinner, and the following day’s lessons, by lamplight – writing out worksheets with the pen and paper she’d saved hard to buy.
Aqeela plans to use the $100,000 she received with the Nansen Refugee Award to champion the cause of young girls.
Aqeela’s two-decade-long daily routine living in exile has educated more than 1,000 of the world’s most needy children, and last year her mission was recognised with a global humanitarian award – the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Nansen Refugee Award – with a prize money of $100,000 (about Dh367,295).
Aqeela, from Afghanistan, fled across the border to Pakistan from Kabul in 1992 with her husband, Sher Mohammad, and their two children when civil war broke out. A proud history and geography teacher in Afghanistan, Aqeela, then 26, found herself living in a refugee camp.
It was a struggle getting used to life as a refugee, but she said it was meeting the other refugees that was the real shock for her.
‘We were all Afghans, yes. But I soon realised that the life I’d lived in Kabul and the life these people lived in other parts of Afghanistan were very different,’ she says.
‘The people were generous and kind at heart but their attitudes were very traditional. Girls weren’t allowed to leave the house alone, let alone get an education.’
Aqeela and her family began their life in exile with members of her husband’s extended family, all who had fled their homes without even packing their belongings. ‘We thought we’d be in the camp for a maximum of a year until the conflict was resolved, but that never happened,’ she recalls.
‘My host family treated me like a guest for a year and no one expected me to go to work [as a teacher]. But over the months I realised there were scores of children in the camp who needed support.’
Though aware of the centuries-old traditions and values within her new community where education was not a priority, Aqeela was desperate to offer lessons to the displaced youngsters. So she and her husband, who runs a grocery store in the camp, set about visiting every household, urging them to consider the benefits of education for their daughters, promising due respect for them and explaining how lessons would benefit them all in the long term.
Aqeela then borrowed a tent from her family and set up her own school, which could seat 12 girls. Before long, as word spread around the camp and trust – and popularity – grew, she found herself teaching in two shifts, 9-11am and 2-3pm.
Lacking any basic resources, Aqeela, now 49, made letters of the alphabet from scraps of fabric and stitched them to the tent walls, and laboured for hours writing worksheets for the girls as there were no boards or other teaching equipment.
It took several years for a local charitable organisation to hear about her work and approach elders in the community for support for the school project. They agreed it was worthy of support and worked together, first providing three additional tents and then building a permanent structure and approaching authorities for funding for resources.
Aqeela, who now has six children – four daughters and two sons – says: ‘We had to choose – live in the darkness of ignorance or rise up and start my mission.
‘I had to be careful not to upset this very traditional community but I also felt a moral obligation to give girls and women there the basic human right of education.’
One of the first lessons she taught them was home economics and personal hygiene. ‘I wanted them to know that education was nothing to be scared of – it just helped you live your life better.’
Her curriculum soon evolved to cover maths, literacy and religious studies.
Aqeela’s efforts at investing in refugee education gives these children a chance to one day rebuild their broken countries.
Soon she could see the change in the girls. ‘They were more confident and more engaged. One girl told me she offered to help her uncle keep a register of all the wool he sold. He laughed at her in the beginning. But then eventually, through the simple maths she learned in my tent school, she helped her uncle with basic bookkeeping. He was so impressed, he got his son to marry her.’
But girls still often opt out of the education system at the age of 12 when they take tests competing against pupils from across the province. Pupils can be allocated test centres anywhere in the region and many parents are unwilling to allow their daughters to travel out of the neighbourhood so prefer to end their education at that point.
‘There are many talented girls who could become professionals, but that is only possible if there are facilities for them,’ said Aqeela.
‘I had many brilliant students who are now just sitting at home, doing nothing.’
But three of her original pupils, who were allowed to continue their studies into their teenage years, married and returned to the Afghan province of Kunduz, and within a month, they had opened a school in a village there.
‘It’s been 12 years since then and that school is still running and all the girls in the village go to it. I’m very proud of that,’ says Aqeela, now headteacher of a school for 150 pupils with 10 teachers, whose salaries and teaching materials are given by the government of the Punjab province.
Local Pakistani girls have also started attending her classes.
Earlier this year, Aqeela was nominated for the Global Teacher Prize and was named one of 10 of the best and most dedicated teachers from around the world.
Her education mission was appreciated during a routine visit to the camp by representatives of the UNHCR. Community leaders praised her efforts and officials nominated her for the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award, which honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced, and names renowned humanitarians Eleanor Roosevelt, Graça Machel and Luciano Pavarotti among previous recipients.
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 the figure falls further – approximately 80 per cent of children are currently out of school.
With more than 70 per cent of Afghans in exile in Pakistan currently under the age of 30, it is a very young population and education will make a dramatic difference to their prospects – and those of their country.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, paid tribute to Aqeela’s efforts: ‘Access to quality and safe education helps children grow into adults who go on to secure jobs, start businesses and help build their communities – and it makes them less vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
‘Investing in refugee education will allow children to play a part in breaking the cycle of instability and conflict. People like Aqeela Asifi understand that today’s refugee children will determine the future of their countries, and the future of our world.’
UNHCR goodwill ambassador, renowned author Khaled Hosseini too was all praise for the efforts. ‘Access to education is a basic human right. Yet for millions of refugee children it is a lifeline to a better future, which they have been heartbreakingly denied,’ he says.
‘I have met many young refugees who have been torn from everything that makes them feel safe: their homes, their families, their friends and their schools.
‘Investing in their education is an investment in their future, giving them hope and the chance to one day be a part of rebuilding their broken home countries.
‘UNHCR is working to give all refugee children the chance to go to school. Aqeela Asifi has shown us all that with courage change can happen. We must continue her fight.’
In a recent report, the UNHCR and Norwegian Refugee Council said that when refugee girls lack access to education, this can reinforce the negative gender roles and cultural norms that restricted their access in the first place, leaving them more vulnerable to child marriage, marriage without consent, teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence. But Aqeela’s work, it said, had helped to shift entrenched gender roles.
Aqeela has tentative plans to return to Kabul early next year to open further schools with her award money for those previously deprived of schooling due to poverty and those returning home from a young life in exile.
She believes 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 says. ‘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.’
Aqeela hopes to use her award money as a springboard from which to launch other education projects and champion the cause of young girls within the international community.
‘When people are displaced, the focus is mainly on providing them with shelter and food assistance,’ she says. ‘Education is always the last thing that is thought about.
‘Where I come from, all the basic facilities that should go with quality education are lacking, such as spacious schools, brighter classrooms, more school supplies, science laboratories, basic libraries, clean drinking water and playgrounds… everything is missing.
‘I will try to use this platform to be the voice of the worthless and ask the world not to forget about us and contribute more to the sector of education. I want children to finish their whole school cycle and to encourage parents to send their kids to school for the whole programme.
‘My request to the world would be to seriously look at education and bring it in line with other countries.
‘Let’s focus on education to build on the talent in our countries to solve the problems of the world.’
As a child herself in Afghanistan, Aqeela wanted to join the ‘sacred profession’ and be a teacher, despite her liberal father’s wishes for her to become a doctor.
But her biggest childhood dream was ‘to do something that no one else in history had done’.
Having seen her own dream come true, she is fiercely determined to help others realise theirs.