Aqeela Asifi at her school in Pakistan.

Aqeela Asifi at her school in Pakistan. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich

Aqeela Asifi, a schoolteacher who has helped more than 1,000 refugee girls complete their primary education since she fled Afghanistan two decades ago, was today named the winner of the 2015 Nansen Refugee Award.

UNHCR, which presents the award annually, cited her brave and tireless pursuit of education for Afghan refugee girls in Mianwali, Pakistan, where she has managed with minimal resources and overcome significant cultural challenges.

“The role a teacher plays in a child’s life can be transformative,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. “In Aqeela Asifi’s case, it has been profound. She has given hundreds of young girls the chance to dream of a better future.”

Afghanistan is the largest and most protracted refugee crisis in the world. More than 2.6 million Afghans currently live in exile, and over half of them are children. Access to education is considered to be a vital tool in enabling successful repatriation, resettlement or local integration. Yet 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. In this context, Aqeela’s story becomes all the more striking.

Pakistan. Aqeela Asifi the 2015 winner of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award
Young Afghan refugees and Pakistani girls attend assembly at Aqeela Asifi's school. Today 1,500 young people are enrolled in six schools throughout the refugee village. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich
Pakistan. Aqeela Asifi the 2015 winner of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award
During classes Aqeela Asifi pays attention to individual students and monitors their progress. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich
Pakistan. Aqeela Asifi the 2015 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award
Over the past 20 years Aqeela Asifi has kept track of her students with an organised school register. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich

Aqeela escaped with her husband and two small children from Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1992, during the Mujahedeen siege. She was just 26 when she arrived at the remote Kot Chandana refugee village in Mianwali, a district in the Punjab province of Pakistan, with no idea she would spend most of her life as a refugee. In the early 1990s, she was one of more than 3 million exiled Afghans in the country. Kot Chandana was then home to nearly 180,000 people.

She began with just 20 pupils in a borrowed tent.

As a teacher, Aqeela was immediately struck by the lack of schools in the village and a total absence of learning opportunities for girls. She felt deeply that she wanted to help girls to learn, but, living as a refugee in a conservative community, she realised there would be no simple solution. Undaunted, she set out to bring education to the refugee girls of Kot Chandana.

In the beginning, the community did not even know what to call Aqeela—they didn’t know the word for teacher. She persevered for months to earn permission from the village elders to set up a small classroom for girls. She then went door-to-door to persuade reluctant parents to let her tutor their children. She began with just 20 pupils in a borrowed tent.

Asifi reminisces over an old family photo taken in Afghanistan. She misses her mother and the family she left behind in Kabul when she was forced to flee in 1992. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich
Pakistan. Aqeela Asifi the 2015 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award
Asifi at home with her husband, Sher Muhammad. He has championed her work with refugees from the start: “In the future I would like [the schools] to go beyond 8th grade,” he says. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich
Pakistan. Aqeela Asifi, the 2015 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award
Sawera Niazmand, 11, is Asifi's youngest daughter and a student at her mother's school. “My dream is to become an eye doctor,” she says, “to bring light to people who cannot see.” © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich

Aqeela carefully planned her course of study to reflect Afghan cultural traditions, as well as literacy and practical home management lessons. She wanted to equip her students with essential life skills to help them thrive within the limited confines of the refugee settlement. With even the most basic school supplies out of reach, she spent each night writing out worksheets by hand.

Over the next two years, her tiny school grew to six tents. Now it occupies an entire building. In the 23 years since she fled Afghanistan, Aqeela has helped guide more than 1,000 girls through to the eighth grade. Her efforts have encouraged more schools to open in the village, and now another 1,500 young people (900 girls, 650 boys) are enrolled in six schools.

Aqeela remains a trusted mentor and role model to two generations of pupils who still come to her for advice and guidance. “When you have educated mothers,” she says, “you will almost certainly have educated future generations. So if you educate girls, you educate generations.’’

“If you educate girls, you educate generations.”

Testament to this is Salma,* one of Aqeela’s original students. Salma was just two months old when her family fled from Kunduz, Afghanistan, in the late 1980s and settled in Kot Chandana. Although they were part of a deeply conservative family, Salma’s parents were persuaded by Aqeela to let their daughter attend classes and receive an education. Salma says it changed her life.

She remembers the school’s early days. They had no drinking water, no rugs or pillows to sit on, no fans, no textbooks. Salma specifically remembers when Aqeela first managed to secure pencils and erasers for the students. Fooled by the sweet, artificial scents of the erasers, Salma took a bite. She still recalls the scent and taste of the eraser, laughing: “It reminded me of bubble gum. Halfway through [eating] I realized it did not taste good, but I finished it anyway.”

Although she was one of the fortunate few able to attend school, her life as a girl was still restricted by traditions. Salma’s parents arranged a marriage for her but did not tell her out of fear that she would run away. By the time she was finishing the final level of school, Salma was married and pregnant, but determined to receive her certificate. Inspired by Aqeela’s example, she managed to juggle the roles of student, young wife and mother.

Pakistan. Aqeela Asifi the 2015 winner of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award
Scenes from the market place in Kot Chandana refugee village in Mianwali, Pakistan, where currently there are more than fourteen thousand Afghan refugees living in the village. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich
Pakistan. Aqeela Asifi the 2015 winner of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award
Nadia (left), 12, and Haseena, nine, are following in their mother's footsteps and attending Asifi's school. Due to strict cultural traditions, their mother could not be photographed. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich
Pakistan. Aqeela Asifi the 2015 winner of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award
Nadia, 12, left, and Haseena, 9, study at Aqeela Asifi's girls school in Kot Chandana refugee village in Mianwali, Pakistan. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich

Salma explains that her education has proved vital for the entire family. As the only literate person in her household, it is Salma who takes her children to the hospital when they are ill and fills out the necessary forms. She is the one who can read the expiration dates on their medications. She can also help her children with their homework.

Aqeela’s patient tuition went beyond teaching her to read and write, Salma says. She was also an important role model and mentor, giving Salma the confidence and skills to manage her home and family life – and instilling in her a sense of dignity and respect for others.

“I wish for the day where people will remember Afghanistan, not for war, but for its standard of education.”

She is now a mother of seven. Three of her girls—Nadia, 12, Haseena, 9, and Sariya, 6—are enrolled in Aqeela’s school. Salma wishes she could continue her own studies, but instead focuses on her daughters’ education. “I had dreams,” she says, softly. “I always wanted to be like Aqeela. To speak wisdom.” She wants the same for her daughters, for them to become doctors, teachers or whatever they may aspire to. She says she will do everything in her power to resist early marriage so they may have those opportunities.

Aqeela is a true symbol of triumph over adversity. With her quiet patience and determination, she has changed the lives of hundreds of young refugees, offering them a pathway out of poverty and a chance to build a future when they return to Afghanistan. “I wish for the day where people will remember Afghanistan,” she says, “not for war, but for its standard of education.”

The Nansen Refugee Award recognizes extraordinary humanitarian work on behalf of refugees, internally displaced or stateless people. The award includes a commemorative medal and a US$100,000 monetary prize. In close consultation with UNHCR, the laureate uses the monetary prize to fund a project that complements their existing work.

*Name changed for protection reasons.

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