Dr. Nilab Akhmad left Afghanistan as a girl and found a warm welcome in Ukraine with her family, but after the war forced her to become a ‘double refugee,’ it was access to education that drove her to reach her potential
They say that lightning doesn’t strike twice. Well, it did for me and my family. First, we had to leave Afghanistan, and then in 2022 we were forced also to leave our new lives in Ukraine.
After some years in Ukraine, I was feeling settled and able to pursue my education to the highest levels. We had come to enjoy the warm welcome of the Ukrainians among whom we lived, and who were always very friendly and ready to help. But when the full-scale war began there, hostilities compelled us to move onwards once again, to seek safety in another country, this time Germany. I became a “double refugee”.
My journey has been marked by a multitude of challenges: cultural, educational, financial, religious and linguistic. Yet I believe I am living testament to the indomitable spirit of refugees, someone who has overcome the numerous hurdles life puts in our way.
After leaving Afghanistan, with my parents and three brothers, we arrived in Ukraine. With me, I took my dream of becoming a great dentist because I had seen in Afghanistan how women and girls were blocked from seeing male dentists and therefore excluded from dental treatment because of their gender. I wanted to change that by becoming a female dentist, willing and able to treat female patients. Initially, I feared that my background would be a barrier to continuing my education, not to mention the language barrier. Yet in Ukraine I found a community that embraced diversity with open arms, making me feel welcomed and accepted. The people of Ukraine soon dispelled my worries about being a refugee in their country.
Although I had succeeded in continuing my education, I still faced one major hurdle: none of the tertiary educational institutions I wanted to study at provided financial support specifically for refugee students. Undeterred, I secured admission to the dental faculty at a private university in Odesa and was fortunate that my father was able to find a way to pay my fees. With the unwavering support of my family and a lot of hard studying, I completed the first two years of university and then applied for a DAFI scholarship*. Thankfully my diligent studies and excellent exam scores meant I was granted a DAFI scholarship, which enabled me to finish the course. I will always remember the day and moment when I heard the happy news about the scholarship!
Things were going so well, but then suddenly, my family and I were on the move again. The war in Ukraine made life too risky and dangerous, and we were forced to leave Ukraine, as we had left Afghanistan all those years before. At the time I was in the final semester of my master’s degree and, once again, life was full of unbearable uncertainty, complications and doubts: would Germany be as welcoming as Ukraine? Would I be able to learn another new language and adapt to another new culture? I wanted to start my PhD, but at the same time I was struggling even to find an apartment!
At that moment, I thought back to my idol: Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani student who suffered so much for her right to receive an education, and who has done so much for female education. Every time I read about her courage, it gave me courage of my own to forge ahead. She made me believe that one day I would stop feeling helpless, would achieve my goals – and then help girls in my own country who need support at this devastating time for Afghanistan.
I haven’t forgotten those who were left behind – like my friend Sarah, who recently finished school and wanted to go to university, until the de facto authorities forbade women from doing so. Kabul fell one day before she and her classmates were due to take their final school exam, and Sarah’s ambitions of becoming a politician have been cut short along with her education.
Or Lina, who has been a teacher for the past 12 years and says that she and her colleagues are continuing their jobs but are always facing financial and other difficulties.
I want to encourage them and other women and girls to embrace their aspirations, to surmount the challenges in their way, to nurture an unyielding spirit of determination.
“I haven’t forgotten those who were left behind.”
I know it is not easy: I have been ignored, people closed doors on me even when I deserved opportunities, but I have stood strong and today I am embarking on a PhD in therapeutic dentistry to achieve the highest level of education and become the best I can be. I know that even though you might be strong and brave, that doesn’t mean you won’t feel hurt by other people’s negative words and attitudes, but you have to ignore them and push on. And I want to be a voice for those who I can’t help directly.
I hope powerful and influential people read my story and my message and are inspired to help women and girls across the world to achieve their potential as I have done.
* The DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) scholarship programme offers qualified refugee and returnee students the possibility to earn an undergraduate degree in their country of asylum or home country.
Nilab’s story is published in the 2023 UNHCR Refugee Education Report, which compiles data from more than 70 countries to provide the clearest picture yet of the state of refugee education and enrollment globally.
Originally published by UNHCR on 15 September 2023.