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The Refugee Teacher Who Turned Girls' Education Into A Mission


Aqeela Asifi with her students.

When a young Afghan schoolteacher arrived in a Pakistani refugee camp two decades ago, she was shocked to discover that merely mentioning girls' education was frowned upon.

Today, Aqeela Asifi, 49, runs one of the most successful refugee schools in the world. Scores of local girls among the 1,000 Afghan refugee pupils are enrolled at Asifi's school in Kot Chandna, a remote village in Mianwali district of Pakistan's eastern Punjab Province.

"When I first arrived in the Kot Chandna, even speaking about girls' education was considered shameful," she recalled. "It seemed impossible to convince people to send their girls to school."

Asifi didn't give up. With her family's help, she gradually persuaded community elders to allow their girls to attend the tent school she opened months after arriving in 1992. "I told them I wouldn't ask for any fees and would even buy the books and stationary for them myself."

Within three years, Asifi saw a sea change in local attitudes toward women's education. "People began to trust me, and soon almost everyone wanted to send their children to our school."

UNHCR took note of her success. In 1996, the UN refugee agency converted her informal school into an official school for Afghan refugee girls. Her success motivated parents to petition UNHCR to open four more girls' schools in Kot Chandna.

Asifi is proud to have educated generations of Afghan refugee girls. "When you have mothers who are educated, you will almost certainly have future generations who are educated," she said.

Aqeela Asifi, a 49-year-old teacher has dedicated her life to refuge education
Aqeela Asifi, a 49-year-old teacher has dedicated her life to refuge education

This week, UNHCR presented Asifi with the Nansen Refugee Award in recognition of her extraordinary humanitarian work. The refugee agency says the award includes a commemorative medal and $100,000 in prize money that will go toward funding a special project for refugees.

"Aqeela Asifi has shown us all that, with courage, change can happen," UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini said. "We must continue her fight."

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres also praised Asifi's work. "People like Aqeela Asifi understand that today's refugee children will determine the future of their countries, and the future of our world," a UNHCR statement on September 15 quoted him as saying.

The UNHCR estimates some 80 percent of Afghan refugee children in Pakistan do not attend school. But Asifi is determined to continue her battle for educating Afghan refugee children.

"I want to begin an educational program for those Afghan refugee girls displaced from their homes because of war or for those who have gone back to Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan," she said.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Farkhanda Asad's reporting.

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