When Aqeela Asifi started teaching in a tent in a refugee camp in Pakistan, her pupils knew so little about education that they thought their pencil erasers were chewing gum.
Ms Asifi has just been given the Nansen award by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, in recognition of more than two decades’ work teaching the refugee schoolgirls of Afghanistan.
She originally trained and worked as a teacher in Kabul and Kandahar. Hers was a comfortably middle-class life. But when the mujahideen arrived in Afghanistan in 1992, her family fled to a refugee camp in the Pakistani Punjab.
The refugees’ houses were made of mud, with only small holes for ventilation. “I was shocked,” she tells TESS the day after receiving her award in Geneva. “People were living in poverty. I’d never seen such conditions, even on TV or in the media.”
Most shocking, though, was the situation for women in the camp. “I came from a very modern background, where men and women were equal,” she says. “In the camp, women were always treated like slaves. They weren’t considered equal human beings. The only objective of women’s lives was to serve.”
As a result, girls were often uneducated. “Whenever something goes wrong with a girl, these people say, ‘This happened because she went to school’,” Ms Asifi says. “Some extreme traditionalists won’t even allow their daughter to sit with a girl who went to school – they think she will influence her.
“I had two options: to sit back and let it go on, or to do whatever little I could to bring some positive change.”
Sowing the seeds
And so she pitched a tent in her brother-in-law’s yard and set up a school there. Most of the pupils were too poor even to bring their own notebooks. Occasionally, Ms Asifi was given charity or government funding; usually, she paid for supplies herself.
Ms Asifi taught the girls to read and write. But she also delivered lessons on how to treat their elders and how to respect their surroundings. In home economics, she taught the girls to change their clothes every day, to brush their hair before coming to school and to serve tea only in clean cups.
The community quickly saw the advantage of such skills. Gradually, one tent became five. Then the authorities approached Ms Asifi and asked whether she would be interested in moving her pupils to a nearby empty school building.
Parents, however, were wary of sending their daughters to a formal school. So Ms Asifi agreed to some compromises. There would be no male teachers or visitors, and teachers would not collect their salaries from the (male) commissioner in person. To this day, Ms Asifi’s husband collects her pay for her.
“I agreed to these conditions because my main aim was to bring as many girls as possible to the school,” she says. “Any resistance to education is because of lack of education; they never experienced what an educated mind could do. That’s why the Taliban or anyone else is opposing education.”
She is now the headteacher of five schools across the refugee camp. Some former pupils have gone on to become teachers and doctors. “But, even if the rest are not professionals, they are better mothers because they are literate mothers,” Ms Asifi says. “They know if a medicine has expired or not…They can find their way about without a husband or a brother.
“Can you imagine these girls, who once started chewing their erasers, now helping their fathers and uncles maintaining their business accounts? As a teacher, I’m so proud of them.”
The ‘tireless efforts’ of Aqeela Asifi
Aqeela Asifi was given the 2015 Nansen Refugee Award in recognition of her “tireless efforts to provide education to hundreds of refugee girls”.
The UNHCR says: “Asifi 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.”