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Afghan Refugee Girls' Teacher Wins UN Award

2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award recipient Aqeela Asifi, Sept. 15, 2015.

An Afghan refugee who has dedicated her life to teaching refugee girls in Pakistan has won the 2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award.

Despite limited resources, cultural traditions against educating women and her own personal struggles from her life in exile, 49-year-old Aqeela Asifi won over her conservative Afghan community and persuaded parents to send their daughters to her makeshift tent school at the Kot Chandana refugee village in Mianwali, a district in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

Since then, the teacher has guided more than a thousand refugee girls through their primary education.

“When I began my mission to educate Afghan girls, I could not have imagined that one day it will win me this award. I cannot express my happiness,” she told VOA.

Out of School

According to UNHCR, there are around 1.5-million documented Afghan refugees in Pakistan, nearly half of them school-aged children. But approximately 80 percent of the refugee children currently are out of school.

Asifi was a teacher in Kabul when she had to flee with her family in 1992.

“In Afghanistan I was teaching both girls and boys,” she told VOA. “When I left Afghanistan and ended up in this refugee village with my family I was dismayed to find out that there were no facilities here particularly for women and girls.”

They settled in the remote refugee community in Kot Chandana, where she began teaching just a handful of pupils in her make-shift tent, copying out student worksheets by hand.

Her tent school has since led to the opening of several permanent schools in the village, teaching more than one thousand children.

The expansion was made possible due to support by UNHCR, local administration and some non-governmental organizations.

2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award recipient Aqeela Asifi, talks to VOA's Ayaz Gul, Sept 15, 2015.
2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award recipient Aqeela Asifi, talks to VOA's Ayaz Gul, Sept 15, 2015.

Broadening education

UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award honors extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced, and names Eleanor Roosevelt, Graça Machel and Luciano Pavarotti among its laureates.

The 2015 award ceremony will be held on October 5 in Geneva. The winner gets $100,000 to fund a project complementing their existing work.

Asifi, a mother of six, has also worked hard to provide a solid education for her own children. She spends almost her entire salary to pay for her son to study engineering at Kabul University. But seeking higher education for her four daughters is difficult because of a lack of financial resources and secondary schools for girls in the village.

The Afghan teacher hopes more and more girls and boys will be encouraged to receive education in Afghanistan so her homeland is known not for war but for higher standards of education.

"I want my mission to be introduced in parts of Afghanistan where conservative traditions and customs still prevent parents from sending their daughters to outdoor schools," she said.