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Teacher Who Educated Afghan Refugee Girls Wins UN Prize

Afghan refugee teacher, Aqeela Asifi, shares her perspective on the Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas Initiative with U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Richard G. Olson and UNDP Country Director, Marc-André Franche, Aug. 28, 2015. (UNDP Pakistan/Tabinda Siddiqi)

A teacher who has dedicated her life to educating Afghan refugee girls, challenging cultural sexism by setting up classes in a makeshift tent, has won a special prize awarded by the U.N.'s refugee agency (UNHCR).

Aqeela Asifi, 49, left Kabul with her family in 1992, and ended up living in the remote refugee settlement of Kot Chandna in the Punjab region of Pakistan, where most girls were excluded from the classroom.

Despite few resources, she won over the community and persuaded parents to send their daughters to school.

Today more than a thousand children attend permanent schools in the village, said UNHCR, although around 80 percent of Afghan refugee children in Pakistan are still out of school.

The Nansen Refugee Award has been won in the past by Eleanor Roosevelt and Luciano Pavarotti. The award ceremony takes place next month in Geneva, and the winner gets $100,000 to fund a project complementing their existing work.

"When you have mothers who are educated, you will almost certainly have future generations who are educated," said Asifi.

"I wish for the day when people will remember Afghanistan, not for war, but for its standard of education."

The lack of opportunities for girls in education in the region has been highlighted by campaigner Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her work promoting girls' right to education. She was shot in the head by a gunman from the Taliban in 2012.

There are currently 2.6 million Afghan refugees living in exile, making them the largest refugee community in the world, according to UNHCR.

Since the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, millions have returned home, but insecurity still remains. The Taliban recently launched a wave of attacks in Kabul, killing more than 50 and souring relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have long accused each other of sheltering Taliban and other Islamist militants who conduct attacks inside their territory, charges both deny.

"Investing in refugee education will allow children to play a part in breaking the cycle of instability and conflict," said António Guterres, head of UNHCR.