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Education a lifeline for Afghan sisters studying in Victoria

Scholarship allowed the sisters to escape heavily restricted lives in Afghanistan, after a bombing at one of their schools in Kabul killed 52 students

Two sisters fleeing Afghanistan to study on Vancouver Island were at the final airport checkpoint at the departure gate in Kabul when they were stopped by an armed Taliban guard.

Under Taliban rule, all Afghan women must be escorted by a male guardian when travelling.

Torpikai, 20, and Zarmina ­Sultani, 18, were alone.

Their hearts were pounding.

“I didn’t tell them that I have a scholarship,” said Zarmina. “I tell them I will go to Pakistan and I will be back.

“Honestly, I was so scared. It was a hard situation talking with Taliban. We were just alone.”

In the end, the guard, armed with an AK47, took pity on them and waved them through. “The process was not easy, but still there was a hope inside me,” said Zarmina.

They would stay five months and five days in Pakistan, with family members they had never met, getting their Canadian visas before heading to Vancouver in August, then on to the Island, where they had received full $74,000 boarding scholarships to study at St. Margaret’s School for girls in Saanich.

The sisters have just completed their first term in Grade 10 at St. Margaret’s. They are among eight Impact Scholars — students affected by war, financial hardship or lack of access to education — funded with support from anonymous donors since St. Margaret’s began the program last year. Others come from Ukraine and Nepal.

Over cardamom tea in a campus boarding-house lounge, the girls talked about their experience.

The two grew up in Jaghori, a mostly Hazara district in Ghazni province, about 150 kilometres south of Kabul, with their six siblings — three sisters and three brothers.

They were raised by their single mother following their father’s death in 2013. The next year, the family moved to the Afghan capital of Kabul for better access to education. There, their mother, who is illiterate, earned about $100 Canadian a month through sewing and hand crafts.

When the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, women were banned from education and employment. But Torpikai and Zarmina had largely grown up in the post-Taliban era, and were able to attend government schools.

When the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, however, it gradually began excluding women and girls from most public spaces, prohibited them from working in offices or travelling any significant distance without a male relative, and banned them from attending school beyond Grade 6.

They could still, however, pay for tutoring at education centres that prepared students for university exams.

Then on Sept. 30, 2022, a ­suicide bomber blew himself up at the Kaaj educational centre in Kabul where Zarmina was studying, killing about 52 teenage students of about 300 who had come to prepare for university entrance exams, according to The Associated Press.

The Islamic State, a rival of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack. Fortunately, Zarmina was not in class at the time.

“We grew up with bomb explosions — it was kind of normal for us,” said Zarmina. “But that was the first time we lost our friends.”

Torpikai, meanwhile, was taking courses at Kawsar Danish, an educational centre in Kabul that had also been bombed, in October 2020, by a group affiliated with the Islamic State. She was relieved to hear her sister wasn’t in class on the day of the Kaaj bombing, but devastated by the deaths and increasing threats.

“It was a sad day. We lost a lot of our friends and classmates,” said Torpikai.

After the deadly blast, the Kaaj education centre reopened. Zarmina recalls studying next to a room where there were still blood-stained walls and human remains.

Their mother worried that in returning to the education centres, her daughters risked being killed or maimed but the girls say they told her: “If we do not continue our education, we will die every day as illiterate persons.”

A couple of months after the Kaaj bombing, in December 2022, the Taliban announced a ban on women attending university.

With the window closing on their ability to eke out any type of education, the sisters searched for options abroad via social media. They landed on Women Leaders of Tomorrow, a non-profit incorporated in 2021, where they could learn English online and get help to apply for scholarships to study in Europe or North America.

Founder Friba Rezayee, Afghanistan’s first female Olympic athlete, came to Canada as a refugee in 2011 with her husband. She earned a degree in political science from the University of B.C. and continued advocating for women’s rights.

Even when girls education was allowed in Afghanistan, it was not prioritized, Rezayee said, recalling how she fought for equity in sports and school despite the corporal punishment she received.

“When I was 6 or 7 years old and saw the discrimination against girls, I knew it was wrong and I felt it in my body and my mind. It was something that I could not tolerate and I was just looking for the opportunity to help other girls.”

Pressured to live a traditional Islamic life, wear a hijab and keep her hair long, she instead cut it short and dyed it red. “If not me, nobody else is going to do it, so I started, I guess, the revolution from a very young age — human rights, women’s rights and women’s dignity.”

When the government in Afghanistan collapsed in August 2021, Rezayee said she received hundreds of messages from female high school, college and university students from the country, as well as athletes.

“They were in devastating situations but the only thing they asked for was to go to school,” said Rezayee. “I was definitely overwhelmed, I am still overwhelmed. I can’t help everyone but if I can help even one person, that’s one life, that’s one future.

“In Afghanistan, we say if you can educate one girl, she will educate a village.”

Torpikai and Zarmina were two of the many who contacted Rezayee’s Vancouver-based organization — which helps selected applicants to find and apply for scholarships — just a few weeks after the deadly October 2022 attack on the Kaaj educational centre.

“The only plan that we had was to leave Afghanistan,” said Zarmina.

For their interview, they found an office in Kabul with reliable Wi-Fi, covering their heads and faces as they entered for fear of the Taliban recognizing them. Once inside, they showed their faces for the interview via Zoom.

“They were devastated, I was devastated, I was crying and they sat in front of the camera and they smiled,” said Rezayee. “That spoke volumes to me, to the bravery and the hope. They said they only want their education. It was not their words but their determination.”

Rezayee said the oppression of the Taliban was inescapable. “Taliban fighters were roaming the city in pickup trucks — gunshots could be heard in videos and phone calls,” she said.

“I knew they were the right people for the scholarship.”

On Nov. 8, 2022, Torpikai and Zarmina were interviewed by St. Margaret’s. The following February, they received offer letters.

The sisters said they had little choice but to leave family and friends behind. “There was no option for me — I had just two choices: find a scholarship to continue my education or early marriage, so I had to come here,” said Zarmina.

They arrived in Vancouver on Aug. 10 from Pakistan and met their host Afghanistan-Canadian family, living in Surrey, who escorted them to Vancouver Island.

When the girls call home, their mother is elated, they said. “Although she is sad and she misses us a lot, she is so happy that we are able to go to school.”

The girls, who plan to study engineering, have already taken part in the Victoria FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition at St. Margaret’s School in November and have been offered a chance to take part in lab work at the University of Victoria’s engineering department over the summer break.

On Monday, they will begin their second school term and work toward their longer-term goal to attend the University of Victoria. A partnership between the independent STEM school and the university includes a guaranteed entrance scholarship to each eligible St. Margaret’s student.

Meanwhile, despite international condemnation, the Taliban-led gender apartheid in Afghanistan is increasing, said Rezayee. She said she feels overwhelmed by the plight of so many Afghan girls denied education and fears they will be forgotten in a world that has seen so much more unrest in recent years.

Women Leaders of Tomorrow has helped to secure 20 scholarships for Afghan girls and women, 17 of whom are in Canada pursuing their studies, with three expected to arrive next year.

“When I look at Zarmina and Torpikai, they give me energy and hope,” Rezayee said.

For the young Afghan sisters, the stakes are even higher.

“They saved my life,” said Zarmina.

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