My parents had to make the decision to flee Kabul quickly. Afghanistan was embroiled in a civil war and had become unsafe for us. It was 1994, the mujahadeen had taken over the city and battles were waging everywhere. The Taliban were just beginning to emerge as a force in our country. Five of my parents’ seven children were girls and they knew that we were in particular danger as extremists began to take over. I was five years old. This was the beginning of my story of challenges encountered and overcome.
My parents packed the necessities that could fit in a few suitcases and left everything else behind – our home, photos, family heirlooms, friends, and other family members who were unable or unwilling to leave. They didn’t know what awaited them in Pakistan, but they knew they had to try to make a new life there.
The bus trip to the Pakistan border was long and hot. We heard explosions along the way. The bus was crowded with other families like us and there was a feeling of sorrow and disorientation in the air. Both my mother and my one-year-old sister, Malika, got seriously ill on the trip. After many hours we finally arrived at the Pakistan border late at night. It was closed so we, along with hundreds of other Afghan refugees, slept outside overnight. We managed to get medicine for Malika and, thankfully she made it through the night.
When at last the border opened the next morning there was chaos as everyone rushed to get through. Parents lost their kids in the confusion. Our family stuck together with the older kids holding onto the younger ones. Finally, we made it to the other side. And then the question was – now what?
Settling into refugee life
My parents found a place to live for us in Quetta and my father soon found a job. We missed our home and it was hard at the beginning to adjust to a new city, a new culture, and a new language. But we soon settled into our lives and grew accustomed to all the things that seemed so strange at the beginning.
It was nearly impossible for girls to attend school because of the cultural taboos against girls being educated. My mother was illiterate so she couldn’t teach us, so my father home-schooled me and my four sisters. He was committed to giving us the opportunity to develop our minds, so each evening, after he returned from work, he gave us lessons in a range of topics. We would spend the day studying and helping our mother around the house. I was an artistic child and loved to create art. It became a passion for me.
As I got older, I discovered graphic design and dreamed of becoming a graphic designer. Sadly, in my culture, it is not considered an appropriate field of study for girls. There were no clear educational paths or role models to follow for girls interested in this field. Everywhere I turned there I faced discrimination because I was a girl. Overcoming these obstacles shaped me as a person. I learned to never give up and to pursue my dream with total focus. I learned to believe in myself and my gifts. The challenges I faced inspired me to become a role model for young Afghan women.
Pursuing my passion
In 2006, when I was 17, my family returned to Afghanistan with the hope to live in peace. Soon after returning to Kabul, I discovered Aid to Artisans (ATA) a US-based organization that ran projects all over the country to empower Afghan female artists. I immediately enrolled in ATA’s 18-month design program for Afghan women. It was a dream come true to learn about design from international professionals. The program included having a mentor, who understood my passion and enthusiasm for art and design and took me under her wing. As I got close to the end of the program, I told her I wanted to learn more and apply what I learned to real work, but I didn’t have a clear vision of what to do next. She introduced me to Sophia Swire who was a Senior Business Development Advisor at Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF).
Sophia offered me a job as a design assistant at TMF. This was the beginning of an important relationship with Sophia, who opened many doors for me and encouraged my development as a professional jewelry designer.
Fighting for my dream
After working with Sophia for a year, I left my job to attend a private design school that just opened in Kabul. My whole family supported me as I pursued my education. My older sister, Simin, helped me fight my way into two male-only graphic and digital design schools in Kabul.
In both schools I was the only girl among classrooms full of male students. My male classmates shunned me and belittled my work. The instructors praised the work of the boys but never commented on my work even though it was often better than the boys. Most instructors barely acknowledged my presence in the classroom. I never let their attitudes become an obstacle between me and my dream. Every time I stepped into the classrooms filled with boys, I reminded myself of the love and commitment I have for design and my dream to develop myself as a professional in the field. I nurtured my inner flame and kept myself inspired to surmount the difficulties I faced.
During this time my grandmother was a big support to me: she told me “Never give up on your dreams. Don’t let any obstacle stop you from realizing your dreams.” My grandmother was an early advocate for girls’ education and the independent thinking it encourages. She brought up my father to believe that the education of girls is important, so our father became dedicated to his daughters’ intellectual development.
Eventually, the instructors and even the administrators noticed how good my work was. One of the schools hired me as an instructor. Soon young women heard I was teaching, and this attracted more female students to the school. As I witnessed the increase in female enrollment, I realized that many young women share my passion for digital media, graphic design, and web design; but because of our conservative culture and the strict division between men and women, they do not feel comfortable seeking professional support from male instructors. This motivated me to help these young women achieve their dream careers.
Persistence pays off
For the next few years I developed myself as a designer through ongoing study and work. My family sent me to Bangalore, India to pursue my design studies at a university, where I started an animation and film-making course. While I was in India violence against women in public spaces accelerated to a dangerous level. My family and I agreed I was no longer safe there, so I returned to Afghanistan after a year of study. I was disappointed, but I believed in my heart that something better would come my way.
Back in Kabul, I reconnected with Sophia Swire. She invited me to join her nonprofit, Future Brilliance, where I attended trainings on digital literacy, jewelry-making and marketing. Sophia believed in me and helped me realize my passion for jewelry design. This was truly a turning point because she gave me a focus for my artistry and the skills I needed to pursue it. After the training, Sophia offered me a full-time job at Future Brilliance with their newly established enterprise Aayenda Jewelry, Afghanistan’s first jewelry brand.
A new life in the U.S.
Throughout this period, my sister, Simin, was diligently searching for a scholarship for me to go to an American university. Her hard work and commitment to setting and achieving her goals has made her the most successful and inspiring woman in my life. From the humble beginning of being home-schooled by my father, she became the first woman in my family to pursue her higher education in the U.S. She completed an undergraduate and a master’s degree there. Once she experienced the empowerment of being educated in the U.S., she was determined that my younger sister and I also have the opportunity. She helped me apply to the digital design program at the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was accepted and given a 50% scholarship. I started my studies there in the fall of 2014.
Coming to the US was another critical turning point for me. When I first arrived, it was hard to adjust to such a radically different culture. Everything was new and overwhelming. As a young woman in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I never walked in public by myself; I was always accompanied by a male member of my family because it is not accepted in our culture for a young girl to be out of the house on her own. Coming to the U.S., I suddenly had freedoms I never imagined before. With time, I began to figure things out by myself; simple things like going to the market, having a bank account, navigating the university system.
It took me a semester-and-a-half to learn that I should participate in classroom discussions, ask questions, and share my opinion. In Afghanistan, girls are supposed to be shy–a quiet girl is considered a “good Afghan girl”. I realized that it is different in the US; my voice matters. As I learned to share my opinions with my classmates and think critically, I realized that I brought new perspectives to the conversation. I shared my experience as a Muslim woman in Afghanistan through my presentations and art projects. In this new academic setting I felt safe, respected and valued.
Before I arrived in the U.S., Simin introduced me to part of her American family, Athena Katsaros and Rocco Capobianco. They had already helped me by paying for my travel expenses to the U.S. and they became my American parents. Simin, Malika (who also lives in the U.S.) and I spend every Christmas with them and take family vacations together every summer. They love and support me through all of the ups and downs of my personal, academic and professional life. They raised the money for my tuition and other EMU expenses so I graduated with almost no debt. Athena became a mentor to me and encouraged me to develop into an independent woman. I also have a group of wonderful women who I call my aunties. They have cheered me on, provided me with places to live, financial and practical support and most importantly, so much love! They make me feel that I have a real family here in the U.S
When I returned to Kabul in 2015, I co-founded the Aayenda Jewelry Cooperative with two other Afghan artisans and the support of Future Brilliance. The mission of the Cooperative is to bring together Afghan artisans, gem cutters and jewelers from all over Afghanistan. We work with Future Brilliance to provide training, new tools for design, and connect our members with global markets.
Earlier this year, I enrolled in the Miami Ad School in Atlanta to further develop my skills. My dream is to eventually establish my own jewelry design company.
Spreading my wings
The most exciting journey of my life was to the Antarctic in March 2016 with the explorer, Robert Swan, who was the first person in history to walk to both the South and North poles. He chose me to be the very first Afghan to travel to Antarctica with his Leadership On the Edge Program, organized by his 2041 Foundation.
The purpose of this expedition was to teach young leaders about the impact of climate change and to inspire us to raise awareness. Before leaving on my trip I was nervous about so many things. I do not like cold weather, and I was traveling alone to one of the most remote places in the world with people I had never met. But soon my fears faded as my heart filled with joy and curiosity about Antarctica, and I’m forever changed.
I will continue to find ways to encourage and advocate for young Afghan women who want to become artisans and designers. When I am asked for advice by women who face challenges in fulfilling their dreams, I tell them:
- Seek help and connect with people
- Recognize great opportunities when they appear and go for them 100%
- Never let fear come between you and your dreams
- Always express your gratitude
- Never give up on your dreams
- You can overcome any challenges
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