Zahra: The long and winding road to school
by Winluck Wong
This article is part of PRUDE, Inc.’s “Living Library” project, featuring Saint John’s newcomers and the diverse stories they bring to the city. It is funded by Immigration New Brunswick.
Ever since Zahra was four years old, she wanted nothing more than the opportunity to go to school. She was so excited by the idea of it that she started practicing at home to get an early start. By the time she reached school age, she could already read and write.
A longing to learn
Her love of learning was inspired by her mother. Though her mother never got to attend school in Afghanistan, she was able to teach herself to read and write. Her mother always stressed how important and wonderful school is.
Zahra had no idea when she started school that she would only be in Grade 1 for one week. On the last day of that week, she got called to the teacher’s office.
“In that room, there [were] four women: me, my mom, my teacher, and the director. I remember my teacher [was] crying…my mom’s crying. I [was] crying already,” she said. “All of us saying, ‘Let her study.’ But that woman – that director – she [was], like, ‘No. It can’t happen because she doesn’t have the card.’”
The card she referred to is an identification document Afghan refugees have to regularly pay a renewal fee for access to basic services. Prior to 2015, schools could refuse admission to Afghani children who did not carry renewed identity cards. That, in addition to the hefty tuition fees schools were allowed to charge Afghani children, meant a lot of refugee families simply could not keep up.
Many Afghani children like Zahra ended up dropping out of school in Iran. “I couldn’t go for four years [s],” she said. “I remember…a school beside our home. And they were ringing for break and…I would start to cry. Daily they were ringing, like, five times a day. And every time I was crying.”
Her mother wouldn’t give up though. For the next four years, she went from school to school – eventually going to schools of adjacent cities – just for one of them to accept her daughter. None did.
When she wasn’t crossing another school off the list, she would look after home-schooling as best she could. “My mom was bringing the books…and I was reading,” Zahra said. “I like writing and also poems.”
Something else she looked forward to was a daily children’s educational TV show. She valued every minute of it. Yes, she learned a new elementary math concept with each episode. But more than that, it was the only time of the day when she could pretend she was sitting in a classroom just like all the other kids.
The more she learned, the more her mother encouraged to dream about what she wanted to be when she grew up. So she already knew very early on that she would like to be a surgeon one day. “Probably it’s because [of] my mom’s uncles,” she said. “All of them are surgeon[s].”
Speaking her dreams aloud though pushed her mother to wonder if staying in Iran was the best option for Zahra. Perhaps they should seriously consider moving back to Afghanistan and take their chances there.
When she turned 10 years old, they made the move. Her father was about to give notice to his boss, explaining that they plan on returning to Afghanistan for the sake of his daughter’s education. The boss then offered to talk to the director of a school in his village to see if he would give Zahra a chance.
They tried not to have their hopes up – until they sat down with the director. Right away, they noticed this director was not like the others. He wasn’t condescending to them. And he seemed genuinely compassionate to their situation.
He brought a stack of books to test Zahra’s reading comprehension and some math problems for her to solve. Impressed by her aptitude, he decided to give her exams for the first three grades. If she could pass them, he would let her start Grade 4 right away.
One by one, she passed each exam. She did so well that the director asked her to try the fourth-grade exam. When she passed that one as well, he made an exception for her to skip ahead to start Grade 5.
In one day, she made up for four years of despair – but also determination. At long last, she didn’t have to pretend in front of the TV. Or pretend she couldn’t hear the nearby school bell ring. “I remember that day I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I [kept] saying, ‘Oh, my God. Tomorrow I am going to go to school.’”
When she stepped into her classroom the next morning, she found a gift from the school waiting for her: a purple notebook and a brand-new set of pencils. The gift meant everything to her. She interpreted it as a sure sign that she was finally accepted.
That feeling would continue till the end of her eighth grade when her family life fell apart.
Whatever it takes
Happy as her family was for her attending school, the pressures of financial hardship were always in the backdrop. It built up until some relatives from her father’s side openly questioned why they were spending so much money on the daughter’s education instead of food for the family.
That was the last straw. Her parents divorced and Zahra – along with her three younger brothers – moved with their mother to Turkey, where her uncle could help them get settled.
They arrived in the capital of Ankara to a new beginning. But they just could not seem to catch a break.
A few nights in, her youngest brother accidentally knocked over a kettle of boiling water that burned her mother’s leg.
Without health insurance though and with it being the holiday of Eid where most pharmacies were closed, they didn’t know what to do. Thankfully, their cousin went searching all night for burn ointment. Miraculously, he found some and brought it over the next morning.
Her mother was in a lot of pain and her plan to start working at a clothing factory with her uncle had to be put off until she recovered. But they simply could not afford to have no income. Not while they had debts to pay for the plane tickets on top of rent and groceries.
Zahra was wracked with guilt as she watched her mother suffer. “I was feeling it was my fault,” she said. “I would think, ‘My parents divorced because of me.’” Seeing no other option, she shouldered the responsibility to look after the family.
At the age of 12, she took her mother’s place at the clothing factory.
She worked long hours – every day from 9:00 AM to 11:00 PM. And because the factory was so close, she would go back home on her breaks to help her mother with chores.
The factory boss started her out fetching supplies for the staff. But her uncle also encouraged her to shadow him on the weekends when he worked overtime. That way, she could learn how to operate the sewing machines when the factory floor was empty and gain a skill with higher pay. A few weeks later, her boss gladly promoted her to be a sewing machine operator. She even learned how to design clothing later on.
She ended up working there for a year. But the first three months were a complete blur to her. She felt stuck – her entire future put on hold once again. She couldn’t even talk to anyone outside her family because she didn’t know how to speak Turkish.
“It was one of the most depressing time[s] for me,” she said. For three months straight, she just kept her head down and worked without saying a single word to anyone. All that kept her going was a constant reminder to herself on why she’s doing this.
“First [motivation] was my mom going to [get] well,” she said. “And after…saving money…to pay all debt owed. And [then] I can save money for my school.”
Only when her mother’s leg fully healed did Zahra emerge from the shell she had built around herself. Much to everyone’s surprise – including her own – she suddenly started talking to people in fluent Turkish.
It was a lesson in learning for her. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know any language,” she said. “Even, like, with only listening you can learn everything.”
Things started looking up. Before their move to Turkey, they had applied to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for assistance. Their application finally came through and UNHCR helped them relocate to Kırşehir, a smaller town near Ankara.
More importantly, however, they received new immigrant identifications. That meant Zahra could finally enroll herself and her brothers in the public school system.
Grades 9 and 10 flew by for her. She had such good grades that her teachers urged her to apply for a scholarship and to take an entrance exam to a private school.
Their faith in her was well-placed because she succeeded in getting a scholarship and a spot in the private school. The caliber of a private school education wasn’t lost on her. By the time she graduated from Grade 12, she felt well-prepared to write the university entrance exams.
Then she discovered that her immigrant identification meant she was technically considered an international student subject to a completely different exam – and much higher tuition fees. Fees she could not dream of affording even with scholarships.
“I couldn’t go again,” she said. “And this [time], oh, my God, really my hope went…This is my future. I should accept it.” She felt so hollow she couldn’t even bring herself to cry.
At her mother’s request, she took two weeks off to travel and visit her relatives. Nothing brought her spirits back up though. The country had gone dull and flavourless on her.
When she got back, a phone call came for her on the week of her September birthday.
Four years after their original UNHCR application, they called to let them know their family also has the option of resettling in Canada if they so choose. The first question she blurted out was: “Can I go to university [there]?”
The affirmative response was the best birthday gift she could have hoped for.
The journey goes on
One year later in September 2022, they made it to Saint John. On her first birthday here, Zahra saw a rainbow outside the window and took it as an auspicious sign.
That winter, she applied for the Bachelor of Health program at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). And she got accepted – on scholarship as well.
She still wants to be a surgeon when she grows up. She also wants to start an organization one day with a very specific mission in mind. “I want to do really good things for women,” she said. “Women and girls [who] couldn’t go to school in Afghanistan, or Middle East, or anywhere else.”
She wants to fight for women’s right to education – just as her mother fought for hers. “My mom [is] my hero.”