Guest Post: by Zarmina Nekzai, President & Founder, Organization of Afghan Women & Youth
Her story of courage, healing and changing the future for women and girls in Afghanistan through education, entrepreneurship and hockey.
From the time I was young, I realized that women were treated differently in Afghanistan. Women weren’t allowed to go to school, shopping or visit their families without the permission of a man. Life was difficult for housewives and young girls, especially in smaller villages. As I grew older and learning more every day, I decided, in the eighth grade, to dedicate my life to fighting for women’s rights. Comforted by my strong religious beliefs, I decided that I would become a teacher of adult literacy after completing high school. I went on to university and wanted to become a supervisor at an adult education program. I wasn’t able to reach my goal however and in 1984 I left the country with my husband and three month old daughter. My heart was broken because of the rocket attack on my parents’ house. My father was killed and my mother and three siblings were severely injured. I left everything behind and traveled through tough conditions safely arriving in Pakistan. I didn’t have any connection with my family for three years until I found out my aunt was living in Canada. I was able to connect with her and in December 02,1988 a new chapter in my life started when I came to Canada with my family.
Shortly after arriving in Canada, my son was born on December 06 1988. My first job was a month later at the socks facility three minutes away from my aunt’s home. I worked hard to support my family. During my break time I would go home and breastfeed my son. I had my first call with my mother on December 10,1988 shortly after my son was born. Eventually I was able to sponsor all my family and they joined me to live a very happy life in Canada.
Twenty years later I first travelled back to Afghanistan in November 2009. Although over the years we heard about the country all the time in the news. I had no real sense of what to expect when I got there. Kabul was so beautiful in many ways. It is surrounded by beautiful houses, tall buildings, private hospitals, schools and universities. A busy city full of markets and street traders. I had a great time with family and friends, and visiting my home town where I grow up which wasn’t the same. It was short trip visiting Kabul as well Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of the country. Although I was able to carry out my goal of visiting Afghanistan, a few days after I left, I knew I’d be back. I had unfinished business there.
My second visit happened in September 2010. On this trip in my home town I worked with orphaned children and widows serving nutrition and winter clothing. My home town felt safe and people cared about each other. I spent a few weeks with there. They had forgotten G was there most of my childhood. Being a western woman now with a mixed culture of both Afghanistan and Canada, I think it was easier for me to succeed in earning the trust of the township. However, I don’t want to risk my actions being reserved or my motives misunderstood so I had to let some moments pass by.
I worked to empower, train and build the livelihood of women in Afghanistan. Aiding the women is changing the bleak futures and poverty that has engulfed the lives of Afghan women for three decades. I focused on: women’s empowerment, education entrepreneurship (business development) and health.
To provide support for the education of girls in Afghanistan, I have facilitated many efforts. In 2013 I funded a project to construct four additional classrooms at Mir Bacha Kot Girls High School. Previously there were not enough indoor classrooms to support the number of students at this school. Using family funds raised for my projects, I decided to fill the need at Mir Bacha Kot Girls High School. (You can see a gallery of the construction of one of the additional classrooms we built. )
On top of providing architectural support for students and educators in Afghanistan, we also understand the importance of training and supporting teachers in the country. In 2015 I provided a seminar for rural Afghan teachers about effective modern educational techniques. During the seminar teachers were trained to incorporate modern educational methods used in Canada into their classroom environment. At the end of the session teachers were provided with decorative educational posters and other classroom supplies to encourage a more positive environment.
In 2015 we opened the first subsidized daycare in the region of Mir Bacha Kot, Afghanistan. The daycare provides an opportunity for single mothers and widows to spend time away from their children knowing that they will be in safe hands. With our daycare program, single mothers can look for employment opportunities and keep up with important errands when they otherwise would not be able to. Since opening, the daycare has evolved to provide children with an educational environment. Children that attend our subsidized daycare learn both English and Dari, and are taught using modern Canadian educational methodology. We want to inspire children to love learning and hope that they will seek an academic lifestyle as their lives progress.
Since the inception it has always been a priority of ours to encourage women to seek out commercial opportunities. To aid this, we have developed a program to train and work with local women in creating a business. We provide training and materials. The business model was simple, women use a skill they already possess – tailoring to create decorative scarves which can be sold at a local market. Though this may seem simple, a high percentage of the population in Afghanistan is illiterate with little to no education, therefore simple steps must be taken to begin with. As this program is developing over the years, I plan to expand the program. We will obtain tailoring machinery which can be used to create more complex clothing. The next goal is to seek opportunities within local demands. In December 2016 we provided bags the clothes for newborn infants in the hospital.
In 2016 I was at the Mirbachacoot Girls High School in the storage room organizing materials, when the recess bell rang and all the little children played in the school yard. Some beautiful girls asked if they could have the balls to play with. They were so happy as I watched them outside. When I see these beautiful girls I realize that however unusual it might seem, they’re doing what comes naturally to them. Given the chance to do something they love, each one begins to discover her own personality her sense of style and how to express it. I felt lucky to have met them. As I thought about the children with the ball, I decided a great project would be to build a Sports Rink. That’s how our hockey project started.
Afghan Girls playing hockey is a remarkable and quirky clash of culture. Hockey in Canada is a Canadian cultural icon. Turns out, hockey is also very important to the country of Afghanistan. Canada and Afghanistan share a passion for hockey. Our countries are united by a love for hockey. In 2017, our project of Canada to Afghanistan is mobilized by our mutual passion for hockey and celebrating many significant milestones, including Canada 150 and our 9 years of humanity work in Mir Bacha Kot Girls High School of the country.
As a Afghan Canadian I am celebrating Canada 150 with hockey events that promote the themes of the anniversary, particularly youth and inclusivity. The initiative will raise money for youth sport in Afghanistan while demonstrating that hockey is for everyone, regardless of age or gender. Brought together by a love for the game, hockey provides Canada with a unique opportunity to engage in children outreach in Afghanistan.
Organizing to build a major outdoor ice hockey rink has already taken place. Canada 150 Hockey Days in Afghanistan began with an outdoor youth game in Mir Bacha Kot Girls High School. The next outdoor ice hockey rink will be organized to support most of the girls schools in Afghanistan through a non-profit dedicated to promoting youth sport. Through hockey, the messages of youth and inclusivity are resonating in Afghanistan.
Hockey is a movement. As soon I delivered the hockey equipment to the school in 2017, I was surrounded by the eager youth of all ages who wanted to learn how to rollerblade and skate to learn to play hockey. I had brought with me all the equipment. I began the sessions in class lessons and outdoor practice with rollerblading to connect youth with education opportunity. I was excited to teach almost 500 students under age sixteen in a safe space, specially for girls to join the sports. Since hockey was brand new to the country, when they heard the class lesson was skating, rollerblading and hockey, they were very excited to wear different shoes and body protection. I was able to teach many children to be comfortable with all the equipment. My success with the first school prompted me to think bigger. By establishing more outdoor Ice Hockey Rinks in Afghanistan, the program would be able to teach many more youth. Comfortably it also would allow the sporting sessions to be linked to high quality educational opportunities.
Since 2017, outdoor Ice Hockey Rink was established in one school in Afghanistan. Thanks to the amazing efforts all of our Canadian volunteers who support me, also our local staff, Afghanistan almost certainly has the highest percentage of female hockey players in the world. Sports is a tool for empowering youth to create great opportunities and fostering the potential for success. Alongside all the sports club after or before school programs we provide educational opportunities including a youth leadership program as well as encouragement to those students to continue their education. We are also bringing street youth into the sports and school. As a result people all around the world have seen this powerful impact of Afghan youth play hockey. I am very proud of get partnership opportunities with Rotary Club of North York, Sportley and Rias Design Inc. I am extremely excited to see many people who enjoy sports experience them every day.
Above all my appreciation goes to my husband Khalil Nekzai to whom I owe everything. He worked hard with me to develop the confidence to believe that anything can be made possible. He never gives up.
Thanks to my mother always her are prayers with me. Thank you to my daughter Hooria Nekzai, my son Baktage Nekzai and son-in-low Omar Barakzoy also all my brothers and sisters for all the support and encouragement along the way.
Thank you to all those kind caring families all around the world who have inspired, helped and encouraged me in countless ways with the making of this great work.
Special thanks to Fazila Nekzai and her sons who welcomed me to stay in Kabul. She supported me and made all difference to my time in Afghanistan. To those staff and students and sports girls in Mirbachacoot Girls High School allowing me to experience the success of happiness with hockey rink.