YALDA HAKIM: the fu­ture for Afghani girls

For TV's Yalda Hakim, Aus­tralia is the lucky coun­try that saved her fam­ily from Afghanistan. Now 10 years af­ter her irst as­sign­ment in Kabul, she re­turns to her home­land to help girls shape their fu­ture.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - Yalda Hakim is the host of Im­pact with Yalda Hakim and an in­ter­na­tional cor­re­spon­dent on BBC World News.

As the air­craft en­tered Afghan airspace – the fa­mil­iar land­scape of snow-capped moun­tains ap­pear­ing out­side the win­dow – I was gripped by that strange feel­ing I al­ways get when I re­turn to the coun­try of my birth. I’m re­minded of the cir­cum­stances which led to my fam­ily ee­ing Afghanistan in the dead of night 35 years ago – of my par­ents lock­ing up their home in Kabul, promis­ing never to re­turn to a coun­try that was de­scend­ing into a cat­a­strophic war that would go on to claim a mil­lion lives.

They ed east to the Pak­istan bor­der, guided through the moun­tain passes by a smug­gler, re­ly­ing on the kind­ness of strangers to evade cap­ture. It was a jour­ney that would take 10 days on foot. Of course, I have no mem­ory of these events. I was just six months old, strapped to my mother’s back, as my older brother and sis­ter marched along with my fa­ther, who had promised them that a great ad­ven­ture lay ahead.

Ar­riv­ing in Pak­istan with lit­tle more than the clothes on their backs, my par­ents be­gan build­ing a new life. My mother, a mid­wife, started work­ing for a Ger­man NGO, pro­vid­ing ma­ter­nal health­care for the Afghan refugees liv­ing in camps on the Pak­istan bor­der. My fa­ther, who had stud­ied in Prague on a schol­ar­ship, set up an ar­chi­tec­tural rm in Pe­shawar. But these were all tem­po­rary ar­range­ments. He was des­per­ate to move his young fam­ily to the West.

Af­ter al­most three years of reach­ing out to ev­ery pos­si­ble con­tact, he got lucky. An Ira­nian-born Aus­tralian ar­chi­tect named Syed Sibtain and his jour­nal­ist wife Nancy agreed to be­come our host spon­sors. Syed had ini­tially dis­cour­aged his wife from lling out the ap­pli­ca­tion form, telling her they couldn’t keep invit­ing Afghan fam­i­lies who were ee­ing the war to Aus­tralia. She ig­nored his ad­vice. My rst con­tact with Aus­tralia was when Syed showed up at our front door in Is­lam­bad, hav­ing de­cided to come meet the peo­ple whom his wife had com­mit­ted to help em­i­grate. For me, as a small child, this was when I learned what gen­eros­ity meant. For my fa­ther, his dream had nally come true. Soon we found our­selves in a new coun­try. This was now home.

I threw my­self into life in Aus­tralia with the kind of un­abashed gusto for the place that new im­mi­grants so of­ten feel. I was a proud Syd­ney girl. But even as we em­braced Aus­tralia – and Aus­tralia em­braced us – Afghanistan re­mained part of our lives too. My fa­ther would of­ten say ev­ery­one comes from some­where, ev­ery­one has a story to tell. I was taught never to for­get where I’d come from and al­ways to be grate­ful for the op­por­tu­ni­ties af­forded to us in Aus­tralia, a les­son that weighed ever more deeply on me as I grew older and learned about the hor­rors that were con­sum­ing the land of my birth.

I was 12 years old when the Tal­iban took con­trol over much of Afghanistan. Women had been banned from work, con ned to their homes. Girls were de­nied an ed­u­ca­tion. They could face pub­lic lash­ings, ston­ing and even death if they dared to break the rules. This could eas­ily have been my fate, I re­mem­ber think­ing at the time. And with this re­al­i­sa­tion came a re­solve to do what­ever I could to help those who weren’t so lucky and re­mained trapped un­der me­dieval tyranny in Afghanistan. My fam­ily and I would of­ten travel to Can­berra, to take part in demon­stra­tions de­mand­ing that Is­lam­abad stop sup­port­ing the Tal­iban.

It was at some point around this age that I also de­cided to be­come a jour­nal­ist. I wanted to tell the sto­ries of peo­ple whose plight was oth­er­wise un­known, to pro­vide a voice to those who were be­ing si­lenced, and to hold ac­count­able those in po­si­tions of power for abuses of that power.

Even­tu­ally I got my big break and went on to be­come a reporter and then a TV pre­sen­ter for SBS’s Date­line. Ini­tially I trav­elled across Aus­tralia to tell sto­ries about re­mote Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties. Later I be­gan ven­tur­ing abroad. Whether it was rebel-held Beng­hazi dur­ing the height of the Libyan up­ris­ing, or the birth of the

new na­tion of South Su­dan, wher­ever the Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs was urg­ing our cit­i­zens to leave, it was my cue to go in! It was, how­ever, my rst as­sign­ment to Kabul a decade ago, in­clud­ing an emo­tional re­union with my grand­par­ents, that re­ally brought home the ex­tent to which that night in 1983 changed my life. Af­ter meet­ing young women the same age as I who had never been to school, or who had been forced into mar­riage as chil­dren, I be­gan to grasp truly how lucky I was. It was a stark re­minder of how dif­fer­ent my life could have been had my par­ents cho­sen to stay.

Since that rst trip, I went back many times to re­port from the coun­try, in­clud­ing as a pre­sen­ter and in­ter­na­tional cor­re­spon­dent for the BBC. I in­ter­viewed for­mer Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai and the cur­rent leader, Ashraf Ghani. I was there for mo­ments that in­spired hope for the fu­ture – wit­ness­ing the courage of or­di­nary Afghans who were will­ing to risk their lives for the right to vote – and mo­ments of de­spair, such as the af­ter­math of a mas­sacre by a rogue Amer­i­can soldier of 16 Afghan civil­ians.

Now I was re­turn­ing again, only this visit was dif­fer­ent. Now I wasn’t go­ing to Afghanistan as a jour­nal­ist to re­port a story, but as a pri­vate cit­i­zen, to es­tab­lish a foun­da­tion for girls’ ed­u­ca­tion. The idea had come from the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Afghanistan, which had ap­proached me, ask­ing if I would es­tab­lish a schol­ar­ship aimed at ed­u­cat­ing young women from dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try. I im­me­di­ately agreed. Since the fall of the Tal­iban, three mil­lion girls had gone back to school. But 17 years af­ter the US-led in­va­sion, Afghanistan re­mains one of the worst places for girls to go to school. There are now fears that the hard-won gains in women’s rights and fe­male ed­u­ca­tion could all re­verse. At­tacks against fe­male stu­dents, their teach­ers and their schools con­tinue. In parts of the coun­try that have fallen back un­der the con­trol of the Tal­iban or the so-called Is­lamic State, many girls’ schools are closed. And even in Kabul, old prej­u­dices per­sist.

En­ter­ing the Amer­i­can Univer­sity, or AUAF, on the out­skirts of Kabul, I was im­me­di­ately struck by how dif­fer­ent this cam­pus was from any other I had seen. It’s dif cult to ig­nore the blast walls sur­round­ing it. The con­crete bar­ri­ers, al­most 10 me­tres high, are de­signed to pro­tect the build­ing and those in­side from ter­ror­ist bomb­ings. I was told there are at least 400 armed guards present at the univer­sity at all times. And there’s good rea­son for these mea­sures. In 2016, a deadly at­tack killed 13 stu­dents af­ter the Tal­iban stormed the cam­pus, shoot­ing their way into the com­pound. Seven months later, the brave stu­dents re­turned, say­ing they would not be de­nied an ed­u­ca­tion. Many of the fe­male stu­dents told me their fam­i­lies have tried to pre­vent them from pur­su­ing their ed­u­ca­tion at the AUAF. These young women re­main de ant. One stu­dent told me she re­alises she risks death ev­ery day sim­ply by com­ing to the univer­sity, but by deny­ing her­self an ed­u­ca­tion, she feels it would be like dy­ing any­way.

Af­ter meet­ing these fear­less women, I re­alised, even more so, the im­por­tance of set­ting up the Yalda Hakim Schol­ar­ship for Girls. I was also deeply moved by the num­ber of stu­dents who told me that my story gave them hope and a be­lief that they could suc­ceed de­spite the re­stric­tions they face.

In the past year, the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion across the coun­try has de­te­ri­o­rated signi cantly, with al­most daily at­tacks, in­clud­ing one on an ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre in Kabul which killed al­most 50 teenagers and left 67 in­jured. In a con ict like this, it’s easy to be­come numb to the vi­o­lence. The lives lost be­come sta­tis­tics. Af­ter four decades of war and dis­place­ment, the Afghan peo­ple are tired and des­per­ately look­ing for a so­lu­tion. That could mean a peace deal with the Tal­iban. There are also fears that if for­eign forces de­part, it could mean the coun­try once again falls into the clutches of fa­nat­ics. The fu­ture of Afghanistan is as un­cer­tain as ever.

What is cer­tain is the hero­ism and per­se­ver­ance of in­di­vid­u­als like those at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity. Their de­ter­mi­na­tion con­tin­ues to in­spire me and is a re­minder of why I be­came a jour­nal­ist: to be able to tell their sto­ries.

“My story gave them hope and a be­lief that they could suc­ceed.”

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