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.
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.”