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Sir Charles Tupper student Somaya Amiri, 17, a refugee from Afghanistan, overcame remarkable odds to be named a Loran Scholar and will receive up to $100,000 over four years to attend university. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Sir Charles Tupper student Somaya Amiri, 17, a refugee from Afghanistan, overcame remarkable odds to be named a Loran Scholar and will receive up to $100,000 over four years to attend university.

(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Afghan immigrant studying in Vancouver wins Loran scholarship Add to ...

When Somaya Amiri was a little girl, she’d watch each morning as her big brother hoisted a backpack over his shoulders and walked to school in Afghanistan’s Behsood District. She remembers desperately wanting to go too.

The day she decided to follow him, her father noticed she was missing from the house and caught up with her at the school. He was furious.

“When I got home my mom and grandmother were crying,” Ms. Amiri said in an interview. “They told me that when you are a girl, you don’t go to school.”

Ms. Amiri now finds herself pondering which of Canada’s top universities she will attend.

This month, the 17-year-old was among 30 Canadian high school students named Loran scholars. Under the program, she will receive up to $100,000 to fund four years of tuition. The scholarship also includes a mentorship program and money for summer internships.

The scholarship program was founded in 1988 with a view to granting awards based not just on academic achievement, but also for leadership potential and for service. Ms. Amiri’s response to winning the award was disbelief.

“I was crying,” she said. “I could barely talk.”

Now in Grade 12 at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School in Vancouver, Ms. Amiri didn’t speak any English when she arrived to Canada with her family in 2011. On her first day of Grade 9, she needed someone to translate her communications with her teachers into Farsi, which is similar to her native language of Dari. She left her placement test completely blank except for the English alphabet, which she scribbled on a page.

“I wanted them to know that I knew something,” she said laughing.

Her first friend was an Iraqi girl who herself was working hard at integrating into a new country. The Iraqi girl introduced Ms. Amiri to two girls from Honduras and Ms. Amiri said she was overcome with relief.

“I couldn’t understand anyone … The school seemed so big,” she said. “That could have been the worst day of my life if I hadn’t met them.”

Each morning began with a list of 40 English words, which she would write out and translate into Dari. At school, she worked to use them in conversation, sometimes failing but often succeeding. When she finally learned to string together sentences, her teacher said, Ms. Amiri’s hand was always up asking questions, inquiring, probing.

“You knew you were dealing with someone pretty special,” said Bonnie Burnell, who taught Ms. Amiri Grade 10 and 11 social studies.

On her first social studies test – after only six months in school – Ms. Amiri got the highest mark in the class.

But she wasn’t satisfied with her English. So with two other friends and with help from the Citizenship and Immigration’s Engaged Immigrant Youth Program, she secured a $5,000 grant to start a weekly English club for other young immigrants.

“They would all be singing One Direction in broken English,” said Jennifer Reddy, a program co-ordinator with the program. “They would practise ordering drinks at Starbucks, and talk about messaging people on Facebook. Very youth focused things.”

In Canada, Ms. Amiri also learned why her parents didn’t want her to go to school in Afghanistan. Sectarian tensions in the country made it unsafe. Groups such as the Taliban were attacking women in public.

“I didn’t understand that women were being raped, kidnapped, and attacked by people who disapprove of girls education,” she said, her eyes welling up.

After reading about girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan who had acid thrown on them because they wanted education, Ms. Amiri she said was horrified at their permanent disfigurement.

“People think faces are not important, but it is quite important,” Ms. Amiri said, noting she wants to become a plastic surgeon.

“One day I’d like to help victims of violence and help them feel better,” she said.

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