Afghan teens Maryam and Heena have risked their lives and defied a repressive, conservative culture to do what most young Canadian women take for granted: attend school.
Even as they don caps and gowns to speak to reporters via Skype late at night from a unique Afghan-Canadian school in Kandahar city, these new graduates from SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary are taking a chance.
"For me," said 18-year-old Heena, who dreams of being a doctor, "every second of going outside is dangerous."
They live in the Taliban's birthplace, where women are discouraged from going to school or getting a job, and one of the most violent places on Earth. But, especially on International Women's Day, they are also fiercely proud. The opportunity to study at the Afghan-Canadian Community Center (ACCC) and receive college diplomas in business management from SAIT means they can support their families and have a future previously unimaginable.
"It is really not easy to get an education for Afghan women, especially in Kandahar city, but still we didn't give up and we do our best to get an education," said 19-year-old Maryam, who lives with her mother, brothers and sisters. "I believe education is the only solution for the problems we are facing in Afghanistan."
Literacy rates in Afghanistan are among the lowest in the world. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, one in two men and four of five women over the age of 15 cannot read or write. The problem is even more glaring in rural areas – where most people live – where an estimated 90 per cent of women and 63 per cent of men are illiterate.
In the past decade, school enrolment among Afghan girls has risen to about 30 per cent from virtually zero.
The improvements have come despite threats and attacks.
In one particularly horrific incident in 2008, terrorists sprayed acid in the faces of 15 girls outside their school. That was among 292 attacks on schools that year that killed 92 people and injured 169 others, according to the UN.
But since its inception in 2007, the ACCC has been challenging the odds.
It opened with a small group of students, but now boasts 1,500, and the majority are girls and women, teens to adults, studying everything from English to information technology.
To date, more than 2,000 students have graduated, and 17 are from SAIT. The school's offerings include six online courses on subjects ranging from computers to communications. Dozens more have taken at least one subject and 40 students are currently enrolled.
Gord Nixon, SAIT's vice-president academic, pointed out that while the average per-capita income in Afghanistan is about $60 per month, the women who have gone through the program, even if they've completed only a single course, are bringing home $800 each month.
"The program has been life-changing for our students," he said.
Ehsanullah Ehsan, the ACCC's director, said employers, including the Afghan government, international development agencies and local businesses, clamour for graduates because they respect a Canadian education. The students not only go on to support an average of five family members, but they become role models, which in turn has spurred enrolment.
"People in the community see that and it helps them think that women, and women's education, are important, and maybe their daughter should get an education, too," he said.
While more than half of ACCC's funding comes from the Canadian International Development Agency – about $541,000 since 2008 – the money runs out in September. Officials such as Ryan Aldred, president of the Canadian International Learning Foundation, a registered charity that has supported the initiative from the start, is knocking on doors trying to secure new revenue. He's optimistic the school will be self-sufficient within three years.
Maryam and Heena are among 16 SAIT students – and 200 ACCC students – who are about to graduate. The ceremony date remains secret because of security concerns. For the same reason, they requested that their last names not be published.
They both talk about how walking across that stage is a step toward changing Afghanistan. But they also share something more fundamental to which every Canadian student can relate.
"My family is really proud," Heena said.