At 20, Maryam Sahar Naqibullah has big dreams – including one day becoming president of her home country of Afghanistan.
And it doesn’t take long to figure out that this energetic young woman is going places.
Before coming to Ottawa, Sahar Naqibullah was the only female interpreter working for the Canadian military in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011 as part of its Civilian Military Cooperation Unit CIMIC/PRT – work she began when she was just 15 years old.
In that role, she was the eyes and ears for Canadian troops and diplomats on the ground in Afghanistan, often at great personal risk. She facilitated meetings for Canadian troops with Afghan families and assisted at events involving Afghan women and the international community. She helped to create the first and only radio station for women in the country. She also acted as a teacher to the soldiers by showing them the local culture and customs.
“Seeing the Forces coming to Kandahar and trying to protect Kandahar City and outside the city and open schools for us and have a life back, I saw the importance of that mission and I wanted to help back in some way,” she recently told Carleton Now.
With the formal end in March of Canada’s 12-year mission in Afghanistan, Sahar Naqibullah reflected on that time of her life and the positive role she believes the Canadians played in her country.
“I am grateful for the benefits and contributions the Canadians made. The results of what they did are still there … I am the result of that,” she says.
One of the most important benefits, she says, is that Afghan women now have access to education that was formerly out of reach. She credits the support of her father for giving her the opportunity (and the required permission) to be able to explore a variety of life experiences.
““For everything you need the support of men and you need the permission. I know it sounds kind of silly in this part of the world because here women’s rights are really important and significant in every aspect of life. But unfortunately in Afghanistan, that is not the case.”
Now that the military mission in Afghanistan is over, she says Afghans have the responsibility to carry on the good work and ensure their country continues to progress.
“I am super optimistic. I have seen what the Taliban regime did … but now we feel a responsibility to not give up, going to school and becoming educated.”
She and her family were personally touched by the terror of the Taliban. In 2011, her 11-year-old brother was kidnapped after he walked her to the military base where she worked.
“I try not to think about it. We got him back but I think it was a way of sending a message to me,” she recalls, adding that her security was always a concern.
Despite the progress achieved so far in Afghanistan, she says there is much more to be done.
“It’s not a perfect country and it’s not going to happen overnight. Everything is going to take time.”
In 2011, she came to Ottawa as part of a special federal government program offered to interpreters and their families who worked for the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. Sahar Naqibullah was the only female interpreter to come to Canada and to come alone.
In the last three years, she has been furthering her education by taking an English writing course at Algonquin College, and is now studying international relations at Carleton. In addition to her school work, she speaks at conferences and events across Canada and also assists Citizenship and Immigration Canada with cases of language barriers between new immigrants and government workers, using her knowledge of Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Hindi and English.
If that isn’t enough, she also worked for the Canadian Forces giving cultural awareness training to troops who were deployed in 2012 and 2013 to Afghanistan on Operation ATTENTION, Canada’s contribution to the NATO training mission.
“I am grateful to be here because I love this country and I enjoy the peace and stability and the multiculturalism of this wonderful country. I am building my future here, which is the most important thing for me, my parents and my country.”
Asked if she plans to return to Afghanistan one day, there’s no doubt in her mind.
“I still need to do more,” she says. “I want to do a PhD one day. I want to go back to Afghanistan and be a diplomat and run for president – I have a lot of dreams. Let’s see where I will end up.”