In the cold, muddy hall where my cousins and her friends used to play with dolls and dayras (small drums), I can still picture myself sitting in an isolated corner, wearing a white head scarf, and holding a big, old English dictionary. I used to pretend to be a college student trying to focus on my studies. In that little corner, I playacted my desire for an education and to be a leader.

Despite being so young at the time, I vividly remember the day we left our house and our community because of the Taliban regime. I felt as if I were leaving a part of myself in the small district of Qala e Wazir. I examined everything very consciously, like I would never see it again—from my grandfather’s agriculture lands to the small space under the stairs where we used hide during bomb blasts and rocket attacks.

I remember nothing from the journey itself, because I fell asleep in my dad’s warm lap. Maybe I slept because I didn’t want to see myself being separated from my beloved country. With new hopes, my family and I arrived in Pakistan.

Despite being refugees in Pakistan, my family always met my needs and supported me in every situation, whether it regarded my education or providing me with supplies. My dad worked all day and night in a small shop for very low wages. He faced obstacles, problems, and injury. He never let us complain about anything. He would get us whatever we wanted and never gave us a chance to regret our new situation. In fact, I never felt we were not the upper class, because I always got what I wished for, from expensive notebooks to toys and candies. My dad even stood against his own father and brother to defend my right to be educated. My parents’ hope and my enthusiasm for education are what led me towards my future.

I enrolled in school at the age of five. It was a small school just for Afghan refugees, and I always had the highest scores in my class. The studies were not intense. I never had a lot of homework. One day, I remember sitting on our small balcony, enjoying the cool breeze with my friends. My Pakistani friends were interacting in English. I didn’t get a word of what they said. I felt like an ignorant and isolated refugee.

That night, when my dad returned from his tiring day, I asked him to enroll me in a personal tutoring school where I could take extra classes. It was hard for my parents to manage all the expenses, but my dad did not refuse me. He was educated himself and knew how important education was.

He worked harder and registered me in an English tutoring school. I remember the hot days of the Pakistani summers. I would walk home from school tired and thirsty, change from my black and white uniform to comfy panjabi (a Pakistani outfit), and head to my tutoring school.

I always wanted to be busy with my homework and concentrate on studies. But all I had to do was memorize definitions. All I did was read the dictionary to learn the meaning of words. Somehow I never had enough homework. I wanted to put all my feelings in words, describe every moment of my life. I wanted to write, but I was never asked to write anything. I wanted to read, but no one ever assigned me reading.

In one of my books, I read about Oxford University. Of course I didn’t know where it was or what kind of university it was or even exactly why I wanted to go there, but ever since then, Oxford was added to the “book of my desires”  for my future.

In 2005, after ten years of living in Pakistan, my family and I returned to Kabul. I started ninth grade, hoping for more intense studies in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the education system of Kabul was the same as Pakistan; we didn’t have a lab nor did we ever do experiments. Everything was theory. The teachers were never in class, so students in their black-and-white uniforms wandered around the school.

In search of an education, I got a one-year scholarship to the United States for 2006-2007. I studied at Eureka High School. Finally I felt the pressure of education, but it was a great feeling. I wanted to use any opportunity I had. After one year, it was time to go back to Afghanistan for my junior and senior year. I was excited to share what I had learned with my fellow students.

However, when I went back home, society treated me differently than what I expected. People didn’t want to learn from a young girl who had gone to the United States all alone and had friends from other religions. They treated my family differently, and started to point at them. But I didn’t give up. I started sharing my experience with my friends in school and in my community.  Slowly, they accepted me and realized how much I learned. People started being friendlier to my family and me.

In my Afghan high school during my senior year, I didn’t have much to learn or study. All my classmates were trying to get into college, and they took personal tutoring for kankor (college admittance exam) but I didn’t want to. I knew only those with influential relatives would get in. And I knew that even if I were to get in by some chance, the studies wouldn’t be as rigorous as I wanted. So I didn’t even try to go to college in Afghanistan. Instead, I read novels at home and took TOEFL practice tests.

This one year away from school taught me how much I love studying and how much I want to learn and help my people. I began to feel as if I were missing a big part of me, so I started applying for scholarships and colleges, until I was selected for one. I felt I got my life back. Now I feel a burden on my shoulders, a pressure in my mind, and a load in my backpack, but I also taste the thirst for more education. I have four years to go, but I’m looking forward to getting the most out of each moment.

Now when I look at the same big, old English dictionary, I no longer stare at the pictures and wonder what the words say. Now, I look up economic terms and words from my anthropology book. Life has ups and downs, but if you have support behind you and a passion for what you want to do, you will achieve despite obstacles. I’m where I am now because of two things: my family’s support, and my passion to learn.

By Ellaha