When a bomb killed dozens of people at a girls school in Afghanistan last month, Yalda Shirzai was overcome with emotion and one terrible thought.
It could have been her.
Instead, she and most of her family are in Spokane, where Shirzai has a chance at a future that’s being denied to many girls in her hometown of Kabul.
Three years ago, Shirzai and most of her family were finally allowed to emigrate to the United States. Left behind were a sister and brother, who were given no chance to leave.
“I think about them every day,” Shirzai said.
However, from the day Shirzai arrived in Spokane early in her freshman year at North Central High School knowing only her native Farsi, she focused on learning the English language – and not just through books.
“I watched a lot of YouTube videos,” Shirzai said. She also soaked in every other medium she could find.
“We could see that she was extremely motivated to catch up with her peers in language,” said her counselor, Macie Pate. “She never took summers off, went to the library every chance she got and has a real thirst to learn.”
But Shirzai did more than that. She became a leader at North Central’s English Language Development program – “encouraging other ELD students to get out of their comfort zone,” Pate said.
“She would help them learn how to get involved, and she was concerned how others were managing through the pandemic,” Pate said.
She didn’t do it alone, said Sharzai, who praised teachers Cory Johnson and Chuck Gruenenfelder for making a difference. She also thanked nurse Terry Schillios, who aided her with paperwork, university applications and “supporting me in my education.”
Shirzai’s hard work was recently rewarded with a full-ride scholarship to Gonzaga University, where she plans to major in pre-med.
The scholarship came from the Act Six program, which serves mainly low-income families and first-generation college aspirants.
Shirzai learned about the program during visits to local universities, but had to be encouraged to apply. “To believe in myself,” she said.
“I was really surprise to get selected,” Shirzai said. “For the first time I was sure I would go to Gonzaga.”
Shirzai hopes one day to become a doctor – an almost impossible dream for women in Afghanistan.
“I wouldn’t even have a chance to go to school,” Shirzai said.
In areas controlled by the Taliban, girls under the age of 8 have been banned from the educational system. The Taliban also has banned employment of women.
Fortunately for Shirzai’s family, her mother had found employment with the United States Embassy in the capital city of Kabul.
The city wasn’t under Taliban control. However, the Shirzai family lived under constant fear that sympathizers would inform the Taliban, with retribution to follow.
“We were very afraid,” Shirzai said.
Shirzai can’t help but look back at the plight of women in her native country, especially as the United States withdraws its forces.
“We worry all the time,” Shirzai said.
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