Courage, a dream and a better life: The story of a fatherless girl from the high mountains of remote Pakistan.

ShabnamHere is Shabnam’s story, in her own words.

My name is Shabnam. I am from Harkush, a small village located in the beautiful Phandar valley of District Ghizer, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. I live in the most spectacular valley of all Gilgit-Baltistan.

I grew up in poverty, in an environment where education was a rarity among women. My father, Panjarash Khan, served in the Pakistani army until his retirement at age 60. His monthly pension is the only source of income for our family of seven.

Many students in the Phandar valley move away to other cities for higher education, but due to social taboos, most females must stay home or marry instead of attending college. Despite our cultural and income challenges, my four siblings and I are all studying in schools and colleges.

I attended our local government-run primary school. But there was no middle school in my village, so I stayed home for one year without schooling. Eventually, my father allowed me to attend middle school in another village. Taking two hours each day, the trip to school and back was not easy, especially when harsh winter arrived and snowfall covered the valley. But even with these challenges, I passed my grade 10 exam.

By the grace of God, I was admitted to the college in Gilgit City. I stayed in a women’s hostel while I studied, but the fees were a burden for my family. At nearly seventy years old, my father worked hard to bear the expenses, to the detriment of his health. Unfortunately, due to cardiac arrest, my father died and left our family with pain and sorrow. After his death, we could no longer afford my schooling.

Despite my grief and adversity, I asked the hostel warden if I could work as an assistant cook. She was a kindly woman, and allowed me to work for my room and board so I could continue my education in Gilgit. I went to school in the morning for six hours, and cooked food for hostel guests for the eight hours after that. This schedule was tiring, yet it was my only option if I wanted to finish school. I remembered the saying of Thomas Edison: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” These words gave me hope. Eventually, I passed my grade 12 exam.

After completing my secondary education, I returned home. My mother needed me to help provide for our family, for my siblings, and especially to help my younger sister as she was studying for her own grade 10 exam. In the high mountain valleys of Pakistan, we young women must often make sacrifices to support our brothers and sisters.

As time went on, I felt a fiery passion to complete my own higher education. I prayed for a miracle. I pleaded and begged my mother to allow me to leave home and return to school, asking only for her permission, hoping to pay my own way by working. After much time and many heartfelt requests, she allowed me to go.

I contacted the kindly hostel warden for whom I worked in Gilgit City, sharing my whole story with her. She told me that in the hostel, there are students who receive scholarships from an NGO called Central Asia Institute Gilgit (CAIG). She said this NGO supports female students of the remote valleys of Gilgit and Chitral. This news gave me hope, as my own home valley of Phandar is especially remote, and perhaps this NGO would see fit to support me.

I made the five-hour journey to Gilgit with the permission and support of my mother and uncle, and 500 PK rupees ($4 USD) in my pocket. The hostel warden greeted me with a smile, and took me to the Central Asia Institute Gilgit office. There, we met with their finance manager, Karim Uddin, and CEO, Saidullah Baig. Saidullah said, “We are supporting hundreds of girls in their education here in these valleys. How is it you have not yet applied for a scholarship?” He asked about my story, listening to me with a kind and patient heart. And then CAIG agreed to support my education, with a scholarship covering my college and hostel fees.

This scholarship gives me strength, vision, and confidence. And it gives me the financial support I can no longer receive from my dear, late father. I no longer have to work while studying, and can focus on getting good grades in school.

I dream of becoming a teacher after graduating. Many schools in my area lack female teachers. It would be especially meaningful for me to serve in a CAIG school as a volunteer teacher. I am so thankful to everyone who supports me and other poor girls in our education. CAIG has opened schools in remote valleys where young women who live in poverty dream of education. They are bringing true change to the high mountains of Gilgit and Chitral. I learned that donors from the U.S. are supporting CAIG’s scholarship programs here in Pakistan. I owe many thanks to the kind donors who see the importance of educating the poor in Pakistan, including Gilgiti girls like me. I pray for the individual donors who support CAI: may God give you good health and happiness in your families. The slogan “Educate a Girl. Change the World.” means so much to me. No doubt if we educate all mothers and girls, we can bring change to the world.

I love poetry, and want to share with you a line written by the national poet of Pakistan, Allama Iqbal.

“You don’t get frightened of these furious, violent winds, Oh Eagle! These blow only to make you fly higher.”

I am sure Iqbal said this for the struggling people like me.

Thank you very much.

Where is Shabnam now?

Shabnam and her brother
Shabnam and her brother

Shabnam graduated from college! With the help of supporters like you and a scholarship from CAI Gilgit, Shabnam earned a bachelor’s degree earlier this year. And with your continued support, she is now pursuing a master’s degree in education.

Because of her example, her younger sister and brother are also attending college. Shabnam is a proud big sister!

CAI HERO: Naseem Parveen

Naseem ParveenNaseem Parveen is Central Asia Institute’s (CAI) mission all rolled up in one person.

She is female. Her impoverished family was devastated by a natural disaster that nearly derailed her education. But with CAI’s help she stayed in school and completed her college degree. Now, at age 22, she’s giving back with a six-month voluntary teaching position in a remote CAI school. After that, she hopes to pursue a master’s degree.

But that’s not all. “Her story is different than the others because both her parents are disabled,” said Saidullah Baig, CAI’s project manager in the Gilgit-Hunza region of northern Pakistan. “Both her mother and father are deaf and dumb and Naseem is the only person who can talk to them. She has three brothers and wants to start working so she can help give education to her brothers, otherwise they will not be able to continue their education.”

The oldest daughter of four children, Naseem grew up in Gulmit, Gojal, a village on the Hunza River north of Gilgit. Her parents are subsistence farmers, growing small amounts of wheat and raising a few livestock. Their simple home was in a mountainous area with few modern amenities. “When I was young, at that time there was no electricity, phone and mobile system, although now these facilities are available,” Naseem said.

She started school at the government school in Gulmit, then switched to Al Amin Model School, a co-ed school about 2 kilometers from her home.

“My parents helped me a lot in my education,” she said. “My mother and father both are uneducated and disabled, but they did not stop me from school. Only sometimes I didn’t attend my school because of domestic work and helping my mother in the field.

But she faced some financial hardships. “I faced challenges like paying my school fees, uniform, shoes, up to 10 grade.”


Her life changed dramatically in January 2010, when a massive landslide thrust an entire village into the Hunza River, killing 20 people. The slide also blocked the flow of water and created a giant lake upstream, flooding villages and creating massive upheaval for thousands of people.

“There was a big disaster in our region when the Attabad village fell down and blocked the Hunza River,” she said. “The water covered all of our land and house. There was a darkness in our lives. We couldn’t continue our education. Even survival was difficult for us. My future was looking dark.”

But as the Persian proverb says: When it is dark, you can see the stars.

Naseem was about to start class 10 at the time of the slide (the school year runs from March to December in the mountains of northern Pakistan), but the repercussions of the disaster had her doubting that she would ever be able to finish high school

“So I was surprised when a man, Sarfraz Khan, came to our village and announced Central Asia Institute

[would] help the affected students to continue their education,” she recalled. Sarfraz was CAI’s most-remote areas project manager. He died in 2012.
When CAI stepped in to help, she said, she decided to become a teacher. “Since that day I thought that if I could complete my education, I will start teaching, help my parents, and help my brothers to continue their education,” she said.

She finished class 10 in a tent school set up by CAI near the landslide area. Then, with the help of a CAI scholarship, she moved to a women’s hostel in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, just outside Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, and attended two years of college. When CAI reorganized its Pakistan scholarship program in 2011-12, she returned to the northern areas and completed her college degree in sociology, with emphases in education and Arabic.


Ever since CAI’s scholarship program began in the Gilgit region in the late 2000s, Baig has emphasized that the students should find ways to give back. In the past it had been mostly a suggestion, he said, but now he’s organized a program to make it happen.

“The idea is to encourage our scholars to community service and give them some teaching experience,” he said. “As you know, there are few job opportunities in these areas. In the past, we appointed a few CAI scholarship students who completed their education as teachers in different CAI-supported schools, but it is impossible to give jobs to all of our scholars. Some are getting jobs in different organizations. But many don’t have chance.

“So this year we thought it would be good to have internship program. In April, 25 students completed college graduation and offered themselves for service,” he said. “I placed two at a government primary school we support, three at CAI’s Ganjabad High School and four at Majaweer Middle School.” CAI provides a stipend to cover each intern’s room and board in the village.

When their six-month service ends in November, Naseem and the other interns will return to school for master’s-level (16 class) education, he said.

And a month later, another 25 CAI-supported scholarship students will finish their master’s degrees “and we will choose a few students and send them to different CAI-supported schools as volunteer teachers for four to six months,” Baig explained. “This will be continued for as long as the scholarship program is going on. It is a good time to start because now our scholarship students are in different stages. After every semester a few are completing graduation at different levels.”


Naseem was posted to Majaweer School, in the Ishkoman Valley of the Ghizer District, where she said she has happily settled into teaching English, social studies, and science to middle school students.

“I started teaching just after I finished my exam paper in April 2014,” she said. “This area is more remote than the area where from I belong, but the school is good and there are so many students. But all of them are studying free of tension because CAI is supporting them fully: fees, books, and other requirements.”

But she’s not just a teacher. She’s also a role model. In 2013, all of the students in Majaweer’s class eight said their mothers were illiterate; just one girl’s father had a primary- school education. Coming to school and seeing female teachers with college and university degrees makes a difference for all students, but especially for the girls.

Girls’ education is not a new idea in the region, she said. Everybody knows “education is important for girls because with education we can do anything.” The girls who don’t go to school, usually that’s “due to poverty,” she said. And, “in the areas where there is no school and they can’t get education, they are forced to marry in teenage, 14 to 18.”

She added that she is not married. “I want to complete my education and my brothers’ education is also important. If I marry soon, then both of this will be incomplete.”

Her teaching experience, albeit minimal, has already shown her that too often teachers are underpaid and classrooms overcrowded. Both cut into the teacher’s ability to concentrate, she said. And all teachers need training, no matter where they are in their careers. “I need this training, too, because then I can teach better than I am.”

She will get that training, and much more, during her master’s studies at Karakoram International University. After that? She plans to return to teaching.

“I think CAI and Dr. Greg are the angels in our life who give us a chance to improve our life. Otherwise it would be impossible for me to continue my education and become a teacher even,” she said. “Not only me. I know there are thousands of other girls whose life has been changed because of CAI’s help. CAI is always in my prayers.”

CAI HERO: My science teacher Tooba

by Murzia

Murzia CAI HeroMy name is Murzia and I am a student at Ghazi High School in Kabul. I was born in 1998 in Jalozai refugee camp, Pakistan, where my father lived for 18 years.

When we have returned to our beloved country Afghanistan, I was 5 years old. We lived in our village, Loman, for three years where I started going to school, then we moved to Kabul and now I am in grade 8 at Ghazi High School.

I love my school and teachers. My favorite teacher is Tooba Kakar. She is 43 and she has a son and a daughter. She graduated from Teacher Training College. She has good behavior and is very kind and tries to understand all students fairly; however it is very difficult for a mother to have young children and job.

I was born in low-class family, so I proud that my father is educated and loves education. But my mother is uneducated. When I have known as a girl about my family and tribe, there was no chance for girls to get education, so I was disappointed about my life that I thought my family would not let me to go to school as well.

But I was wrong. My father was not like our relatives and tribes. He let me and my other two sisters and four brothers to go school to get education. So I am very lucky. My father receives threats from our close relatives and Taliban because of supporting girls’ education, but he ignores them all.

My dream is to become a journalist to help Afghan poor people and raise the voice of Afghan women in the world.

*Details have been changed to protect the individuals mentioned in the story.

CAI HERO: Drukhshan
by Karin Ronnow

Multilingual mathematician wants to be a doctor

Afghanistan Student DrukshanSome children are just born learners. They dive into their studies with excitement and determination. They glom onto every bit of knowledge that comes their way. And they dream big.

“Mathematics is my favorite, I think it is like a game,” said Drukhshan, a 12th grader at Ishkashim Girls’ Higher Secondary School in Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakhshan province. “When we solve a question it’s so interesting.”

The 17-year-old is one of the top students in her class. She dreams of going on to university, studying medicine, becoming a doctor, giving back to her community, and seeing the world.

“It’s important for every person to be educated,” she said. “For example, if you are not educated you must stay at home and just do chores and that is so boring. If you are educated you can travel, communicate with different people all over the world.”

Communication is important to her, and she works hard at it. Although she’s not as fond of English as she is of math, her spoken English and comprehension exceeds that of most of her classmates. She accomplished that, she said, with the help of additional courses.

“We study English in school, but there we only read and write it, we don’t speak it,” she said. “So I took classes after school. We all know that English is an international language and we should learn it. I’d like to learn all the languages of the world.”

But she knows not everyone shares her enthusiasm.

Enrollment at her school, housed in two buildings erected by Central Asia Institute in 2008 and 2009, is 1,005, said Headmaster Atah Baik. But when he reviewed the attendance sheets and accounted for the girls who have quit (but remain on the enrollment list – a common practice in Afghanistan), the number of students drops to 835.

That doesn’t surprise Drukhshan. “There are many people here who don’t let their daughters go to school, or they let them but they don’t try to understand the value of education,” she said.

“The girls say they don’t have any interest in education because their parents don’t have any interest. They are like people who live in the 18th century. So the girls just come and go and don’t study. They will just finish school and get married.

“I like to learn in a competitive environment, but when I see my classmates not caring and so bored, then that drives me crazy,” she said. “I feel very frustrated. Sometimes I talk to them and say, ‘Even if you are not responsible for yourself or your future, what will you say to your children? You are going to be a mother. At least you can improve the lives of your children so that they can be future leaders of Afghanistan.’”

Drukhshan learned that lesson at home. She comes from a relatively small family of three children. Her father works for the Aga Khan Foundation. Her mother is a housewife.

Drukhshan was born in 1997, when the Taliban controlled the government in Afghanistan. “My mother said it was a terrible time,” she said. “We went to Pakistan when I was 1½ years old, to Karachi. I completed nursery school there. When I came back, I was about 6 years old.”

Her mother, who has a basic education, said she has always emphasized education for her children. “But I especially wanted my daughters to be educated—even more than other kids.”

Drukhshan’s sister, Aalam Gul, studies politics and sociology at university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with help from a George Soros Foundation scholarship. She, too, is bright and well spoken. When asked what she’d like to do with her degree once she finishes university, she said: “Fight for women. This is the only thing to say. Because nothing has been done for women, especially in this environment.”

Why? “Because they don’t fight, they don’t have opportunities. I don’t mean literally ‘fight.’

I mean they need more attention. When you see women in Afghanistan you feel very sad for them and for yourself. The situation here is miserable and we do not have a voice, we are not listened to.”

Drukhshan said that in addition to a love of learning, her parents instilled a desire to serve in all their children.

“My mother really wants me to serve the people,” she said. “One should do this because everyone has a need.

[CAI] serves us by making the school. I should serve by helping the people improve themselves.”
To that end, she hopes to become a doctor. “I want to go to medical university. If I don’t get accepted, then I’m going to study economics,” she said. “But I really want to be a doctor, because being a doctor is very helpful to people who can’t treat their sickness. I want to work in Ishkashim or even in Pamir. I want to have a foundation so I can treat people without any fees. I am going to be there in future. I am.”

She faces hurdles. “There is no scholarship for medical studies in Afghanistan,” she said. And even now she’s not a big fan of homework, which she will be doing for another decade if she gets into medical school.

“I hate homework. It’s the hardest thing,” she said, laughing. “Writing in notebooks is really boring—except for math.”

But she’s determined. She will finish school in December and take university entrance exams in January, she said. If she can get a scholarship and study abroad, she’d love to go that route. “If not, I will continue my education inside the country.”

She said education is key to her future and that of her community. “We are in a very poor community. My community people need help, and for myself, I also need help. I don’t want to be like this anymore. If I have education then I will have my own money and will not be costing everyone else. I want to get educated and be responsible for it.

“Also we know that differences between educated and uneducated persons are many.

Education is the best way to meet new people, travel to other countries and learn about the world and the beauty of life,” she said. She’s on her way.

“Open Your Books”

Afghan StudentsBAZGHIR, Afghanistan — “Open Your Books” says the Afghan Ministry of Education poster outside the seventh-grade classroom at Bazghir High School in northeastern Badakhshan province.

Encouragement is key to keeping these kids in school. They face lots of obstacles.

The first daily obstacle is distance. Some of these students must walk four hours each day just to attend the Central Asia Institute (CAI)-supported school, Headmaster Alam Gul said.

“The school serves four villages and one is a two-hour walk each way,” Gul, 28, said. “It’s a small village. Fifteen students come from there. Mostly they are the younger kids. The older ones go to Zebak School,” he said, referring to another CAI-supported school in a neighboring district. “That’s farther away, but the older students, they can walk further.”

The school is in Ishkashim district of Badakhshan Province, one of the most impoverished places in the world. It sits in a river valley, surrounded by the peaks of the Hindu Kush Mountains.

“Sometimes in summer when water is coming from the mountains, they all have to go to school in Zebak” because they can’t cross the river to get to Bazghir,” he added.

Another issue is the extremists, the local and foreign Taliban forces fighting for control in nearby Warduj district, about a two-hour drive southwest of here.

Afghan Classroom“We feel the pressure,” Gul said. “Girls still come, but they come to school scared. Sometimes girls are afraid to walk the road to come to school. And we worry Taliban might come here and then they won’t let kids come and study or people come and teach. Especially girls will just get deprived.”

A third obstacle is teachers. One morning, three of the teachers were late, so the kids sat in their classrooms without teachers, some of them diligently studying, others goofing around. Other teachers stepped into the rooms periodically to try to maintain order, but they had their own classrooms to attend to and couldn’t stay for long.

The second-grade classroom had been without a teacher for eight days in a row. Gul said, “This is a problem.” He has discussed the absenteeism with education department officials, but the government refuses to fire or replace the teacher.

Eventually it was revealed that the teacher is an opium addict.
CAI helped the community build a new school in 2010. The old school building is in sorry shape – the walls are crumbling, the roof leaks, and the glass in several windows is broken. But rather than tear the old building down, the community opted to use it for higher classes, and teach the younger students in the new building.

The 407 students, including 151 girls, have 14 teachers. But enrollment has decreased by 93 students in the past two years. “Most drop out due to poverty,” Gul said. “Also, some got married.”

The girls in the higher classes typically sit in the back of the classroom. “We encourage them a lot to come to the front [of the classroom] near the teacher by themselves, but they feel shy,” said Arabic teacher Abdul Ghafoor.

Keeping those girls enrolled until they complete high school is key.

Afghan Female StudentsRoqya, 14, is the middle child of five siblings. Her father is uneducated, “he is a farmer,” she said. Her mother is a literacy teacher who is unemployed. She is determined to finish high school, even though her sisters did not.

“My older sister married while in class 11 and quit school,” she said. “My second sister went to class seven and then married. I have brothers in class 10 and three. We all know education makes us bright and open-minded and with education you can get any job you want.”

She’d like to be an eye doctor, she said.

The students and their families understand the importance of education. Just learning how to read and write has put many of the students light-years ahead of their illiterate parents.

“My parents are supportive,” Razia, 14, said. “They say, ‘We didn’t study and now we have nothing and we didn’t make a good life and now you have to study.’ Education is important to learn something.”

The students’ post-high school options may be limited – few can afford higher education. Last year, only one of the 19 graduates was able to attend university. But if they pass the test, they may be able to enroll in one of the teacher-training or vocational-skills colleges closer to home; five graduates were able to do that last year.

But that does not dissuade them from dreaming big. Fida Jan, the No. 2 student in class nine, wants to be a doctor.

“If you don’t have education, you are nothing. If you do have education, you will at least get to be a teacher or doctor or something,” he said.

His classmate, 14-year-old Zahir, said education is also important “because nobody will make fun of us. We will be able to feed ourselves and get money.”

And Dur Mohammad is determined to finish school and become an engineer.

“When you become educated, you will do service,” he said. “You can make roads and bridges for the people and help when there are landslides. My home is in area where there are always floods and landslides and this I want to change.”

Before he loses his audience, Dur Mohammad makes a request. He and his classmates would like a computer lab, he said.

The headmaster smiled. The school has no electricity. Besides, he said, the more urgent need is reliable teachers.

– Karin Ronnow, communications director



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