An Afghan girl who fled the Taliban in 2021 won a scholarship worth $100,000, which will help her to study at a Canadian university.
Umulbanin Arjmand was awarded a Loran scholarship, given out based on “character, service and leadership potential,” according to the University of Saskatchewan’s website.
Two years ago, Arjmand was on her way back home after attending a midterm exam at Marefat High School in Kabul when she realized that the situation in the city was not the same as it was the day before.
Unlike the previous day, the normally bustling Dasht-e-Barchi – in the west of Kabul city where Arjmand was living and attending school – was silent. There were few people on the streets.
“It was like calm before the storm,” Arjamand told CTVNews.ca.
No one had told Arjmand, but the Taliban were almost in the city. That day would be her last at her school.
“I had two exams left at school when I was asked not to go to school anymore because I was a girl,” Arjmand said, referencing a Taliban-imposed ban on education for women and girls.
It didn’t take so long for Arjmand to realize that the Taliban fighters had entered Kabul city and taken control of the police station, located close to her house.
“I went to the roof of our house to see what was going on outside. I could see from there that six armed Talibs riding three motorbikes went to the police station and raised their white flag and took the former government flag down,” recalled Arjmand.
In a matter of weeks, Arjmand saw a lot of things change, including several new restrictions imposed on girls and women – restrictions that her generation had experienced before, such as banning girls from school and women from work.
“In the three weeks that I was in Kabul, only once I went out with my sister to buy groceries. Although I had covered myself with hijab, still I was not feeling safe. I was scared because the Taliban is not (held accountable) for torturing and killing people. If one of them had shot me in the head no one would ask why.”
“Depressed” and “exhausted,” Arjmand had no idea what to do. Eventually, she realized her family’s best option was to flee the country they called home.
She took her mom and dad to neighbouring Pakistan, and from there to Canada. It was so sudden, she said, she even couldn’t say goodbye to her friends and classmates.
Arjmand, along with her father and mother, arrived in Saskatoon in October 2021. Her three siblings are scattered, with one in Afghanistan, one in the U.S. and one in Norway.
“At first, I was thinking that this was all a game, or I was dreaming. How can a country with some of the best equipment and support provided by the U.S. collapse over the course of a day? I was thinking that the U.S. will come back, or a miracle will happen and everything will be fixed again. I was hoping someone would wake me up and say ‘this was all part of a game.’”
Recalling the Taliban takeover made Arjmand, who is now finishing her high school diploma at Nutana Collegiate in Saskatoon, sad again, but despite the circumstances that brought her to Canada, here she is thriving.
She is celebrating her win of the prestigious Loran Scholarship, an award valued at more than $100,000. Arjmand was chosen out of the approximately 5,000 students from across Canada who apply every year.
The award is one of several offered through the Loran Scholars Foundation, and includes an annual stipend, tuition waiver and personal mentorship with a Canadian leader, as well as funding for internships.
Those behind it say they believe “integrity, courage, grit and personal autonomy are better indicators of overall potential than standard academic measures.”
The $100,000 scholarships are awarded over four years to eligible students planning to attend one of 25 participating universities in Canada.
For Arjmand, going through the process was not only a chance to plan for the future, but a reminder of what she’d left behind.
“Succeeding in each step of the scholarship’s application, I was realizing that I have the ability, and it gave me the power and energy to try more,” said Arjmand. “It was a flashback to my worst days of life while travelling to Pakistan and then to Canada. It was reminding me how much I’ve gone through and how far I’ve come.”
The 20-year-old Saskatoon student will be pursuing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Saskatchewan, starting this fall, through the scholarship.
She says she has been searching for such opportunities since she moved to Canada but was not aware of the Loran Scholarship before her teacher, Sandra Mancusi, suggested that she apply for the award.
In an interview with CTVNews.ca, Mancusi said she is so excited that Arjmand was selected for what she called an “amazing and prestigious honour,” and that she is “beyond thrilled” that Arjmand will be starting her university studies in the fall.
“Although her life was interrupted when she moved to Canada, she did not let that interruption interfere with her goal of completing her high school education or the pursuit of her university dreams,” said Mancusi. “The Loran selection process is a rigorous and lengthy journey that involves not only a written application but also a series of virtual and in-person one-on-one and small group interviews.”
Although Canada has opened the door of opportunities to Arjmand, she knows she still has to work hard, and will have to make sacrifices as she works towards her degree, the first of which was choosing a job over a sport she loves.
Arjmand is now working part-time at a restaurant, instead of using that spare time to continue studying the martial art of Wushu. This is so she can take care of and support her 68-year-old mother and 75-year-old father.
The yellow-belt holder first learned this style of martial arts at Marefat High School in Kabul, before her life was uprooted.
Arjmand was one of three million Afghan girls who have been banned from education after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, but she was able to follow her dream to Canada.
Not all Afghan girls have Arjmand’s fortune to continue their education, such as Marjan, a 17-year-old girl who is not allowed to go to school in Kabul. This is not her real name. CTV News is using a pseudonym to protect her from any repercussions.
Marjan was also in Grade 12 and in the middle of the midterm exams when the Taliban seized power.
“The Taliban has been playing with our future and it’s disappointing. I’ve heard that families force their teenage daughters to get married, saying that they don’t go to school or work … Thinking about all these makes me really sad,” Marjan told CTVNews.ca.
Marjan says girls are facing a lot of challenges in Afghanistan and some of her friends and classmates are depressed. To cope with the situation, Marjan started painting, saying now she draws her “pain on the paper.”
However, Marjan says, she will never give in to the “darkness” and will continue to be hopeful.
“We understood that we have to get rid of this black well. Being worried alone wouldn’t help us to overcome this darkness,” Marjan said of herself and others who are trying not to feel overwhelmed by their circumstances.