Roya Shams dreamed about her late father almost every night this past week. It happens every time she’s feeling deeply emotional, whether it’s sad or happy.
This time it’s the latter. Shams, who escaped to Canada from Afghanistan in 2012 to pursue an education with the Star’s help, graduated on Friday afternoon from the University of Ottawa. It was the longtime dream for both the 24-year-old and her father, who was killed by the Taliban in 2011 after championing her right to go to school.
“He would just be happy and he would even encourage me more,” said Shams, who plans to stay in Canada to pursue either a master’s degree or go to law school. “I think I will have his blessings, and with his blessings I can go as far as I can. I’m sure he is here with me in spirit, especially on graduation day because it was one of his dreams.”
Instead of the regular two tickets most graduates request for their ceremony, Roya needed 25 to accommodate all the people, including journalists, school administrators and friends, who wanted to witness her receiving her degree in international development and globalization. Afterwards, an 80-person celebration was planned at Ashbury College, the prestigious high school Shams attended in Ottawa after it waived her tuition, charting her path to Canada.
“I was crying,” Shams said about the moment she heard about the party. “I can’t say I made it, I say we made it, because I have all these amazing people on my side.”
Shams’ journey to this country, and the achievements she has seen since, depended largely on the generosity of all these people and more, she said, but those who have seen her grow said her tenacity and drive propelled her to success. Now, as she progresses through another major milestone in life, she is thinking of her father, her family still in Afghanistan, and the promises she made to herself to eventually go back and help shape her country into a better place for women.
“We girls need to hold each other’s hands in order to be strong,” Shams said. “In the future I’m hoping that even if one person could hold a hand and get taken out of the situation they are in, that would be a life accomplishment for me.”
Then just a teen, Shams met Star reporter Paul Watson in 2010 when he wrote about the Afghan schoolgirl defying authorities and most of society to go to a school funded in part by Star readers, a right denied to women in Afghanistan at that time. (Star readers donated more than $7,000 to the Canadian International Learning Foundation in 2010 to support its work with the Afghan-Canadian Community Center school).
She had always faced glares of disapproval in Kandahar, and even burned her hand when her school was set ablaze during riots. But after her father, police Col. Haji Sayed Gulab Shah, was assassinated, direct threats against Shams and her family intensified. Attending school safely was out of the question.
Reporting on her plight, Watson wanted to do more than just observe. So he reached out to Ashbury College, which has churned out graduates the likes of former prime minister John Turner and Friends actor Matthew Perry, and headmaster Tam Matthews immediately agreed to do all he could to help.
Watson and the Star’s then-editor Michael Cooke facilitated an international student visa for Shams and travelled to Afghanistan under dangerous conditions to bring her to Canada. The young woman, travelling alone with two white men, drew suspicion and faced hurdles — such as being questioned relentlessly by policemen at the airport who asked how her parents were letting an unmarried girl leave the country alone — right up until her plane took off in January 2012. “Roya didn’t squirm during the 20-minute interrogation,” Watson wrote in his Star article.
“Your country or a coffin” was the patriotic credo her father often repeated to her. But Shams knew that to help her country, she had to leave, at least for a while.
“Once you taste the fruit, you cannot leave it,” Shams said about getting an education, which she said is essential for both boys and girls in Afghanistan in order for the country to progress.
Getting through Ashbury’s intensive program wasn’t easy, and Shams had to improve her English at Brockville’s Fulford Academy before returning for Grade 10. But Shams was determined to keep going, and with some accommodations for her language barrier, she graduated and earned a spot at the University of Ottawa.
One of the many people helping her with that transition was the university’s director of donor relations and stewardship, Kelly Gray. Gray read up on Shams in the Star before meeting her, so she’d have a better understanding of the struggles she’d been through.
“I was really taken aback because she was just a remarkable young woman and the strength that she had was inspiring,” Gray said about first meeting Shams. “I’ve seen her grow and become even more eager to make a difference, and wanting to get involved in different communities and just to give back. The passion has definitely grown.”
Gray helped Shams navigate scholarships, bursaries, residence and other logistical issues, since she was a young student on her own. Over the years, the two have developed a deeper relationship, with Shams even meeting Gray’s family.
Now that she’s graduating, even though she wants to continue with school, Gray said it’s “very emotional” to see Shams’ journey come full circle.
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“Just to see her get to what her father really wanted for his daughter, to see that happen, that to me is just … there are no words at this point. I’m just so happy for her and so proud, very proud,” Gray said. “She’s definitely someone who we will hear about doing some amazing things in the years to come.”
Guylaine Renaud, awards administrator at the university, has been similarly impressed with Shams, whom she describes as “an extremely kind person” with a “very, very big heart.”
“The biggest thing is her perseverance, her will to achieve. She wanted to make it happen and she’s going to do the effort that needs to be done,” Renaud said, adding Shams was at first struggling academically but was determined to succeed. “She said to me from Day 1, ‘I’m going to help again because so many people helped me and I want to give back.’”
Academics aside, some of the hardest moments for Shams were when parents would visit students on campus and she’d see happy families milling about, and yearn for her own.
“Part of your heart is missing and it’s back home with your family,” said Shams, the youngest of nine children. She communicates with her family through old-school calling cards because the internet isn’t always reliable.
Afghanistan’s 18-year war continues today. Though more than 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members served in the country since 2001, the last of them left in 2014. Today, an estimated 3.7 million children are out of school in Afghanistan, according to UNICEF, and 60 per cent of them are girls.
“I’m the luckiest one who got an education, who got outside of the country,” Shams said, adding many military families have lost their parents. “Some of them might never get that.”
Though it was a heartbreaking decision for her mother, Maghan, to let “her baby” go abroad to pursue her education, Shams said her mother did it so she could fulfil the dreams of her father, a “liberal” man in a “closed society.”
“My mom has given her daughter to a cause, basically,” Shams said. “That’s her desire that one day I will help the children back home.”
Shams has been deeply involved in volunteering, becoming engaged in Ottawa’s local community, attending conferences on women’s empowerment, and serving as an ambassador for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.
She said she would eventually like to work internationally in gender rights and helping children either through not-for-profit organizations or government, or through advocacy.
“(The journey) has been, to some extent, painful but I also feel like the struggles make you strong. Out of all the things that have happened to me, as a result of it I am who I am. I personally see this (as a way) to turn this pain into passion,” Shams said.
“I have been through this so I’m hoping to help somebody else (so) that they should never go through such a thing. I might not be able to help hundreds but I’m hoping to make a difference in as many people as I can.”