DAFI Scholars: Afghan girl studies to become a lawyer in a break with tradition


Ameneh is engaged to be married, but there’s something more pressing that she wants to complete – her law degree. That thinking is unusual for a girl from Afghanistan, where marriage is the height that most girls can aspire to.

But the 25-year-old Afghan refugee’s family is very supportive, agreeing that a good education is vital for a good life. Some of her male siblings have sacrificed their own prospects, working as day labourers to help pay for Ameneh’s university costs in the Iranian city of Qom, where she was born after her parents fled conflict in Afghanistan.

It would have been difficult to pursue a higher education without the help she has been receiving from the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative, more commonly known as DAFI. The German-funded project is run by UNHCR and aims to promote self-sufficiency among refugees and boost their chances of finding a durable solution. It has helped thousands over the past two decades.

“UNHCR encourages and supports education for refugees to become professionals such as doctors, engineers, teachers,” said Bernie Doyle, UNHCR’s representative in the Islamic Republic of Iran. “A young educated workforce is needed to help rebuild a country,” he added.

Ameneh would agree, and that’s why she applied for a DAFI scholarship after finishing high school in Qom. She was accepted for a grant and is now in the third year of a four-year BA law course. “We use the money to cover my tuition costs. Without it, I would not be able to attend university and would just be sitting at home doing housework,” said Ameneh, who lives with her family.

She does plan to get married – after graduating – but has no desire to become a stay-at-home wife, which is the tradition for most women in conservative Afghanistan. She and her fiancé also plan to eventually live in Afghanistan and help rebuild the country that her parents fled from after the 1979 Soviet invasion. More than 850,000 people have returned to Afghanistan from Iran with UNHCR help since early 2002, but parts of the country remain insecure.

Ameneh’s fiancé, Esmaiel, supports her ambitions and her decision to wait until she has graduated before getting married. They have been engaged for 18 months and Ameneh was attracted by his open mindedness on education for women. He is studying in Tehran for a physiotherapy degree.

“He hopes to continue with postgraduate studies in physiotherapy and then return to our country, where there is a big need for this profession,” Ameneh explained, before adding: “I too would like to help, but as a woman my plans are dependent on his.”

Her own family and five brothers and sisters have also always supported Ameneh, the oldest child in the family. Despite having high school diplomas, two of her brothers work as labourers to pay some of the costs faced by Ameneh and her eldest sister, who is also at university. Their father was injured in a factory accident and cannot work, while the two youngest children are at school.

Education is very important to all Afghan refugees as it brings hope of a brighter future. UNHCR also puts a priority on helping all forcibly displaced children gain access to primary education at the least. The refugee agency’s DAFI programme is its biggest tertiary education engagement.

In Iran, between 30 and 60 refugees with UNHCR-supported scholarships graduate every year from universities around Iran in a variety of subjects, including medicine, agriculture and languages. This year, the DAFI programme is helping about 160 students from Afghanistan and Iraq in Iran. UNHCR’s office in Iraq organizes an annual gathering for all the DAFI scholarship students in the country.

By Dina Faramarzi in Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran

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