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Recent U of O graduate Roya Shams plans to go back to the university for her masters or for law school. Photo: Aaron Hemens/Fulcrum

Shams graduates eight years after her father was killed for fighting for her right to go to school

As she waited for her name to be called to the graduation stage on Nov. 1, the only thoughts that filled Roya Shams’ head were of all of the disadvantaged girls back home in Afghanistan, as well as the memory of her late father, who was killed by the Taliban in 2011 for advocating for her right to pursue an education. 

“I was emotional because I felt my dad’s presence,” Shams said. “In my head, I was happy, but also very emotional because I was thinking about girls back home. Girls in all parts of the world who dream of such a day. I was one of them.”

Despite fulfilling her and her father’s dream of receiving a university degree, Shams — who graduated from the University of Ottawa’s international development and globalization program — intends to go back to school to learn how to challenge laws that oppress women.

“I’m planning to come back to the U of O for a master’s degree in international development and gender studies, or I want to do law school,” she said. “My intention is to do human rights internationally, especially when it comes to women. I want to change lives for women back in Afghanistan, or any country where women are oppressed.”

While growing up in Kandahar, Shams and her eight siblings — four girls and four boys —- were treated as equals by their father. This approach has had a lasting impact on Shams and her sisters, who all went on to pursue studies or careers in fields such as economics and journalism.

“My dad never differentiated between his son and his daughter. He would call us ‘my children,’ not ‘my daughter’ or ‘my son,’ ” she said. “As a result, I have sisters who live in Afghanistan who are doctors. Two doctor sisters. In the end, we became these independent women who aren’t seen as a liability to men. We are seen as an asset.”

But going to school in Kandahar was no easy task, as Shams said that her and the other girls who went to their community’s learning centre were met with constant opposition from both militants and locals.

“In the morning when you would get up, you would never know when you were coming back,” she said. “Going to school was like getting up and saying goodbye to our parents. We had tents. I never had a classroom. I went to school in a tent. I never had a chair or a desk.”

She recalled one instance where militants threw rocks at the tents and lit them on fire, burning her hand in the process.

“I told (my dad) my hand hurts, and he turns his face  — I’ll never forget this — he goes ‘your tongue is not burnt. It’s just your hand.’ Back then, I never appreciated that,” she said.

Her hope is that she lives to see a world where no child experiences the same suffering that she had endured as a young girl for just wanting to go to school.

“For the young girls, I hope that no one will tell them what to do,” she said.

Her desire to help women and girls, she continued, doesn’t know any borders.

“The help doesn’t know colour. It doesn’t know religion. It doesn’t know where you’re coming from,” she said. “For me, I’m hoping that I can help somebody because I have been helped.”

Help for Shams came in 2012 after she reached out to then-Toronto Star reporter Paul Watson, who she had met two years prior after he had written about her defiance of Afghan authorities and society by attending school.

“She sent me an email and she was distraught … I called her and she was in tears,” Watson said. “I couldn’t really understand what she was saying. She was so distraught. I finally figured out her father had been killed.”

Watson said that it was Shams’ “liberal-minded” father that convinced him to help the young girl.

“He was doing the right thing by his daughters — by his family — and he got killed. Someone needed to help them continue, and so I did,” Watson said.  

With the support of then-editor Michael Cooke, the Toronto Star made a plea to readers to help bring the then 16-year-old Shams to Canada. 

“I just started it. The hard work was done by people who donated money,” Watson said. “Ordinary readers by the hundreds of thousands donated money.”

Once an international student visa was obtained, Watson made arrangements to have Shams complete high school at Ottawa’s Ashbury College. He and Cooke would travel to Afghanistan in early 2012 to accompany Shams on her trip to Canada, leaving behind her family in pursuit of education.

“I honestly don’t see it as me having done much of anything. I did the easy part,” Watson said. “The hard part was getting her through school — a very difficult school.”

A party would later be hosted at the same school following Sham’s university graduation, which was attended by friends, professors, high school teachers and journalists.

“The whole front row was filled. I was crying because I felt my dad was with me, and the other thing — it really takes a village to make a difference in someone’s life,” Shams said. “Look at my village … If we hold each other’s hands, what a difference we can make.”

Although Watson was unable to attend Shams’ graduation, he said he was brought to tears when he received the email invitation. 

“It’s just amazing that she’s gotten this far. I sent her some flowers with a note saying ‘the world’s your stage’, and that’s the truth,” he said. “Now that she graduated from the U of O, there’s no end to where she can go or what she can do. It’s just an overwhelming feeling to think where she was then and where she is now, and what lies ahead.”

For Shams, who just turned 23, her purpose now is to lend her voice to others that are struggling to be heard. 

“I was given a voice by all these people. Now, I have to raise this voice for all the people that are there. That’s my hope and contribution to the world,” she said.