Afghan refugee achieves dream of earning degree in Canada


“O Canada” echoed through the convocation hall at Carleton University in Ottawa, as Maryam Sahar stood waiting for her moment to cross the stage and officially graduate with a bachelor of arts degree in political science. This was a proud moment for the Afghan-born, former interpreter with the Canadian Armed Forces, and one she had dreamed of for over a decade. Sahar came to Canada alone at the age of 17 and says her only goal was to get an education.

As she crossed the stage in her black graduation robe, the latest steps of a long journey, her thoughts turned to her homeland, and to the women and girls now facing tighter restrictions each day under Taliban rule.

“The women of Afghanistan have the same dreams as me,” she said. “They want to do well, they want an education.”

Graduation day strengthened Sahar’s resolve to push the Canadian government to fulfil its promise to bring 40,000 vulnerable Afghans to the country and out of the Taliban’s reach.

Since August 2021, about 15,475 have landed on Canadian soil.

Sahar was a young teenager when she signed on as an interpreter for the Canadian forces in Kandahar, working with Chief Warrant Officer (Ret’d) Charlotte Greenall. It was dangerous work: her family was hunted by the Taliban for her collaboration with coalition forces. Her brother was beaten.

In 2012, Sahar fled to the safety of Canada, where the bond she had formed with Greenall on the battlefield carried on. She calls the veteran her Canadian mom.

“She did have people around her. But Maryam’s drive, her determination, her dedication, everything about her helped her make it,” said Greenall, who rode a motorcycle with her husband Grant, also a veteran of Afghanistan, thousands of kilometres from British Columbia to Ottawa to proudly cheer on Sahar at convocation. “We look at this day and how beautiful it is, but we are still looking behind our shoulder at what is not happening.”

The Greenalls are frustrated at what they call the slow pace of evacuation to rescue those who helped Canada during its mission in Afghanistan.

“The government made a promise, and it has not fulfilled that promise,” said Greenall. “For us, that is triggering and traumatizing.”

When Kabul fell last August, Sahar pleaded with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to bring her family to Canada, saying he would have blood on his hands if those she loves were killed by the Taliban. Two of her brothers and her mother were rescued. One of her sisters is still in Pakistan, while another brother remains in Afghanistan.

“I understand many people are working very hard to help my family and other interpreters,” she said. “With more political will, more can happen, but that is not seen here in the Afghan crisis, which is unfortunate.”

Still, Sahar is grateful for all the Canadians who supported her along her journey to earn her degree. She is thankful for her education sponsor, who first learned of Sahar while reading a story about her in a paper at a bagel shop in Ottawa and decided to pitch in and help. And Sahar is thankful for the Carleton University professors she says understood she was struggling with the language and with the course material.

“Every single time i knocked on their doors, they were always there,” she said. “I really want to pay it forward.”

James Milner is one of her professors in the political science department. He calls Sahar’s graduation a remarkable achievement, but also says she has brought a lot to Carleton University.

“There are things you cannot learn in textbooks,” he said after the convocation ceremony. “Maryam shares her story so generously,” which he says enriches the experience of others in the classroom.

Sahar hopes to one day return to Afghanistan, if and when it is safe enough for her, where she wants to work on women’s rights issues.

But she says Canada is her country now, and she plans to find a career in a field where she can help immigrants and refugees, and pass on the values of compassion and generosity: “Canadian values” she insists.

But first, she will finish up her university education.

She actually checked off completing up her bachelor’s degree two years ago, but the convocation ceremony at Carleton was delayed to this spring by the pandemic. She is already working on her master’s degree. 

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