Maryem, a Women's College alumna from Afghanistan, speaks to a class of 2+2 students from Anhui Normal University. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Maryem, a Women's College alumna from Afghanistan, speaks to a class of 2+2 students from Anhui Normal University. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Afghan alumna returns to campus to share her story

Oct. 29, 2018
Kristen Bowman
Maryem, a Women's College alumna from Afghanistan, speaks with Tami English on campus. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Maryem, a Women’s College alumna from Afghanistan, speaks with Tami English on campus. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

For one Brenau University alumna, her education could mean a death sentence for her family.

The 2014 graduate of the Women’s College — who goes by the alias Maryem for the safety of her family back home — is a native of Afghanistan. She studied at Brenau through the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a national, nonprofit scholarship fund. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 23-24, she returned to campus to share her story with first-year students at Brenau.

“My father always tells me, ‘The day I gave you permission, I knew that this could be the cause of our death,’” Maryem said. “Not only my death, but my whole family. If the Taliban got the word he sent his daughter outside, they could come and just kill us. My family, and my father especially, risks their lives for my education.”

In Afghanistan, women and girls often are deprived the opportunities for an education. Since the U.S.-led military intervention, millions more Afghan girls are reported to be educated today than they were before. Yet, according to a 2017 report by the Human Rights Watch, two-thirds of girls in Afghanistan still do not attend school.

Maryem is from Helmand, which neighbors the home province of the Taliban. She said many girls today are deprived an education because of fear, lack of access, or traditional mentalities in the communities that do not support the education of women and girls.

“I cannot explain how happy I was,” she said of first hearing she was accepted to the initiative. “But then it took me three years to get permission from my own family.”

Maryem, a Women's College alumna from Afghanistan, who returned to Brenau to speak with current students and share her story. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Maryem, a Women’s College alumna from Afghanistan, who returned to Brenau to speak with current students and share her story. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Maryem said her parents also risk their livelihood to send her to school.

“Where I am originally from is called Uruzgan, and in Uruzgan we had lands and gardens and houses,” she said. “This is where my father could go and grow crops and bring them back home. But since he decided to send me here, he couldn’t go back. He knew people there would get the word that he sent his daughter for an education outside the country. It was too dangerous for him or for my brothers to go there.”

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in biology, Maryem started medical school at Saint Martinus University Faculty of Medicine. Her goal is to return home to Afghanistan and open a clinic to provide vital health care to women in her community.

“About 98 percent of women do not get health care in the facilities in the area where I live,” she said. “I have known since before coming to Brenau I wanted to do this.”

Because of the changes under President Donald Trump’s administration, Maryem hasn’t been home in more than two years for fear she will not be admitted back to the U.S. Most people in her community, outside her immediate family and very close friends, believe she has been in Pakistan all this time. She returned home every summer while she was a student at Brenau, but she had trouble going back and forth each time.

She told one story about her attempts to return to Brenau after a summer at home. In Afghanistan, women have to be escorted everywhere by men. Her brother was escorting her to the border so she could return to school. On the way, their car was stopped by the Taliban.

“It was very scary,” she said. “If they had searched the car and found my paperwork, we could have been killed.”

Maryem shared her stories in Pearce Auditorium the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 24. She also spent the next morning visiting first-year classes, including a class of students in the 2+2 program between Brenau and Anhui Normal University in Wuhu, China.

A class of 2+2 students from Anhui Normal University in Wuhu, China, listen to Maryem speak about her own experiences as a foreign student at Brenau University. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

A class of 2+2 students from Anhui Normal University in Wuhu, China, listen to Maryem speak about her own experiences as a foreign student at Brenau University. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“I know how you feel,” Maryem said to the class of Chinese students. “I know what it is like to come here, not speaking the language, to study.”

Tami English, assistant vice president of student services and instructor in the College of Education, said Maryem’s visit was timed to coincide with her students reading The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, a novel by former ABC journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon that follows the story of a young female entrepreneur working during the years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

English said she was thrilled to see Maryem again and for new Brenau students to have the opportunity to meet her.

“She has an incredible story, and we’re so happy to have her here sharing it with our students,” English said. “We keep telling her she needs to write her own book, because she can give a firsthand version of these experiences. And that money could go directly into the clinic she wants to build. She’s one of the few through this program that wants to return home, and what she wants to do is pretty amazing.”

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