“O Canada” echoed through the Assembly Hall of Ottawa’s Carleton University as Maryam Sahar bided her moment to cross the stage and officially earn her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. It was a proud moment for the Afghan-born, former Canadian Forces interpreter, and one she’d dreamed of for over a decade. Sahar came to Canada alone at the age of 17 and says her only goal was an education.
As she crossed the stage in her black graduation robe, the final steps of a long journey, her thoughts turned to her homeland and to the women and girls who face tighter restrictions every day under Taliban rule.
“The women in Afghanistan have the same dreams as me,” she said. “They want to do well, they want an education.”
Graduation day reinforced Sahar’s resolve to urge the Canadian government to fulfill its promise to bring 40,000 vulnerable Afghans into the country and out of Taliban reach.
About 15,475 have landed on Canadian soil as of August 2021.
Sahar was a young teenager when she enlisted 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 being hunted down by the Taliban for collaborating 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 continued. She calls the veteran her Canadian mother.
“She had people around her. But Maryam’s drive, her determination, her dedication, everything about her helped her get there,” said Greenall, who rode her motorcycle with her husband Grant, also an Afghanistan veteran, thousands of miles from Britain to Ottawa, Columbia Proudly cheering on Sahar at the call-up. “We look at this day and how beautiful it is, but we still look behind our shoulder at what isn’t happening.”
The Greenalls are frustrated by what they call the slow pace of evacuation to save those who aided Canada during its mission in Afghanistan.
“The government made a promise and it hasn’t delivered on that promise,” Greenall said. “It’s triggering and traumatizing for us.”
When Kabul fell last August, Sahar implored Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to bring her family to Canada, saying he would have blood on his hands if her loved ones were killed by the Taliban. Two of her brothers and their mother were rescued. One of her sisters is still in Pakistan while another brother remains in Afghanistan.
“I understand that many people work very hard to help my family and other interpreters,” she said. “More can happen with more political will, but unfortunately you don’t see that here in the Afghan crisis.”
Still, Sahar is grateful to all the Canadians who supported her on her way to graduating. She is grateful for her educational sponsor, who first heard about Sahar when he read a story about her in a newspaper at an Ottawa bagel shop and decided to help out. And Sahar is grateful for the professors at Carleton University, who she says understood her struggles with the language and the course material.
“Every time I knocked on their doors, they were always there,” she said. “I really want to pay it up front.”
James Milner is one of her professors in the Political Science department. He calls Sahar’s degree a remarkable achievement, but says it has brought a lot to Carleton University.
“There are things you can’t learn from textbooks,” he said after the induction ceremony. “Maryam is so generous in sharing her story,” he says, enriching the experience of others in the classroom.
Sahar hopes to one day return to Afghanistan when it is safe enough for her 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 instill values of compassion and generosity: “Canadian values,” she emphasizes.
But first she will finish her university education.
She actually ticked off the completion of her bachelor’s degree two years ago, but the conscription ceremony at Carleton has been pushed back to this spring by the pandemic. She is already working on her master’s degree.
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