Meet Safia: An Afghani refugee chases her dreams in Pakistan

06 April 2021


Safia Ibrahimkhel
Safia Ibrahimkhel at the Palais des Nations, Geneva

Safia Ibrahimkhel remembers clutching her schoolbooks and uniform in her arms. She was crying and scared. A second school of hers had been demolished in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. “Everything had vanished,” she recalls. “I thought I was not going to be able to finish my education and chase my dreams.”

However, Ibrahimkhel did not let anything stop her. Born and raised in the Kacha Garhi refugee camp in Pakistan to Afghani parents who fled conflict in the 1990s, Ibrahimkhel enrolled in a new 7th grade class.

“The school was an hour away, but my mother would walk with me every morning.” Yet, the fear of another disruption lingered, and she decided to take a test that would advance her to the 9th grade. “I wanted to complete my education as quickly as possible.” 

As a result, Ibrahimkhel was just over 13 years old when she graduated from high school. While most girls would finish school at a young age, she did not want to stop learning and forego her passion for international relations. She credits the support of her family and teachers, who motivated her to continue despite long-standing taboos around girls’ education.

“Education can help refugee and host community students to come together. When refugee students study with the host community students, they are able to communicate with each other, they can understand each other and this leads to integration, a sharing of ideas, and new solutions for their common issues. It can also help defeat the negative media perception of refugees.”

Still, her journey was not free of obstacles. “The major barrier was language,” she says. “When I was young, I followed the Afghan curriculum, and when I went to college I was not aware of the language challenges. I had followed very basic Urdu and English, but now I needed very strong language skills.” She also faced a tedious application process where she needed certain documentation and equivalence certificates to advance to higher education.

But, she persevered and quickly mastered English in just a year. In 2014, she became the first female in her family to advance to higher education, and she completed a Master’s degree in political science. Now 25, she is a member of UN Refugee Agency’s Global Youth Advisory Council, and she is completing her Masters of Philosophy in Islamabad with a Pakistani scholarship for refugees. After, she wants to pursue a doctorate and she dreams of becoming the first female Foreign Minister of Afghanistan.

“I want to bring a female perspective to policy-making,” she says. “I want to show that when a woman is given opportunity and is in a position of leadership, she can transform a vision into reality, and that when a refugee child – with no identity and no resources – can complete education, they can come to be in this position.”

Ibrhaimkhel’s story is an inspiration to the millions of refugees miss out on their right to a quality education. Worldwide, 48 percent of all school age refugee children are out of school, and only 3 percent enroll in higher education, according to the United Nation’s Refugee Agency.


Challenges faced by refugee learners in Pakistan

Many of the challenges Safia Ibrahimkhel expressed are common to many refugee learners in Pakistan today. IIEP-UNESCO’s support to the education sector plan (2020-2025) for Baluchistan, in particular, brought some of these to the forefront:

  • Low access and participation in education,
  • Learning issues caused by lack of teachers and language barriers,
  • Cultural and social barriers preventing girls’ education,
  • Reduced community participation in education matters,
  • Limited opportunities for secondary education and beyond.


IIEP supports countries in planning education for refugees

Ensuring the right to quality education for all – including refugees and displaced children – is a priority for IIEP-UNESCO. To help advance this, IIEP supports countries with crisis-sensitive educational planning. This approach to planning helps educational planners and policy-makers lessen the impact of crises and overcome inequity and exclusion in education, including for youth like Ibrahimkhel.

IIEP is also researching innovative policy options to support teachers in refugee settings, as well as how to design flexible learning pathways to help refugees and other vulnerable learners succeed in higher education.

In Pakistan, specifically, IIEP has provided support for several recent provincial education sector plans. For example, in Baluchistan – home to one-fourth of the country’s 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees – this has included strategies to help support refugees’ access to quality education. These include improved school conditions within refugee camps, textbooks in Pashto and Dari languages for primary schools, community mobilization to improve refugee girls’ participation in education, and new quotas to help refugee students enroll in government secondary schools and colleges.