Remarkable journey from refugee to Rhodes scholar

By Boer Deng
BBC News, Washington

Image source, Yujeong Lee

Growing up as an Afghan refugee in Pakistan, bloodshed was never far from Summia Tora's life.

From her home - a single bedroom in a house shared by four families - she could hear the sound of drones landing not far from Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan, where her family had fled in the 1990s to escape the Taliban's rise.

"I was just living in this violence, but it was a given, so I couldn't do anything about it," Summia says. Sometimes there were bombings once or twice a week. "At some point, people stopped talking about it. It would happen, and everyone would move on."

But life there was a privilege compared to Afghanistan, she tells the BBC. At least she got to go to school.

On a visit to Kabul in 2002, just after the US invasion, a girl not much older described only being able to attend school by pretending to be a boy. Summia was six, but she remembers it clearly. She vowed then that she would to take learning seriously.

It would be hard to dispute that she has. In October, Summia, now 22, will become the first Rhodes Scholar to hail from Afghanistan, one of 102 students to earn a place in the 2020 class of the world's oldest postgraduate scholarship.

Now finishing her last term at Earlham College, a liberal arts university in the US state of Indiana, her outlook is bright and she laughs with ease, the fluent torrent of her words belying the traumas of the journey that has taken her from refugee to Rhodes Scholar.

Image source, Summia Tora
Image caption,
Ms Tora (in pink) with some of her family on a visit to Kabul in 2002

'Anything can happen at any time'

To be called an educated Afghan woman is in itself a rarity. Female literacy in Afghanistan today stands at 17%, according to Unesco.

Though figures in neighbouring Pakistan are still poor - around 45% of women can read - access to schooling is possible. In contrast, in her home country "even the people who could afford to go to school were not able to go… because there weren't any", Summia says.

So it was her unlikely fortune to grow up in Pakistan, she says - an irony given the region's privations and dangers. Thousands of US drone operations have flown over Northwest Pakistan since 2004, as part of the so-called war on terror. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province containing Peshawar, has been a major theatre for the decades-long Pakistani fight against insurgency.

The year Summia left Peshawar, 2014, a militant bombing killed 139 pupils in one of the world's worst ever school massacres.

"There's this sort of tension you have, a pressure," she says. "There's always this feeling of being unsafe, because anything can happen at any time."

Learning was an escape. But as refugees, her family had limited rights. Her father could not get a driving licence and her access to schooling was tenuous, so she had to look elsewhere.

'She risked her life'

Image source, Courtesy of Summia Tora
Image caption,
Ms Tora in traditional Afghan dress at her high school graduation in New Mexico

A fortuitous online search led her to find a high school, the United World Colleges (UWC), which places international students in its network of campuses across the world.

Even the experience of winning a place to the school, in New Mexico, was mired in violence. A day after taking her entrance exam in Kabul in March 2014, the hotel where it had been held was shot up by Taliban militants.

The Persian New Year terror attack on the Serena Hotel left nine dead, including the head of UWC's selection committee, Roshan Thomas. The Canadian doctor had been in the city to help give the exam.

Summia recalls how Dr Thomas had urged the student hopefuls to take the opportunity and one day "come back to Afghanistan and do something to change the situation, because that's the real purpose".

"She was the main reason I applied. Because she risked her life. Because she believed that students like me, from countries like Afghanistan, or refugees from Pakistan, should have the opportunity to get an education."

The burden of a vexed legacy

It is a view that contradicts a legacy of imperialism linked to the Rhodes, one of the world's best-known and most competitive scholarships.

Endowed by Cecil Rhodes through his will in 1902, it was initially intended to encourage closer ties between the US and Britain through funding postgraduate study at Oxford. For most of its history, it was only open to men from the US, Germany and the Commonwealth.

Rhodes supported a vision that saw "the bringing of the whole world under British rule".

"He was an imperialist who believed in white supremacy and did not want people of colour or women to be part of the Rhodes Scholarship," Summia says. Initially, she did not want to apply.

She had a change of heart when it struck her that it would be easy to say no, she says, "but it's harder to accept it, take the burden of the legacy of it, and actually do something to change it - that's a real responsibility."

"I realised I shouldn't run away from admitting the colonial history," she adds. "It's people like us who need to change [the Rhodes legacy]."

'A very modern Afghanistan'

Summia plans a post-graduate course on refugee and migrant movement, and after that, she says she will return to the country her family once fled.

The only Afghanistan she has known has been one of empty streets and bombed out buildings, but there is another in her mind - one she grew up hearing about from her father, before the wars that rent its streets to dust.

"I always imagined it to be a valley, with the mountains and rivers and beautiful houses - big, beautiful houses, with beautiful architecture," she says. "Dried fruits and nuts, fresh fruits on the streets… a very modern Afghanistan."

It is there for those like her to build.