04/20/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Kandahar to Carleton U.: Afghan woman's risky pursuit of education

Her first classroom was a patch of dry land in the desert in Kandahar. An unlikely oasis, but to an eight-year-old MaryamSaharNaqibullah, that's just what it was.

"I was the first female in my family who got the opportunity to get an education," says Naqibullah, now 20. "My parents are uneducated. I was lucky to go to school. For me and my family, it’s a really big thing. I call myself the luckiest girl."

Naqibullah and the other 12 Afghan students in her class - all eager, all of them girls, dressed head to toe in their burqas – walked hours to get there. They sat under the hot Afghan sun on little square mats hand-stitched by their mothers, and drank in their first lessons.

Those lessons offered the promise of a better life, but also meant danger. Naqibullah's two best friends were killed by the Taliban in Kandahar right after they graduated from high school.

"They’re in my heart every day. They died because they were working for women’s rights. They died because they wanted to make a difference. They died because they were exercising their rights," Naqibullah says.

A lot of women have died like this in Afghanistan, she adds. "In all the provinces they’ve killed these women. But it makes us work harder for a better Afghanistan, to change Afghanistan for women."

She has come a long way down a complicated road since then, both academically and geographically.  

As a teenager, Naqibullah was the only female interpreter for Canadian forces in Afghanistan. The ties she made helped open doors for her. A Canadian program supporting people who acted as interpreters for Canadian soldiers and diplomats in Afghanistan — sometimes at the risk of their lives — has resettled several hundred Afghan "terps" and their families in Canada in recent years.

On Oct. 22, 2011, Naqibullah immigrated to Canada under the program.

"When I leave my house in the morning, I don’t have fear of who might kill me because I’m going to school," she says. "That’s amazing - not being afraid of being shot for going to school."

Naqibullah says life in Canada is a radical change in other ways, too.

"Not wearing a burqa is a wonderful feeling. You can wear anything you want. I don’t need a male escort here. I can get on the bus by myself. I can go home at 9 p.m. by myself. In Afghanistan, women can’t go out without a male escort.

"My life is completely different than my mother and father. I have my rights here and I’m allowed to exercise that. No one tells me what to do and what not to do."

The 20-year-old is now studying at Carleton University in Ottawa. She has just completed her first year, majoring in international relations.

Getting a university education is the beginning, she says, of a second life.

"I never thought I’d be a student in Canada," she says. "I sometimes still think that I’m dreaming, that I’m not at university at all. How can I be sitting in a class at Carleton with a computer in a beautiful lecture hall … an Afghan girl [who grew up] with no paper, pens or chalk?"

She adds that she still feels responsible for Afghanistan and emotionally connected to the country, but she also wants to live a life with the freedoms and opportunity Canada offers.

"This country protected my life. It gave me freedom, gave me things I didn’t have in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is my soul, Canada is my body."

[Listen to The Sunday Edition's audio documentary about Maryam Sahar​ Naqibullah, called "Where I Want to Go," in the audio player at the top-left of this page or on CBC radio starting at 9 a.m. EDT on Sunday April 20.]