Somaya Amiri is currently wandering the rising green hills and preserved concrete trenches of Vimy Ridge. The teen is one of 20 Canadian students sent to France to learn more about the First World War battle that saw the Canadian army push back the Germans over four blood-soaked days from April 9 to 12, 1917.
But 17-year-old Amiri's experience will be unlike that of her peers.
Growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, Amiri came to Canada in October 2011 unable to speak English and having never attended school, a decision her family made to protect her from being attacked by the Taliban. Understandably, she didn't know much about the First World War, much less Canada's role in it before a Grade 11 social studies class.
"I knew about other wars, like the Soviets, mujaheddin and Taliban, those kind of wars mostly in my area. But not much about World War One or Two," she tells The Huffington Post Canada before departing for France. "There's a huge impact when you are affected by war more than when you just learn about it from textbooks. Just living in a country I had to leave because of the consequences of war, there's a huge difference."
The teen, who lives in New Westminster, B.C., says she applied for the Vimy Pilgrimage Award because of her background.
"I'm from a war-torn country and it's really important for me to educate myself and learn what is my responsibility as a leader in this generation. The things that happened in the past feel ongoing," she adds. "A lot of these things are still happening, a lot of hatred is still continuing."
Though the Taliban were in power when Amiri was born, she mostly remembers growing up in the Behsood District during the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. There, the war played out as occasional insurgent attacks and suicide bombings, as well as a longstanding conflict between local ethnic groups which continues to this day. Just this month, 31 members of Amiri's Hazara community were kidnapped.
"Until you are put in a very tough circumstance you don't realize how strong you are, how much you can stretch and how diverse experiences make you appreciate what you have now," she says. "Living in Afghanistan, I was like a whole different person. Coming to Canada, you find different parts of your identity and you learn how to become a stronger person and overcome challenges and hardships."
It was particularly hard for Amiri as she arrived in B.C.'s Lower Mainland without any schooling because of the Taliban's violent opposition to educating girls. Though her parents had brought her to a mosque to learn how to read and write, she understood no English at all. She enrolled at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary in Vancouver, an hour away from home but with great English Language Learner and English as a Second Language (ELL/ESL) programs.
"I was super excited to go to school for the first time but also I was super nervous. I was worried about how I would make friends, how I would communicate," she recalls. "On the first day it seemed so big, like a city, and I can't talk."
But she quickly met other ELL/ESL students and they began eating lunch together, sharing experiences, and making each other feel more comfortable in their new country. Amiri also discovered she could pick up languages quickly. She would ask her teachers for extra textbooks and was always the "first in and last out" at the after-school homework club where she worked on her pronunciation.
Amiri got over feeling self-conscious and was picking up about 40 words a day, but she realized some of her classmates felt too intimidated to practice English with native speakers, even their teachers.
A few months after arriving in Canada, Amiri worked with a school counsellor to apply for a grant to start an adult-free, after-school English Welcome Club. "For me, it was so strange. How is this even possible? In my country you could never do something like that at such a young age. When she suggested it to me, I was just fascinated."
Somaya Amiri, third from right, poses with the "English Welcome Club" that she started.
Creating this safe environment for students to practice and improve their English was a huge success, which Amiri followed up by facilitating anti-discrimination sessions, leading a humanitarian Youth for Change club, and joining extracurricular science programs. She also started taking Spanish in Grade 10 and soon added French to her linguistic repertoire.
While she was accomplishing all this extra work for herself and her classmates, she was doing the same for her family who weren't having such an easy time adjusting to their new environs.
"Because we were new immigrants there were so many things that my family was going through. And when you're the child that knows English better, you have to do everything for the family: translations for the hospital, talking to your siblings' teachers, talking to a lawyer."
If you're impressed at this point, you're not alone. As well as winning over the Vimy Foundation, Amiri was one of 30 students to land a Loran scholarship, a $100,000 award for students who match academic success with service and leadership. The prize can be applied to any university she chooses.
Somaya Amiri is considering studying sciences in university.
"When I went to the Loran interview I was amazed at how passionate the other kids were and all the things they want to do. I was just thinking about how much being exposed to opportunities can change you, can help you, can affect your community or your country. In Afghanistan, imagine if we had all this opportunity?
"It's not fair for me to find that I'm able to take leadership roles, and able to learn a language fast, and able to do well in school [here], an ocean away," she said, her words choked with emotion. "I had a very supportive family but there are girls who get married at such a young age, nine years old and 10 years old.... And kids, they get sold because their parents are going through so much, and girls that get acid-attacked, abused.
"Education is not even a part of their worries. Even with that they're so strong. The things that they go through. I can't even say enough about, without having any opportunities, how strong they are.
"Imagine if you could give them an opportunity, how much they could move forward and it doesn't just affect their family, it affects their community, it affects the entire country. Not just in Afghanistan but everywhere."
Amiri again pauses, overwhelmed, but presses on because that is what she always does. "I experienced two separate lives: one with opportunities and one without opportunities. If I was still in Afghanistan, I don't know where I would be right now. I would've been married. Maybe I would have had kids?"
This is where her motivation to help others comes from, an appreciation of what she's been given and what she narrowly escaped, and the desire to help spread those opportunities as far as she can. Amiri said she plans to go into the sciences in university, but has also considered working at the United Nations.
"That is something I'm thinking about," she says, "But it's a long pathway and we'll see where I end up."
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