Summia Tora’s journey to gain an education let alone make it as a Rhodes Scholar is nothing less than remarkable.
An Afghan refugee whose family fled to Pakistan in the 1990s due to the emergence of the Taliban, Summia’s early memories of her childhood include a single bedroom in a house shared by four families and the constant sounds of drones, gun shots and violence. “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, ” she told BBC News.
Yet, Summia remained grateful that she was at least able to go to school in Pakistan.
Feeling unsafe was almost part and parcel of her daily life – “there’s always this feeling of being unsafe, because anything can happen at any time,” she said. In 2014, the year Summia left Peshawar, a militant bombing killed 139 pupils in “one of the world’s worst school massacre”. She concedes that learning was a form of escape from the adversities of life.
As she grew up, her access to education was limited in Pakistan as an Afghan refugee. However, Summia wasn’t about to give up. An online search soon resulted in her finding a high school in New Mexico through the United World Colleges (UWC).
However, the experience of getting there was still marred by violence – the day after she took her entrance exam in Kabul in March 2014, the hotel where it had been held was invaded by Taliban militants and among those who lost their lives in the shooting was the head of UWC’s selection committee, Roshan Thomas, a Canadian doctor, who visited the country to help conduct the exam.
Summia recalls how Dr Thomas was her source of inspiration – “….. 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,” she said.
Now at 22, Summia will become the first Rhodes Scholar to hail from Afghanistan.
Currently finishing her last term at Earlham College, a liberal arts university in Indiana, United States, Summia maintains a positive outlook on life.
Initially reluctant to apply for the world’s oldest postgraduate scholarship, given its legacy of white supremacy. According to BBC News, she had a change of heart – “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. It’s people like us who need to change [the Rhodes legacy].”
After completing a post-graduate course on refugee and migrant movement, Summia intends to return to her home country and help build an Afghanistan of her dreams, one she grew up listening to from her father – “I always imagined it to be a valley, with the mountains and rivers and beautiful houses – big, beautiful houses, with beautiful architecture…dried fruits and nuts, fresh fruits on the streets… a very modern Afghanistan.”
Congratulations on your outstanding achievement, Summia. You are an amazing inspiration to the world!
*Featured image sourced from uwc-usa.org