Maryam Laly: Space for Women, Space for Learning
Maryum’s story revolves around the pursuit of education and the drive to learn. Her work in social justice seeks to empower women through advocacy and educational opportunity. Here she discusses her journey to self-realization, actualization, and the never-ending pursuit of knowledge.
Like many in my generation, I was born during the war in Afghanistan and this meant our lives would be marked by turmoil, refugee statuses, and often uncertainty about the future. Through it all, I remember one thing, the fact that my two siblings and I were encouraged to pursue education under any circumstances.
My father was a tinsmith who never had the opportunity to get an education, because his father passed away when he was barely a teen and the eldest of seven children along with an illiterate mother. So, the burden of the family expenses fell on his shoulders. Despite it all, he managed to send his two youngest siblings to graduate high school. My mother came from a poor family, but early on a woman took interest in her and became a mentor, paving the way for her to get a nursing degree. She became one of the first women in her extended family to receive a diploma. This meant education was key in our household. My siblings and I were encouraged to study and take additional after-school classes to learn English even when our parents struggled to make ends meet. Having bread and tea alone for a meal was justified so long as we managed to learn every day.
In that regard, I was lucky to be born to such dedicated parents. I recall my father arguing with relatives to allow their children, including their daughters, to attend school. Because according to him the future was in the hands of those who were educated and knew how to speak English. This was when we were refugees in Pakistan and didn’t know what the future held for our country. He would be right, education and especially knowing English language would open many doors for me. He wouldn’t live long enough to see any of it, but I will never forget his sacrifices and his words of wisdom.
Five years after he passed away, I would test my grades and English ability for a chance to be part of a high school exchange program in the United States. In 2007, I was accepted to the Youth, Exchange and Study (YES) program. I was one of 38 students accepted from among 3,000 applicants from across Afghanistan. The program allowed me to study in the US for a year. It changed my life. After the program completion, I returned to Afghanistan and took a gap year while working at a newly built hospital in Kabul. In 2009, I was given yet another opportunity to further my education. Through a foundation, I received a two-year scholarship to finish high school in the United States. Then I went on to college at St. Lawrence University in New York, graduating with a degree in Government. Over these years, I have realized the extent to which my life was affected because of the small but very critical decision of my parents to push for education at any cost.
After graduating from college, I realized that one of the ways that I could give back, especially to the children who grew up like me, was to join forces with like-minded individuals. I joined the team of Bamyan Foundation in 2015 to work alongside a very dedicated and passionate group of Afghan and American volunteers who believe in the power of education and social justice. Bamyan Foundation supports young children in Afghanistan with scholarships to attend private schools that encourage critical thinking. The more than 150 students who have received full or partial scholarships come from disadvantaged families who have either lost a parent, whose parents can’t work, or are former child laborers. We hope to expand our reach to even more students while working with partner schools on the ground to ensure that these talented children can have a better life.
This sense of social justice wouldn’t be complete without advocacy towards women’s rights. I have been inspired by the women of my country since day one, starting from my mother and her generation who paved the way for us to the women and young girls today who are shaping the future of the country and the world. This passion drove me to join the incredible group of Afghan women at Free Women Writers, a platform that facilitates a space for Afghan women to tell their stories and write about their experiences with the power of their pen. It’s one of a kind collective that sheds light on the often difficult and controversial topics around women’s rights in Afghanistan. I have learned the true meaning of sisterhood and the power it holds through this group.
Working with these two organizations over the past few years have inspired me to continue working towards social justice and equality every day. We each have the power to change our lives for the better, but that is only possible when we work together. Whether it is to uplift through educational opportunities or through advocating for better and fair treatment of all.