Nine years after she had moved to Canada as a refugee, Adeena Niazi had herself smuggled back into Afghanistan. It was 1997, and the Taliban had banned girls’ education; the former lecturer at Kabul University was determined to help. She set up underground home-based schools for girls, funding them with income-generating programs for widows in Afghanistan and refugee women in Pakistan, and with help from colleagues at her Toronto-based charity, the Afghan Women’s Organization (AWO).
So successful were the classes that when the regime was defeated, many of the students were able to skip grades in formal schools. In 2002, the AWO set up an orphanage for girls in Kabul that ran for 19 years—until the Taliban returned this year. Just before the fall of the capital, the girls were moved to safe homes. “I’m extremely worried about them, but at the moment,” she says, “we have no other options.”
Niazi and the AWO are currently working day and night to assist Afghan women, girls, and families in any way possible. They are coordinating services for new refugees in Canada and scrambling to support refugees in camps in Pakistan, as well as communicating with parliamentarians to advocate for those who have yet to reach Canada—and those who remain in Afghanistan.
“We are watching the miseries of our people in horror,” says Niazi. “However, we are overwhelmed by the compassion of our fellow Canadians.”
Niazi had come to Canada via India. Having moved there in 1977 to learn Sanskrit, she became an exile during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and decided to devote her life to preserving the human rights of refugees. She founded the AWO as a volunteer organization in 1990, providing language classes and counselling for fellow Afghan women refugees. At first, she recalls, “some of the women were hesitant to join classes, and some families wouldn’t let them come. So I went to the community members’ houses; I would talk to fathers and husbands about the importance of language for women. I showed them culturally sensitive programs. When we started our classes, we had four or five students—and now we have big waiting lists.”
The organization has grown to encompass four locations across the GTA and serve approximately 20,000 refugees and immigrants to Ontario, mainly from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, who have experienced violence and war. It has sponsored over 5,000 refugees. In 2007, Niazi was appointed to the Order of Ontario for her work. Today, the AWO is taking in new volunteers and seeking donations of money, non-perishable food, clothing, and school resources for children, as well as reduced rent in the GTA.
Niazi is concerned by the rise in anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment she sees in the province. “Otherwise,” she says, “I have had a great experience with the support we get from the majority of people. I love Ontario. I say, once a refugee’s out of their country, ‘This is the best place.’”
Refugees continue to offer Ontario their knowledge, their hard work, and their unique perspectives. Despite the province’s successes in welcoming them, we must come to terms with the real complexity of the refugee experience. To eradicate fear and hate, it is crucial for us to learn and share one another’s stories. May Adeena Niazi’s story of courage and dedication inspire us in our efforts to build a truly cohesive society.
To support the work of the Afghan Women’s Organization, please visit https://afghanwomen.org.
— The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario
One of a Lieutenant Governor’s great privileges is to celebrate Ontarians from all backgrounds and corners of the province. Ontario’s honours and awards formally and publicly acknowledge the excellence, achievements, and contributions of role models from all walks of life. In doing so, they strengthen the fabric of communities and shape the aspirations of Ontarians. Learn more: https://www.ontario.ca/page/honours-and-awards