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December 20, 2023

My Story: Safia Salar

Safia Salar

Editor’s Note: Every day, we see conflict from a distance as human beings, professionals and people who care.  We have empathy.  Occasionally, we have the serendipitous opportunity to extend some of our resources and have the privilege of assisting.  ADR practitioners and ABA members Thomas Valenti, Chicago, and Robert Angelo Creo, Pittsburgh, have done just that. In international outreach to Kabul, Afghanistan to train peacebuilders, they mentored an outstanding young woman who has overcome obstacles during the Taliban’s regime to work as an activist and peacebuilder abroad and, now, in the U.S.  Here is her story:

I am Safia Salar, a Hazara woman, born in the small village of Wardak, a city west of Kabul, Afghanistan. My birthday was not very joyful for my family because, like most Afghani families, they had hoped for a boy. There, people believe girls are only meant to serve and bear children. I have eight brothers and sisters. I am 23.

My passion for education has compelled me to defy Afghani social norms and live a different life, one that went beyond what people expected. My father was a farmer and my mother, a housewife. Due to the war and the oppression by the Taliban in our village, we relocated to Kabul when I was six years old. Finding suitable employment in the city was challenging for my father. At the age of six, a year before starting school, I began work as a carpet weaver.

When I turned seven, I entered school and worked part time. School hours were from 7:00 am to 12:00 pm, and after a brief lunch, my siblings and I would weave carpets until 8:00 pm. During breaks, I worked on school assignments. In 8th and 9th grades, I pursued tailoring and handcrafting in addition to weaving carpets. 

In 2016 when I entered 10th grade, my father owned a shop and my brother began to work as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. I stopped working and studied English and Pashto languages, along with Microsoft Office.

In 2018, I began a year-long study program for a national examination at Mawood Educational Center. Six months later, the Taliban bombed the academy. The attack killed more than 100 students, including six of my classmates. Afterward, I applied for scholarships to study away from Afghanistan.

A month later, the Taliban bombed the Maiwand Wrestling Club where my brother was exercising. The explosion injured my brother and claimed the life of his friend. The wrestling club had 90 participants, and only 5 emerged unharmed. This attack marked the fifth bombing within a year in Dasht-e-Barchi, which is predominantly inhabited by Hazaras, a mostly Shiite minority that has long been targeted by Sunni extremists.

My neighborhood, Dashte Barchi has been a frequent target of such attacks by the Sunni extremist groups resulting in thousands of Hazara deaths. Decades of systematic discrimination against Hazaras has resulted in marginalization, exclusion from political office, deliberate violence and genocide.  In 1994 when the Taliban initially appeared, they began a fresh campaign of targeted persecution against Hazaras, killing more than 15,000 in a number of massacres that occurred in Herat, Yakaolang, Kabul, and Bamyan.

Since then, the Taliban targeted Hazaras in Dashte Barchi, in a variety of settings, such as schools, workplaces, protests, places of worship, memorial services, sporting events, cultural centers, markets, voter registration sites, civilian transport vehicles, and weddings. This relentless violence has severely disrupted the community's everyday life.

In 2020, another Taliban attack occurred at the educational center where my sister taught English. Though physically unharmed, the incident affected her deeply. At least 24 people were killed, and 57 others were wounded. The academy had more than a thousand students, and the casualties were greater than reported. 

Despite ongoing threats, through hard work and determination, Hazaras have made themselves visible in different spheres in Afghanistan including education, politics, sports, and music. The temporary administration in 2001 supported by the U.S. marked the beginning of a golden age for Hazaras like me. I pursued my goals and educated myself. Like other Hazaras, I believe that the only way that I can make a better life for myself and bring about positive change in my society is through education. I graduated from high school in 2018 at the top of my classes.

In 2019, I started working as an activist with Afghan Youth Empowerment and Peacebuilding Organization, Afghan Peace Volunteers, and Be-the-Change. Within these NGOs, I met two mediators from the United States, Thomas P. Valenti, of Chicago, and Robert A. Creo, of Pittsburgh.  Both provided valuable assistance for my projects in Afghanistan. Together, we organized seminars and conferences at various venues, addressing topics such as peacebuilding, leadership, diversity, equality, violence, extremism, tolerance, and fostering positive attitudes among people. Each event attracted high school and college students. Not only did my projects enhance the students’ knowledge, but the events also helped improve the students’ communication skills. These Afghan students had an opportunity to interact with individuals from the U.S., United Kingdom, and Greece.

In November 2019, I initiated a project to reduce noise pollution in Kabul City. Conducting seminars and organizing street campaigns, I organized a team of 70 young people from diverse backgrounds. The Kabul municipal government even joined our campaigns. This project connected young people from different parts of Afghanistan and fostered collaboration with other parties working on climate change beyond Afghanistan. Many members of my team now study at prestigious universities like Harvard. One team member received the Princess Diana Award in July 2023 for his work mobilizing a new generation to serve their communities and bring about positive global change.

When a country has been at war for decades, for people to change their mindset from conflict to peace, from violence to love, they need to hear about empathy, equality, and liberty. My team trained over two hundred young people to never give up on having a better Afghanistan, maybe not soon, but one day in the future.

In 2021, out of 1678 applicants, the American University of Beirut, Lebanon awarded me a full scholarship. I studied online from Afghanistan. The challenges of Covid-19, limited access to technology, unreliable electricity and Internet, and the constant terrorist attacks in my neighborhood made it extremely difficult to focus on my studies.

The immediate threat of death was nothing new. In 2018, my family received a letter delivered by relatives.  The letter was from the Taliban. They threated to kill our whole family unless my brother, who had worked for the U.S. Army as an interpreter, was surrendered to the Taliban for execution.  My parents refused. One brother escaped to Mongolia, and another fled to Greece.

On August 15, 2021, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. During the collapse of Afghanistan, my family made multiple trips to the Kabul airport but were unable to get out.  The Taliban searched for them. As they waited, they feared being discovered during a year in hiding. In 2022, my parents and the remaining siblings managed to flee the country and to take refugee status in another Asian country, barely subsisting.

In May of 2023, I arrived in the U.S. with the hope of finding freedom and prosperity. I now live here with four of my siblings. Although I can communicate with my parents by phone, I deeply miss them. Our hope is to reunite someday in the United States.

This summer, I traveled to Pittsburgh and Hershey, Pennsylvania at the invitation of my mentor Bob Creo. The journey provided me with a new perspective of the world, revealing its positive and beautiful aspects, so different from my life in Afghanistan. During this trip, I encountered things I had previously only seen in movies. I felt like Cinderella.

The most significant impact of the trip came from the remarkable individuals I had the privilege of meeting, including Pennsylvania state Supreme Court justices, county judges, attorneys, and many others. All of reached out to me to offer help. Receiving this kindness given to a stranger like me restored my faith in humanity and fortified my resilience to fight for Justice.

I am pursuing admissions and scholarships to American universities, and I now have a U.S. driver’s license. My objective is to continue my education to secure a good job to support my family while continuing to be a voice for Afghan girls who lack of fundamental human rights. These girls have no access to education, employment, and freedom. One day, when the Taliban is no longer a threat, I dream of returning to Afghanistan.

    Safia Salar

    Activist

    Safia Salar is a Hazara from Kabul. She is an activist, focusing on peacebuilding and women’s empowerment. Her dedication to academics has resulted in several scholarship offers.  Now living in the U.S., she will continue her studies in psychology and political science.

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