'Nothing can stop you': Afghan woman realizes dream with U of O degree

When Roya Shams strode across the stage at Ottawa's Shaw Centre to receive her bachelor's degree from the University of Ottawa on Nov. 1, she wasn't thinking about herself.

The 24-year-old student from northern Afghanistan was thinking about how her graduation could set an example for other young women in the country she left behind.

"All I was thinking was for all those girls who are dreaming of such a day and can't have it," Shams told Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan.

"As well as my father, who always dreamed that for not only for me, for all girls in Afghanistan," she added.

Shams's degree in international development and globalization is the culmination of a long and arduous journey that brought her from the deserts of war-torn Kandahar to the classrooms of the city's biggest university. 

It's the realization of a dream instilled in her by her father, a police officer in Kandahar, who was killed by the Taliban while promoting his daughters' right to receive an education.

Dreams from her father

Shams's father, Haji Sayed Gulab Shah, taught her how to read and home-schooled her from an early age, in defiance of cultural norms in Afghanistan, which at the time frowned upon the education of women and girls. He sent his daughters to school even though it drew the ire of the Taliban.

"He wanted us to be seen as an asset and live a freedom and not be oppressed," said Shams, who grew up with her four sisters and four brothers in Kandahar.  

"He fought to the point that he lost his life."

Shams's father was killed in 2011 during a counter-insurgency operation against the Taliban.

After her father's death, she became a target of the insurgent group. She received death threats and, as a result, she rarely left her home.

Still, she never gave up on the education she so desperately wanted.

Article inspires readers

After the Toronto Star published a story about her struggles, donations poured in from readers, helping pay for her classes, according to reports in the Star. 

Eventually, two Star journalists, Paul Watson and Michael Cooke, travelled to Afghanistan to bring Shams to Canada. Shams settled in Ottawa, staying with a host family. She attended Ashbury College, the prestigious private high school, which waived tuition fees.

But Shams's struggles didn't end with her arrival in snowy Canada in January 2012. She could only speak a few words of English and struggled to meet the high academic standards at Ashbury College.

"I spent nights and nights basically crying, missing family and Googling, 'What's an essay? Who is this this Shakespeare guy?'" Shams recalled.

Eventually, thanks to hard work and the support of staff at the school, she graduated with a high school diploma and was awarded a scholarship at the University of Ottawa.

'A lot of hopes and dreams'

On Nov. 1, Shams had to reserve 25 tickets to her convocation ceremony to accommodate all the friends, family and staff from Ashbury College and the University of Ottawa who wanted to celebrate the moment with her.

Shams said she now plans to go to law school or get a master's degree, and is in the process of studying for the LSAT. 

"I have a lot of hopes and dreams for the [future]," Shams said. "But right now, I'm hoping to focus on my education."

She said she hopes to return to her homeland one day when it's safe to open up a non-profit that helps women and girls there.

"I hope one day I can go and meet them and look at their eyes and say, 'Nothing can stop you. You shouldn't give up because nobody will give up on you."