THE STAFF AT the Afghan Women’s Organization in Toronto are racing to keep up as telephones, walk-in inquiries, paperwork and e-mail clamour for attention. At noon, a woman delivers steaming cups of green tea to her co-workers during a brief break. The door to Adeena Niazi’s cramped office has shut out all the noise except her phones, which ring incessantly. Ignoring them, the 50-year-old AWO founder and executive director sets down her mug and, in response to a personal question, begins to cry. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly. “I don’t do this easily.”
Niazi—who has commiserated with Afghan women raped in refugee camps, watched girls of 14 marry simply for a roof over their heads and helped bring thousands of displaced Afghans to Canada—is talking about her mother. “She was always encouraging me to get a higher education,” says Niazi of Maryam Maqsudi Niazi, who was one of the first Afghan women to go abroad for higher education. “She always wanted me to be independent.” (Niazi’s mother, though a champion of education, was forbidden by Niazi’s father to work for a salary.) So when her daughter turned 25, she left her family and her teaching job at Kabul University to study Sanskrit in India. Still there two years later, she saw her dreams of a normal life shattered as the Soviet Union seized her homeland. “From that day, everything was lost,” she says.
Because of her vocal opposition to the Soviet occupation, Niazi was not allowed to return home. “I never saw my mother or father again.” And it would be almost 20 years before Niazi—hidden under the cover of a Taliban-mandated chadari—
finally re-entered Afghanistan in 1997. “I was really very much attached to my family, my country and my culture,” she says. “So it was a big shock to me. I didn’t know what it meant to be a refugee.” Today, Niazi knows all too well.
Arriving in Toronto as a refugee herself in 1988, Niazi began to help other newcomers to Canada. Two years later, she founded the AWO. Today, it has four centres in Toronto with 54 employees handling everything from heritage language classes to sponsoring Afghan refugees. “My house is full of refugees,” says Niazi, who shares a home with her sister, whom she sponsored in 1993. “For me, it’s just some extra people in my home. For them, it’s a big thing.”
Through the AWO, Niazi set up secret home-schooling for Afghan girls who, under the Taliban, were banned from receiving a formal education. Recently, a trip to Afghan schools and refugee camps in the wake of the Taliban’s demise reinforced her main goal. “To bring peace and harmony back to Afghanistan,” she says, without a trace of irony.
Throughout her work, Niazi—selected to serve on Afghanistan’s newly-formed emergency Loya Jirga, or national assembly, as one of two representatives for Afghan Canadians—has remained true to a promise she made to her mother just after the Soviet coup. “I decided to commit myself to helping others, so I told her that I had decided not to marry,” recalls Niazi. “She was happy. She told me to live with dignity and self-respect.” And by following her own mother’s advice, Niazi, in turn, has become a mother to her community.
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