Growing up in Afghanistan, Roya Shams dreamed that one day she would receive a higher education. In 2010, she met Star reporter Paul Watson, who shared Roya’s story, inspiring hundreds of readers to donate in support of her journey.
A year later her father, a police colonel in Kandahar, was killed by the Taliban for championing his daughter’s right to go to school.
In 2012, with Watson’s help, Roya escaped to Canada to attend Ottawa’s Ashbury College, a prestigious private school known for its progressive learning environment.
Roya was later awarded a full scholarship to attend the University of Ottawa, where she studied international development and globalization, receiving a degree in 2019.
Now, after ten long years living without her family, Roya’s mother, brothers and sisters have arrived in Canada.
Here’s a look back at Roya’s journey.
In Afghanistan, a 16-year-old girl dares to learn (Nov. 13, 2010)
Cloaked in black, her delicate face framed by a wool headscarf, Roya Shams looks at first glance like a shy schoolgirl, just the sort that Talibs, and the plain old-fashioned, think they can scare back into the shadows.
She is 16. A fragile age. But a fire flickers in Roya’s steely brown eyes.
In a land three decades at war, awash in some of the world’s crudest and most sophisticated weapons, this Afghan girl is as brave as any soldier.
Roya is not only determined to learn, to finish high school, go on to university and get a degree.
She then plans to stick her neck out even further: in a country where a woman is easily cut down for having the nerve to speak up, the burning ambition of Roya’s young life is to become a politician.
“I want to serve my country as much as I can,” she says, her voice racing, as if time is short.
She’s rushing down a dangerous path, and perhaps more astonishing, Roya’s parents stand firmly behind her.
An education for Afghan schoolgirl, thanks to Star readers (Dec. 10, 2010)
Generous Canadian spirit has revived an Afghan schoolgirl’s dying dream.
Roya Shams, 16, had her heart set on continuing her education over an Internet link from Kandahar, in insurgency-wracked southern Afghanistan, to Canada. But funding ran out after she completed a course in civics and passed the exam.
She had sailed over the first hurdle on the rough road to a career in politics, only to stumble because she couldn’t find $500 for tuition and books.
When the Toronto Star’s Insight section reported last month that Roya’s dream was fading fast, dozens of readers rallied to help her stay in school.
Roya Shams was just gaining strength from Canadian donors in her struggle against the Taliban when they killed the schoolgirl’s biggest ally, a father who died defending her right to learn.
Just 17 years old, she is devastated by the loss of the man who inspired her to fight to make life better for Afghan girls and women.
He always taught Roya that she must never give in to intimidation. So as she cries, she refuses to bow down.
Despite more death threats, Roya is trying to find a safe way back to school.
Afghan teen wins spot at prestigious Canadian school (Nov. 14, 2011)
Roya Shams has spent much of her young life overcoming obstacles, and by soaring over one of the biggest hurdles, the Afghan schoolgirl has won admission to a prestigious Canadian private school.
Ottawa’s Ashbury College has accepted Roya, 17, after she sat for a nerve-wracking interview over the Internet, and completed an entrance exam, which she wrote in the safety of a well-guarded Kandahar guesthouse.
Her next challenge is to get a study permit from Immigration Canada in time for the start of classes on Jan. 9.
Getting a Canadian visa can be difficult for Afghan students.
For one thing, Canada’s embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital, doesn’t have a visa section. The closest one is across the border, at the Canadian High Commission in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
Roya can’t afford the trip, and as a teenage Afghan girl, she isn’t likely to get a Pakistan visa to visit Islamabad anyway.
So she signed a form designating me as her legal representative in dealings with Canadian immigration officials and entrusted me with getting her application into the right hands, and fast.
Afghan school girl Roya faced down police in Kandahar airport (Jan. 20, 2012)
We were two foreign men travelling with an Afghan schoolgirl, trying to ignore the death stares from other passengers in Kandahar airport, when two policemen swaggered up and sat down.
Star editor Michael Cooke and I were close to completing a sometimes perilous mission to get Roya Shams, 17, out of Afghanistan and to Canada so she could continue her education free from war and oppression.
For five months, a small but growing community of people who shared Roya’s dream has joined the Star’s effort to get Roya to Ottawa, where she will attend Ashbury College, a prestigious private school, with students from more than 30 countries.
The Afghan police at Kandahar airport had other ideas.
To fulfill the wish of her father, a former district police chief killed by the Taliban during a July raid in Kandahar city, Roya is working to become a politician, to wage a peaceful struggle for basic rights and democracy.
The cops wanted to block her escape to freedom this week, but she handled them with such poise that Roya looked like a political veteran in a country where threats and violence come with the job.
Afghan teen Roya Shams on her first two months in Canada (March 26, 2012)
I have been in Canada two months, and many people have asked me what is the biggest difference in my life since I left Afghanistan.
As an Afghan girl I can say that now I feel independent. Now I can make decisions about my life. I have been able to travel out of my country, I can study, and I can walk on the streets without wearing a burqa. In Afghanistan women are forced to wear a burqa, though it is not required in our religion. Sometimes wearing a burqa makes you feel like a horse wearing blinkers, only seeing what is directly in front of you. It is hard to breathe, and sometimes it gives you a headache.
Once I felt that I was safe, that no one would shoot me or kidnap me, I felt very comfortable. It was so new to see everything so clearly. Now I can feel nature, sunshine and fresh air and I feel I can benefit from every moment of my life.
Most importantly, my mind has opened. In Afghanistan I thought about little things, just about my own life and studies. Now, the world seems bigger to me and I think I can affect other women’s lives by showing that many things that seem impossible, dreams of a better future, can be achieved.
I can also say that my mind is more relaxed. By that I mean, that I am not afraid any more that a bomb will explode at my school.
Roya Shams awarded scholarship to University of Ottawa (May 7, 2015)
All along, through every setback, frustration and tearful bout of loneliness, her dream of getting a university diploma gave Roya Shams the strength to get back up and knock down the next obstacle.
Now she holds the key to unlock the final door: a full scholarship to the University of Ottawa.
Roya Shams dreamed about her late father almost every night this past week. It happens every time she’s feeling deeply emotional, whether it’s sad or happy.
This time it’s the latter. Shams, who escaped to Canada from Afghanistan in 2012 to pursue an education with the Star’s help, graduated on Friday afternoon from the University of Ottawa. It was the longtime dream for both the 24-year-old and her father, who was killed by the Taliban in 2011 after championing her right to go to school.
“He would just be happy and he would even encourage me more,” said Shams, who plans to stay in Canada to pursue either a master’s degree or go to law school. “I think I will have his blessings, and with his blessings I can go as far as I can. I’m sure he is here with me in spirit, especially on graduation day because it was one of his dreams.”