Dec. 21, 2022

Long road to freedom and law school in Canada

First-year student Shakira Yazdani describes harrowing escape from Kabul
Shakira Yazdani
Shakira Yazdani has had to endure a lot to get where she is now however she has not let it change her. Shakira Yazdani

It is your reaction to adversity that determines how your life’s story will develop. This is really the only way to explain first-year law student Shakira Yazdani’s story and her harrowing journey of surviving the Taliban takeover and failed attempt after failed attempt to get out of Afghanistan, all the while fighting to finish her undergraduate studies — all before finally arriving in Canada.

Born and raised in Afghanistan, Yazdani is the second-youngest of nine children and has always had a close relationship with her siblings and parents.

Shakira Yazdani

Shakira Yazdani

Shakira Yazdani

Yazdani was finishing up her bachelor’s law degree at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) while also taking business administration at Kabul University, when her life turned upside-down.

On Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban took control of Kabul and, within a matter of hours, Yazdani and her family were left scrambling to figure a way out of Afghanistan.

“I do call those the longest 24 hours of my life,” says Yazdani. “The day that they came, I got ready to go to university, but my dad called: ‘There are rumours that the Taliban are coming to take control over Kabul today, so it’s just better if you stay home’ … and he was right.”

After three failed attempts to leave (her parents both had mobility issues impacting their ability to navigate the airport), it looked unlikely the family would escape, but AUAF was also trying to evacuate its students. So at least Yazdani stood a chance.

“I did not tell my parents until about 4 p.m. that I had received this email saying that we had to be at the chosen location at 10 p.m., and that we are going to leave the country that night,” says Yazdani. “We were going to go by car to Pakistan and then to Kyrgyzstan, where the American University of Central Asia is located and we … were going to study our last semester there.”

It was good news, but it came with an emotional cost.

“I felt devastated and helpless to leave the country without my parents. Saying goodbye, not knowing when will I be able to see them again, was my reality more terrifying than a nightmare,” Yazdani says.

The students spent all night travelling through Taliban checkpoints, only to find they weren’t allowed to cross the border because they didn’t have a pass; they were also urged not to reveal they were AUAF students.

“We were convinced that they were not going to let us get out of the country and that we would have to return to Kabul,” Yazdani says. “We all … prayed one last time and went back to the gate and the Taliban guard had changed and the new one opened the gate for only five minutes, and we all rushed through.”

But there was another hurdle: the Pakistani border guards did not have a list of approved entries from their government. The group waited for hours in 40-degree heat as their team leader negotiated to have them allowed in. Eventually, they got in, though it took another three weeks to get their visa to travel on to Kyrgyzstan. But at least they were free from the Taliban.

Yazdani’s connection to UCalgary dates to before the turmoil, when she participated in an international arbitration moot court in 2020 as part of her AUAF studies. This event indirectly led her to professor Bernard Hibbitts of the University of Pittsburgh, who invited her to write for Jurist, his law-commentary publication, and cover the ongoing unrest in Afghanistan.

This work, in turn, put her in contact with Dr. Ian Holloway, dean of UCalgary’s Faculty of Law, who invited her to apply to the university.

Shakira Yazdani

Arriving in Calgary on Canada Day, Yazdani is fully immersed in her first year law courses.

Shakira Yazdani

In the months that followed, Yazdani received word she had received support from an anonymous donor to attend UCalgary and applied for a visa to come to Canada. But she initially faced a barrier of catch-22 proportions.

“My (visa) application was rejected once because I did not satisfy the officer that I would return to my home country, but I could not return to Afghanistan,” Yazdani says.

It took eight months to get her visa. During this time, Yazdani was invited to take some online courses though UCalgary Law. “They were the best things I did, and the experience was very different, in a good way!” she says.

Yazdani arrived in Calgary on Canada Day 2022. Now finally at UCalgary and participating in first-year classes, she hopes to continue her work and practise in corporate law.

She says she’s enjoying every minute of her UCalgary experience.

“It’s going great! I’ve made a lot of friends. Law is a very small community and we’ve gotten to meet other lawyers from different firms in our orientation weeks,” say Yazdani.

“It’s such an amazing experience to learn from these people who have achieved a lot in their lives. You know you might not be at the same level as them, but you know you’re in the right room.”

Over the last few months, Yazdani’s father was able to leave Afghanistan and has temporarily settled in Iran; however, her mother still has not been able to leave Afghanistan as unrest in Iran is proving to be another obstacle her family must face.

“She doesn’t feel safe to leave our home but at least she knows people and has support in our community,” says Yazdani. “My father had to leave because of his connection to the previous government as a retired army general but, fingers crossed, I will be able to bring them both to Canada soon.”