I wanted my son to have a better childhood than I did

A former New York Times reporter reflects on her decision to leave Afghanistan for a new life in Canada.

By: /
October 21, 2020
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Nader with a young girl she babysat while a refugee in Iran. Courtesy of Zahra Nader

In May 2017, my son, Navid, and I came to Canada to reunite with my husband. Since then, Toronto has become a new home for my son, who speaks English and enjoys the privilege of living in a wealthy country.

Sometimes I think about how some of my life events are similar to Navid’s. However, the way we experienced them is very different. I was a child when the war forced my family to seek refuge in Iran. I was fascinated by television — as a rural kid, I had no idea of electricity — and I spent a full afternoon experimenting in an effort to discover whether the news anchor on TV was actually seeing me or was pretending.

“My biggest childhood dream was to go to school in a pistachio-coloured uniform like the other girls in my neighbourhood — a dream that never came true.”

My biggest childhood dream was to go to school in a pistachio-coloured uniform like the other girls in my neighbourhood —a dream that never came true. Like many Afghan kids in Iran, I was not allowed to attend school.

However, Navid does goes to school, and he is quite happy with his Canadian life. He learned about racism by hearing and reading about his favorite historical figure — Martin Luther King. I didn’t learn about racism; I experienced it. I was bullied. I was humiliated. I was called “nasty Afghan” on so many occasions I lost the count. I understood that Afghans were not valued as equal human beings in Iran. I understood the importance of geography and borders, because in almost every conversation I had in Iran I was reminded of being an Afghan.  

My family returned to Afghanistan in 2004, following the defeat of the Taliban’s government in Kabul. I was 14 years old and officially started school for the first time. I have good memories of the school I attended in the west of the city. Because there were not enough classrooms indoors for all the students, I studied under tents donated by UNICEF. And I achieved my first ever success in life in that school when I was recognized as the top student in a class of 30.

Unlike my son, I did not have easy access to books or reading materials. My parents never had a chance to go to school, so there were no books in our home. In fact, my mother started her journey of learning just three years ago in Kabul. My youngest sister teaches her how to read and write at home because there is no adult school for her to attend.

When I read my first novel — which I borrowed from a family friend — I fell in love with writing. That passion later landed me in journalism, a dangerous job, particularly for women. But I was happy to do what I loved.

In 2016, I joined The New York Times bureau in Kabul. Some said I was the first Afghan woman to work for a major English-language news outlet in Afghanistan. I covered war, terrorism, politics and everyday life. But there was one subject that I always found more interesting than all the others: gender and women’s issues. I was a woman working in a country often considered the worst place on earth to be female. Working alongside my colleagues, I covered honor killings, single women who headed households and the social stigma of being a divorcee or a widow.

Yet, I left this dream job in Kabul to come to Canada to pursue a better life for my son — and a peaceful life for myself. Being born in war and having lived as a refugee in Iran, my expectations were low. People suggested I find a job at Tim Hortons or get a college degree in journalism; some even said I should start by enrolling in high school.  

I was depressed for a while. I had worked hard for years to build my career, and now I was back at ground zero. “Life is like a marathon,” my brother-in-law told me, “and sometimes you have to start at a new beginning.”

Acting on his advice, I applied for university and tried to keep myself busy. I started my first job as a customer service agent for an online company. I enjoyed some of the freedom on offer in my new hometown. It was fascinating to walk alone at night without thinking about harassment. I liked being able to dress as I pleased. It is a feeling I wish all women could experience.

Nader with her son on the Taylor Creek Trail in Toronto. Courtesy of Zahra Nader

In March 2018, I received an offer from York University to study for a master’s degree. That changed my whole life. As a young Afghan woman whose life was shaped by war and dreams of peace, I enjoyed reading Angela Davis, Dorothy Smith, Judith Butler, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault and so many other theorists whose work changed my understanding of the world. Sometimes, the readings got quite heavy; they dragged me back — to my childhood in Iran, to ethnic and gender-based discrimination in Afghanistan. Sometimes I struggled with the emotions and traumas the readings aroused in me. For me, they are not merely texts — as they might be for my classmates. Each reading is a conversation that I have with the authors as they speak to my experiences. 

However, I should admit that I enjoyed every moment that I spent in school, particularly in the past two years. Now, continuing my education as a Ph.D. student, I am finally satisfied with the decision I made to leave my job and my country. My son is living a happy life — a world apart from the childhood I lived. And I have found new passions, perhaps bigger ones. I want to work for gender equality, for the elimination of all discrimination and, most of all, for refugees’ right to education.