I want to tell you a story about three young women: Malala, Malala and Sadia.
The first Malala, Malala of Maiwand, is a historical figure, sometimes called the Joan of Arc of Afghanistan. This Malala rallied Afghan troops during a critical battle in the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880. As the story goes, morale had dropped among Afghan troops. The flag-bearer had been killed. Malala picked up the flag in battle, marching toward danger singing an Afghan folk song. She was killed, but the Afghans prevailed against the British troops, and the victory is attributed to her.
The second Malala, who is named for the first Malala, is the Nobel Peace Prize-winning hero of Pakistan. This Malala survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in retaliation for her education advocacy. She took a bullet to the head. At age 15. Now 22, she has become a global figure for girls’ education and human rights. She recently made her second visit to Omaha for “a private meeting,” news reports said. She met with 20 Omaha Public Schools students, too.
And Sadia was among the lucky few who got to meet her. Sadia is a 15-year-old Omaha girl, a soon-to-be sophomore at Burke High School. She and her family came to the U.S. from Afghanistan 2½ years ago. Sadia is second oldest of six girls, and her parents, Asad Hasan and Tahira Hasan, are big proponents of girls’ education, something that was not guaranteed in Afghanistan.
The Hasan family lives in a modest apartment in the Miracle Hills neighborhood, and Sadia likes to paint in her spare time. Recently, she painted the first Malala in vivid reds and oranges, her arms outstretched, with one hand holding what was the Afghan flag.
Like many children who come to the U.S. from a non-English speaking country, Sadia picked up English quickly. Like many American teenagers, she is coming into her own.
In Afghanistan, her progressive-minded parents forbid her and her sisters from wearing a headscarf. The Hasans are Muslim but wanted their daughters to see themselves as free from religious or cultural rules that might make them feel subjugated. But in America, that rule changed. Sadia’s parents said: You choose. You’re free here.
Sadia chooses to wear the headscarf at Burke. She’s proud of her Afghan and Muslim identity. But her 14-year-old sister Hajira does not. That’s fine with Mom and Dad. This is America.
Earlier this month, Asad, who works in digital marketing at Senior Market Sales, told Sadia and Hajira to get in the car. A “special guest” had come to Omaha. Asad had received an invitation, and his daughters were included.
Get your Malala painting, he told Sadia.
When the trio went inside the OPS Foundation office at 3861 Farnam St., the girls were stunned to see in front of them a young woman they felt they already knew, having read her 2013 memoir, “I Am Malala, The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.”
Sadia, who wears glasses and thinks that she might want to be an ophthalmologist some day, was stunned. This was an incredible honor.
“I was kind of nervous,” she said later.
Hajira couldn’t believe it. Malala Yousafzai is an icon.
“I was shaking,” she said. “I didn’t know where to look.”
But here’s where the two Omahans could make their mark: They spoke to Malala in her native Pashto. She told them that their father must be supportive of their education, so work hard and get it.
Then Malala, the Nobel laureate, signed Sadia’s painting of Malala, the flag-bearer. And she signed a copy of “I Am Malala” for Hajira.
The moment was magic not for the girls’ brush with a history-maker. But for the mark she made.
In an interview afterward, Sadia said Malala has inspired her to carry the fight for women’s rights and children’s education. Hajira said she would take “every chance I get to have my voice heard.” She, too, would fight for the rights of women and girls.
Starting now. Their parents already help women from Afghanistan living in Omaha obtain Nebraska driver’s licenses. And Asad has started a GoFundMe to raise money for a girls school in Kabul, the Afghan capital, where the family is from. And he and Sadia plan on selling her painting of the historical Malala, signed by the current Malala, to raise money for the cause.
Asad asked me, and I’m no fundraiser. I actually argued against selling such a treasure. Sadia should keep it, I told him. After all, Malala Yousafzai had written this: “To Sadia, Believe in yourself!”
Asad politely listened but then said: Yes, they had considered that. But if the Malala-Malala painting has actual value that could go toward helping some Afghan girl get her education, he said, then that is more important. That signed painting will mean more, he said.
This is in keeping with their family mission. The Hasans came to the U.S. for their safety.
“We think this is heaven,” Asad said.
But they are not wasting this opportunity to learn and grow. The plan is, Asad said, to do more to help girls and women in Afghanistan.
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