Zarina Mamadbekova, Aga Khan Academy graduate, shared her story at the Aga Khan Foundation Gala in 2017.

Stone Gates of Pamir

I come from a small city in Tajikistan called Khorog. It’s a place locked in by protective mountains, so not many outsiders know about it. Until a few years ago, those mountains were stone gates that refused the outside world any access into the Pamir region.

But in the 1990s we needed help. And amid our country’s civil war in 1992, the Aga Khan Development Network came in to help us recover after the war. The Network has been unlocking opportunities ever since. Opportunities opened up for people to pursue education and become the hope of their community. I happen to be one of those people.

Changes in Latitudes and Attitudes

My family and I seized that opportunity for education, and I was accepted at the Aga Khan Academy in February 2011. It meant a long journey for me from Asia to East Africa. Coming to the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa, Kenya wasn’t just an upgrade in weather from a -7 degrees Celsius to +35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit!). The changes came in all aspects of my life.

My education opened up doors of opportunity that allowed me to grow as a person and become a strong, intelligent woman. Coming from a cloistered mountain community to an open trading city like Mombasa helped me to forge my own values and principles. Through the Academy’s curriculum and dorm life with other students, as well as the clubs and activities, I discovered my passions and my aspirations and was able to pursue them.

I realized I was lucky to be chosen to attend the Academy. The motif of home-grown leadership among the students helped me to recognize that I have a responsibility to be the key to open up those stone gates for my community back in Khorog.

I’m Going Back to Give Back

And that is what I hope to do: to go back, mainly to give back. My journey continues, thanks to the Aga Khan Development Network. I’m currently an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and I hope to continue my studies in international development.

On that path, I take inspiration from the words of a very special person in my life: my grandfather, who is my role model. Thanks to him, my parents allowed me to start an independent life at the age of 12. He told me:

“You’re most powerful because of your education. And your job is to pull people along with you as high as you go. Don’t take what you’re given for granted, and don’t just appreciate it. Return it back in a thousand other forms.”