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Saskatoon high school student who fled Afghanistan wins $100,000 scholarship

20-year-old Umulbanin (Banin) Arjmand is an Afghan refugee who moved to Saskatoon in October 2021 after the Taliban seized control of her home country. The high school student has won a prestigious Loran Award, valued at $100,000, to attend a Canadian university. (Don Somers/CBC)

20-year-old Umulbanin (Banin) Arjmand is an Afghan refugee who moved to Saskatoon in October 2021 after the Taliban seized control of her home country. The high school student has won a prestigious Loran Award, valued at $100,000, to attend a Canadian university. (Don Somers/CBC)

Photo:  (Don Somers/CBC)

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20-year-old Banin Arjmand wins prestigious Loran Award

Banin Arjmand never shies away from a challenge.

The 20-year-old refugee made a treacherous journey out of Afghanistan with her parents and classmates after the Taliban seized control in August 2021.

Now living in Saskatoon, she's finishing her high school diploma at Nutana Collegiate and working part-time at Fuddruckers to help support herself and her parents, who aren't working.

Looking to her future, she didn't think she could afford university tuition. So when a teacher suggested that she apply for the prestigious Loran Award, a scholarship valued at more than $100,000 over four years, she figured she didn't have anything to lose. 

It's a four-year leadership program that consists of a yearly stipend, free tuition at one of 25 Canadian universities, summer work experience, mentorship and networking. About 5,000 students from across Canada apply every year.

The application is demanding and brought back painful memories for Arjmand.

For me, it was like a flashback of everything I've been through. It made me think of every detail of my life. I ended up crying, Arjmand told CBC News.

Banin Arjmand practices the flowing movements of Wushu, a style of martial arts, in Saskatoon's Rotary Park. Arjmand learned Wushu at Marefat High School in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Don Somers/CBC)

Banin Arjmand practices the flowing movements of Wushu, a style of martial arts, in Saskatoon's Rotary Park. Arjmand learned Wushu at Marefat High School in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Don Somers/CBC)

Photo:  (Don Somers/CBC)

In February, she flew to Toronto with 90 finalists for two days of national interviews. 

On Thursday, the Loran Scholars Foundation announced that Arjmand had won one of 36 Loran Awards. 

At Loran, we believe that strong character and integrity are a better measure of a person's long term potential than standard academic measures, stated the foundation. We know that such promising young people have the power to change the future for the better. They just need a launchpad and opportunities to grow.

Worried about Afghan girls in home country

Arjmand says the scholarship is life-changing.

I'm so happy.… It's not just the money, she said. And it's not just the name of it. It's the new world I'm going to know after this, and the people I'm going to meet. I'm sure through this foundation, I'm going to know myself more, learn about myself more, and do better.

While Arjmand is excited about her future, she worries about the girls and women in Afghanistan (new window) who have been robbed of their right to go to school, to work or to move freely under the oppressive Taliban regime. She was heartbroken when dozens of girls were killed in suicide bombing at a school in her old neighbourhood.

It hit me so hard, she said. I want to help girls in Afghanistan. They have lost everything.

Arjmand's new high school in Saskatoon holds Disruption Days — where regular classes are cancelled to allow students to learn about something different — throughout the year. Arjmand helped co-ordinate one about Afghanistan, Afghan culture and a message of hope. She also organized a fundraiser for Afghan girls.

A difficult journey

Arjmand's family first fled Afghanistan in the 1990s when the Taliban, a hardline Islamist group, seized control of the country. They lived in Pakistan, where Arjmand was born, then returned to Kabul years later when the Taliban was removed from power. Arjmand attended the progressive Marefat High School, known for empowering girls and women.

At school, she defied the patriarchy and studied martial arts — something that would make her a target when the Taliban seized control in August 2021. She and her classmates, along with their families, fled the country and made their way to Saskatoon as government-sponsored refugees.

Arjmand is one of eight siblings, but the only one in Canada. Others are in the United States and Norway, while three remain in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.

I'm feeling so sad. It is so hard for them right now. There is no meaning to life. Just to have food, finding food and surviving, she said.

WATCH | Young Afghan refugees are building new lives in Canada following a daring mission to rescue them from Afghanistan: 

Afghan student refugees settled in Saskatoon worry about others still waiting for visas

Three young Afghan refugees are building new lives in Canada following a daring mission to rescue them from Afghanistan. But they're also worried about those left behind.

Arjmand hopes to study international development or political science at either York University in Toronto or the University of Saskatchewan.

Other Saskatchewan finalists, Telia LaFontaine of Regina and Momin Bilal of Saskatoon, will each receive $5,000.

Bonnie Allen (new window) · CBC News · 

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