Refugee-Turned-Activist Summia Tora: “My Story Is Only One Of Millions”
Summia Tora became a refugee for the first time when she was just a few months old. Since then, exile has been a recurring theme in this young activist’s life. Like many Afghans, she has spent most of her life outside her home country: as a refugee in Pakistan, a scholarship student in the US and now a UK-based advocate for Afghan women’s rights.
“My story is only one of millions,” Tora says – although the path she has forged is remarkable.
Aged 26, she has already been a Rhodes Scholar and received a Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law from Oxford University. She is also the founder of Dosti Network, an organisation that draws on a worldwide network of volunteers to provide Afghans – especially girls and women – with the information and support they need to access education, apply for asylum abroad or simply survive. Its foundation, Tora says, is compassion. “We all have a shared humanity,” she says. “Inherently we do care about each other.”
Afghanistan in 2024 is no place for women – young or old. It has the highest infant mortality rate in the world, and the eighth-highest maternal death rate. Less than a quarter of Afghan women are literate. Nearly a third are married before they turn 18. And since the Taliban retook full control of the country in August 2021, the situation has worsened. Poverty has soared as international aid organisations pulled out of the country. The Taliban has banned girls from going to school beyond the age of 11, and women from most other public spaces. Depriving girls of education fuels a cycle; girls who are not in school are far more likely to be married younger and are less able to educate their daughters. When women aren’t educated, they often can’t work, and their families are more likely to live in poverty.
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While the world’s attention has moved on to other crises it is largely left to Afghans like Tora to help. She and her parents left war-ravaged Kabul in 1997 and, like millions of Afghans, went to Pakistan as refugees. Tora saw Kabul for the first time in 2002, soon after US-led forces had expelled the Taliban. She remembers being shocked; this was not the lively place her grandparents had told her about.
“There were still houses with rocket damage,” she recalls. Over the next two decades, Kabul flourished and a generation of Afghan women went to school and university and entered the workplace. But challenges remained: Afghanistan was still deeply conservative, particularly outside Kabul, and many women had no access to good healthcare.
Tora founded the Dosti Network in 2019, initially to promote information about menstrual hygiene. She had intended to move back to Kabul in 2021 – then the Taliban advanced. Her mother and siblings fled the city to Pakistan days before the takeover. Tora realised the Dosti Network’s information and contacts could help others stuck in Afghanistan.
One family in particular sticks in her mind: a young Kabul couple who had worked for international organisations and so were on the Taliban’s blacklist. The network helped them get to Pakistan and supported their nine-year-old daughter to go to school there. At the end of 2023, they were granted visas to France.
“Help does not always have to be financial; sometimes sharing knowledge is enough,” says Tora. “Even finding out how to seek asylum, what your legal rights are. Every other day someone reaches out about this.”
Dosti Network also focuses on helping Afghans in Pakistan. Tora’s family were resettled in April 2023, just months before Pakistan began deportations. Since late September, almost half a million Afghans have left Pakistan or been forcibly deported.
“It is a privilege that my family is safe,” says Tora. “But it is a reality that I have lived through. To be forced to leave your home takes away your dignity.”
Summia Tora’s 5 Ways To Support Afghan Refugees
1. Inform yourself of the ongoing situation in Afghanistan, where human rights violations are occurring daily. Follow Afghan women-led media outlets Zan Times and Rukhsana Media, which focus on women and girls, and more general news and research outlets such as Etilaatroz and Afghanistan Analyst Network.
2. Host conversation events that amplify the voices of girls and women from Afghanistan and allow people to learn from their experiences and support them.
3. Lobby educational institutions to provide resources such as scholarships and online learning opportunities for girls and women from Afghanistan. As the ban on education is ongoing, many girls and women are trying to continue their education online, and more institutions need to provide accreditation for those who complete online learning at secondary and higher education levels.
4. Support grassroots organisations that are working to make education and learning opportunities more accessible for girls and women in Afghanistan. In addition to Dosti Network, some of the recommended organisations are Learn, School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), Herat Online School, Charmaghz, and Pen Path.
5. Read one of the many great books about Afghanistan. There are many suggestions but here are two: Repression, Resistance And Women In Afghanistan by Hafizullah Emadi and Afghanistan: History From 1260 To The Present by Jonathan L Lee.
Hannah Lucinda Smith is a journalist based in Istanbul, covering events in Turkey for publications including The Times, The Economist and The Atlantic. She is the author of Zarifa: A Woman’s Battle In A Man’s World and Erdoğan Rising: A Warning To Europe