Brock University student Zainab Sarwari’s resilience and passion for education was recently recognized when she was named International Woman of the Year by the Welland Heritage Council and Multicultural Centre.
Sarwari, who is a third-year Medical Sciences student, immigrated to Canada six years ago with her family from Afghanistan. Since then, she has worked diligently towards her childhood dream of becoming a doctor, while also helping others in the Niagara community.
“My father is supportive and tells me I can do anything I want with my life — that all I need to do is work hard for it and I’ll get there,” says Sarwari.
A language barrier made high school especially challenging for Sarwari. Despite knowing four other languages, she didn’t understand any English when she first arrived in Niagara, so she had difficulty communicating with her peers and struggled with learning the course material.
She enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) courses and welcomed support from her teachers. Even when her aspirations of becoming a doctor were questioned by others, she pushed forward and advocated for herself.
“They told me to take easier courses because I was an ESL student,” she says. “I was like, ‘I can do it, I just have to work hard for it. English cannot stop me.’”
Sarwari persevered, taking classes throughout the summers and working hard on her English skills to achieve the marks she needed to enrol in Brock University’s Medical Sciences program.
She balanced coursework with community involvement, dedicating some of her time as the international representative on her high school’s student council and volunteering after school with Rose City Kids to educate youth about sensitive topics such as human trafficking. She also volunteered with Welland Heritage Council and Multicultural Centre and TOES Niagara, using her knowledge of five languages to help translate for newcomers and assist with paperwork.
That perseverance paid off when Sarwari received offers of admission to several universities and chose to attend Brock after graduating from Welland Centennial Secondary School in 2020.
The first year of her post-secondary studies was unlike any others have experienced, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the first full academic term classes were online and was a new situation for both students and instructors.
Sarwari turned to her teaching assistants (TAs) for help and feedback, and participated in several workshops offered by Brock’s A-Z Learning Services that helped her succeed in a new online learning environment and complete her academic assignments.
“The hard thing is, I’m still working on my English — I always have to practise, especially for writing and grammar,” she says. “I was lucky I had good TAs.”
Sarwari’s first year was a success and she achieved an 80 per cent mark or higher in all five of her courses in addition to being named to the Dean’s Honour List.
Now in her third year at Brock, Sarwari continues to focus on her studies and developing her English language skills. She has also recently volunteered with Brock’s Let’s Talk Science initiative, which involves visiting elementary and high school classrooms to promote science programs.
As a woman of colour in science, she is passionate about encouraging others to pursue the field.
“I tell young people ‘if you’re thinking about doing something easy, but you dream of going into a science or medical field, just go for it. Don’t let others stop you.’” she says.
Reflecting on her journey so far, Sarwari is grateful her father chose to move to Canada so she could purse her passion for education in a safe environment. Although she felt she had a “good life” in Afghanistan when her family left for Canada, the situation has changed, and Afghani women and girls are now not allowed to work or attend school.
“I have my cousins and family members that are going through this very hard time,” she says. “The denial of their rights to education can impact their life in the future. More significant support and resources are needed to address this crisis.”
Through her continued volunteer involvement with the Welland Heritage Council and Multicultural Centre, Sarwari was instrumental in assisting with the recent sponsorship of some of her extended family to be able to come to Canada.
Sarwari says she can’t imagine what it must be like to be stripped of one’s right to education based on gender.
“I have a dream of wearing that white doctor’s coat one day,” she says. “We don’t see women as much as we see males in the medical field, but I think women can do whatever they want. They can pursue their dreams.”