Breshna Musazai leaned on her brother as she climbed out of her wheelchair and up the stairs of the graduation stage at the American University of Afghanistan. With polio in one leg and injuries from a Taliban attack in the other, the climb was difficult.
She heard cheers from behind her. When she took her diploma and turned to look at the audience, she was shocked to see the crowd standing for her as she crossed the stage.
“It was a very proud moment for me,” Musazai told CNN.
Musazai’s graduation from college last month – she earned a bachelor’s degree in law – was a life dream for her family. But two years earlier, Musazai wasn’t sure she’d even live to see the next morning.
In 2016, the Taliban – which vehemently opposes women’s education – shot her in the leg and the foot and left her for dead.
Because of this Musazai has been compared to Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, who survived being shot by the Taliban at age 15 and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and become a feminist symbol for young women.
She faced many obstacles
Musazai lived as a refugee in Pakistan before moving to Afghanistan in 2011. In 2012, she enrolled in college. It was her father’s dream that she get a great education, but schooling can be expensive.
“My father had to manage somehow to pay for my education,” said the 28-year-old.
And with polio in her right leg, she found it difficult to walk. She lived on the sixth floor of a building with no elevators. Every day, she climbed those stairs. She said she would vomit from the toll it took on her body, and had pains in her back, legs and head.
Things were difficult.
They would get so much worse.
While inside her campus mosque in 2016, Taliban assailants attacked. With her disability, Musazai couldn’t run. She stayed inside the mosque, terrified, until the firing stopped. When she thought it was safe, she moved to another building. An assailant shot her in the leg, breaking her bone. She fell to the ground, where a second bullet hit her foot.
She lay there for six hours, pretending to be dead. After a few hours, another bullet hit her foot. When police finally rescued her, she couldn’t walk. This nearly broke her.
She couldn’t go to school for nearly a year afterward because she needed to recover.
“The first days of my injury when I was in the hospital, at that time I thought I would not be able to go back to school,” she said. “For me, I thought life had ended, and there was no hope.”
She couldn’t walk, so she used a wheelchair, and her brothers had to carry her up and down stairs. Just getting around became nearly impossible. More than that, however, was the toll the ordeal took on her mental health. It was devastating.
“I was scared every day,” Musazai said. “Outside the university I was scared, and even though inside the university was very safe, I was scared about how to survive, about what I would do if this happened again.”
She became an inspiration
Musazai continued with school, buoyed by her family, friends and professors who encouraged her to continue to pursue her dreams.
Now she encourages other women and people with disabilities to do the same. She has become a symbol of hope for many young people in Afghanistan.
“Education is our right, and it’s a natural right, a right which is like the right to life, to freedom,” she said.
“This is a right we are born with, so we should fight for this right. And we should believe in ourselves. And I think that believing in yourself and education, these are the two important tools to pursuing your dreams.”
She said this is especially important for people who are disabled.
“When I was a child, other children used to bully me and make fun of my disability, and I didn’t believe in myself,” Musazai said. “I thought, ‘I’m not like others.’ But today I believe in myself because I am educated.”
Musazai says it’s important to always be hopeful, and to believe that whatever bad thing is happening will end and something good will emerge.
And her diploma is only the beginning. She hopes to continue her education by pursuing a master’s degree abroad, and to keep encouraging others with her example.