Aqila Tavakali and her 14-year-old son brace themselves against an icy wind as they walk the several blocks from their temporary apartment to his new school.
Abolfazl says goodbye to his mother at the corner, and Aqila watches as he disappears through the yawning doors of the main entrance.
Newtonbrook Secondary, just north of Toronto, Canada, sprawls across an entire city block. More than 2,000 students from grades eight to 12 attend the school.
With basketball courts, a swimming pool and a large auditorium, the school offers the type of education 44-year-old Aqila could only dream of providing when she was principal at a girls’ school in Kabul, Afghanistan until October 2021.
She wipes a tear from her eye in a futile attempt to stem a torrent from streaming down her cheeks.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my students at Sayed ul-Shuhada,” she told Al Jazeera. “They were very poor economically, but they were also very smart.”
Aqila, her husband Musa, a 47-year-old former taxi driver in Kabul, and their three children, aged nine, 14 and 22, are among the estimated 1.2 million Afghans who fled their country after the Taliban seized power in August 2021.
In Afghanistan, Aqila had dedicated herself to improving conditions for her female students. Sayed ul-Shuhada was one of only a few high schools in the Hazara neighbourhood of Kabul. More than 7,000 girls attended the school in three shifts a day, from grades one to 12.
When Aqila was appointed principal in 2013, girls were hungry for education, but resources for them were scarce. They took classes outside, sitting on the ground in the elements while boys were taught in classrooms indoors. So Aqila embarked on a years-long fundraising campaign to construct new buildings for the growing number of female students.