LONDON: A Pakistani student who fled to Britain after surviving a Taliban school shooting has become president of the Oxford Union, the famed university debating club that helped launch the careers of countless world leaders.
Ahmad Nawaz, 21, arrived in Britain aged 14 after his brother was killed in the attack. Since taking the reins of the union, he has said he wants to make it appeal more to marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities and disabled students.
He told The Times that he cried with joy at the news of his election, adding: “It’s been the most emotional ride I’ve had in a long, long time.”
Nawaz was hit in the arm by bullets when the Taliban stormed his school in the city of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. Almost 150 children and teachers were killed.
The Taliban shot injured survivors and set the school ablaze. Pretending to be among the dead, Nawaz survived the attack only to spend weeks recovering in a hospital in Peshawar.
His arm needed urgent surgery to be saved, so he was sent to Britain’s second-biggest city Birmingham for emergency treatment.
He earned a place at Oxford University in 2020, having arrived in Britain in 2014. He has spoken at major events alongside Nobel prize-winners and world leaders, and has delivered talks in the UK on extremism and its risks.
But Nawaz is not the first Pakistani president of the Oxford Union. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister who was assassinated in 2007, led the debating group in 1977, becoming the first Asian woman to hold the title.
Nawaz reads philosophy and theology at Lady Margaret Hall, the same college that was attended by Malala Yousafzai, who also suffered at the hands of the Taliban in her famous story from a school bus attack to an Oxford education.
Nawaz’s rise is just as remarkable, with the student achieving an A grade at English GCSE, a secondary school qualification in Britain, despite arriving with limited English less than three years before he sat for the exams.
“I was determined and when I came to Oxford I was quite ambitious but I never thought I would get involved with the union,” he said. “This shows there are no limits, whatever your background.”
Nawaz said the union is “one of the biggest free speech platforms in the world,” adding: “When I was a child I had heard of the Oxford Union. I just wanted to step into this institution, rubbing shoulders with those from Eton, Harrow and Westminster.”
He said: “We’re going to work to make institutional change, to make more people from disadvantaged backgrounds feel comfortable and get involved, rather than just feel like it belongs to public school kids.
“I want to make people feel included, not just based on where they are from but also different types of societies.
“I would also like to diversify the speakers and the discussions that take place in the union, so we can focus for example on human rights and societal issues in different parts of the world.”
He said committee members should become more involved in community work, adding: “I couldn’t have been more grateful for this journey.”