ANKARA: Afghan doctor Zakira Hekmat will on Wednesday be presented with a special courage award during a ceremony at the White House.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden will host the 17th annual International Women of Courage Awards event to coincide with International Women’s Day.
Hekmat, 35, will be among 11 women from around the world to receive the accolade which has been running since 2007.
It recognizes women who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality, and the empowerment of women and girls, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.
More than 180 women from 80 countries have to date been given the award. Each American diplomatic mission overseas nominates one woman from the host country, and finalists are selected and approved by the US State Department.
Awardees take part in an international visitor leadership program to boost their global networks and help connect them with their American counterparts.
In 2021, Canan Gullu, one of Turkiye’s most prominent women rights’ activists, was an IWOC recipient.
Hekmat escaped from the persecution of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and settled in the Turkish city of Kayseri where she studied medicine at Erciyes University with the help of a Turkish government scholarship.
She then became a doctor in Turkiye and founded the Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association in 2014 in the country’s Central Anatolia province where many Afghan refugees had sought refuge.
Since then, she has been working as an advocate for migrants and refugees in Turkiye, helping many Afghans, especially women, girls, and minorities, gain access to refugee protection and asylum in Turkiye.
In 2020, Hekmat was handed a Peacebuilders of the Year award by the Washington-based Hasna charity organization, and she has received several young leaders and activist awards from non-governmental organizations in Turkiye and Europe, dedicating them all to Afghan women and girls living under oppressive conditions.
She told Arab News: “I’m still at the beginning of my advocacy journey. Turkiye is my real home. It is where I can breathe and contribute to the global community with my professional works as well as humanitarian assistance.
“I always attached importance to give back to my own Afghan community. It is because of that I have worked tirelessly during coronavirus pandemic times and now to the benefit of disadvantageous communities.”
Hekmat provided winter supplies to hundreds of Turkish and refugee families during the pandemic and helped produce and distribute masks and soap to 6,000 families in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees agency, local volunteers, and public agencies.
Now a Turkish citizen, Hekmat grew up under the first Taliban rule, and taught poor children in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan.
She said: “I attended school secretly in Ghazni. I remember well when the Taliban first took control of my country and told us that women and girls would no longer be allowed to go to school.”
At the time, she was a sixth grader and was banned from attending school along with thousands of other girls.
“My parents believed in the power of education, and they supported me in continuing my studies secretly, even if it was dangerous and they knew they could be killed for doing that.
“Thanks to them and my teachers who voluntarily came to our house to teach me, I was able to complete the lessons in middle school,” she added.
In 2002, under the rule of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, she was able to continue high school officially.
She said: “As I was very successful at school and there was a lack of teachers, the school administration asked me to teach other younger girls, and I gave classes while continuing my own education during high school.”
On reaching 12th grade, she left Afghanistan for Turkiye to pursue her education.
“I worked hard to learn Turkish and eventually qualified as a medical doctor in 2018.
“I could see there were many Afghan refugees and asylum seekers who, like me, sought a better life outside Afghanistan. I volunteered with many refugee rights’ organizations, and I saw that there was a need to fight and advocate for women and girls and marginalized refugee groups,” she added.
Hekmat recruited volunteers, Turks, and other migrants for her Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association to advocate for women’s rights and support vulnerable groups.
She said: “I learned how to use compassion and collaboration to gain the support of local authorities, NGOs, and donors to provide critical services and protection to over 100,000 individuals, primarily refugees and asylum seekers.”
The association has organized numerous projects and activities, including refugee protection, livelihood, language education, cultural programs, capacity building, and children’s events.
“We have also established a network of 160 refugee volunteers in 62 cities across Turkiye, working together to help new arrivals and to call on the Turkish government and public not to forget those fleeing conflict and persecution,” she added.
Despite growing anti-refugee sentiment in Turkiye, especially due to the influx of Syrians displaced by the civil war in their country, and Afghans following the Taliban takeover, Hekmat has never given up on campaigning for the rights of Afghan women and girls.
She has appeared on TV, attended public events, and met with government authorities to talk about supporting the Afghan people.
“I knew it could come at personal danger to me, but I persevered. I worked with other women’s rights organizations and refugee groups across Turkiye.
“But there is still much work to be done. We must continue to work together, across borders and cultures, to promote justice and to provide support for those who are most in need,” she said.
Hekmat dedicated the US State Department award to all marginalized voices. “Together, we can make a difference, and we can build a better world for ourselves and for future generations.”
The other recipients of this year’s award are Alba Rueda (Argentina), Prof. Daniele Darlan (Central African Republic), Doris Rios (Costa Rica), Meaza Mohammed (Ethiopia), Hadeel Abdelaziz (Jordan), Sen. Datuk Ras Adiba Radzi (Malaysia), Brig. Gen. Bolor Ganbold (Mongolia), Bianka Zalewska (Poland), and Yuliia Paievska (Ukraine).
Meanwhile, the US State Department’s Madeleine Albright Honorary Group Award will go to the women and girl protesters of Iran.
Turkiye is home to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees and around 300,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers of other nationalities, including Afghans and Pakistanis, according to the UNHCR’s latest data.