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Graduation Another Step in Afghan's Trek

June 14, 2002|LIZ F. KAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the darkness on that frigid winter night, 13-year-old Qudsia Bekeran could make out the remains of slaughtered civilians strewn around her.

She and her family were fleeing to Pakistan to escape the communist regime that had seized control of her native country. The family crossed mountains, and trudged through fields of the dead, victims of Soviet soldiers.

"At points you would see so many dead bodies that it was like human life had no value," she said. "It was at that moment I knew, if I survived, I would be fighting for peace."

Today, as UCLA's student commencement speaker, the 27-year-old political science graduate and women's rights activist will explain how "education has been a weapon" in this struggle.

Her desire to finish her education and work for peace gave her the strength to adjust to a new country, endure the loss of her father and flee an abusive husband, she said. Now, after earning her undergraduate degree, she plans to return to Afghanistan and use her experiences to tell others, especially Afghan women, what is possible.

"Those wouldn't be just words," Bekeran said. "I can prove it."

She grew up as the privileged youngest daughter of a politician loyal to the royal family of Afghanistan. As a child, Bekeran attended private schools and was at the top of her class.

Her father, Abdulrahman, was a confidant who taught her to value and love learning. He served as governor of Kandahar and mayor of Mazar-i-Sharif, among other posts. When he refused to join the Communist Party, however, the family's comfortable life ended.

"Some of my dad's friends were put in jail," she said. Before one was taken away, he got a message to her father, instructing him to go Pakistan before he and his family were captured as well. Her father decided that Bekeran, her two older brothers, a sister-in-law and her mother should make the trip the next day. He stayed behind for the time being.

Bekeran was terrified, because she had seen propaganda movies on television illustrating what happened to families who tried to escape. One had aired just the night before. It didn't have a happy ending: The family was killed.

In the morning, her family left the house one by one, the women wearing burkas so no one would recognize them. They walked to a car about a mile from their home. Bekeran struggled through the thick snow that was falling, straining to move in her heavy clothing. Men standing nearby laughed at her trouble walking, because "it looked like I had never worn a burka before--and I hadn't," she said.

They took a bus to another city, where a guide met them. The family rode in a car for five or six hours in a shallow river covered by trees to avoid notice by bombers who attacked any sign of human life. The car got stuck in snow, however, so they walked, eventually crossing the mountains after nightfall.

They were careful to step exactly in their guide's footsteps.

"On the right, we could fall off a cliff," she said. "On the left, there was a minefield." The family made it to Peshawar, Pakistan, where Bekeran's father joined them 10 days later. There, Bekeran attended a high school for Afghan refugees and earned her diploma when she was 15. Already fluent in Persian and Pashtu, she studied Arabic and picked up Urdu.

The family sought political asylum in the United States. Meanwhile, her father pushed her to become engaged to a dangerous Pakistani man, afraid that he would harm the family if she refused. He said she could break the engagement once the family arrived in America.

Leaving her fiance behind, she settled in Redondo Beach with her family. Then 17 years old, Bekeran enrolled at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach and began to learn English.

Six months later, her father died of a heart attack. "It was then I knew I lost my hopes and dreams," she said.

With her father gone, her older brothers insisted that she return to Pakistan and honor her marriage commitment "to save the family name," she said. She returned and married the man, who she said abused her physically and emotionally. But she devised a plan of escape: She gained his permission to go back to Redondo Beach by promising to bring him there, though she had no intention of following through.

Back in the U.S., she used her knowledge of the Koran and Islam to persuade her family that this abusive marriage violated their religion. The idea that women should submit to their husbands no matter what "has to do more with custom and culture than religion. If I didn't know about Islam, I wouldn't have known my rights."

Although she is still afraid of her husband, Bekeran does not allow the fear to interfere with her activities--including her plans to return to Afghanistan and work for women's rights.

"I can't just hide for the rest of my life," she said.

In this country, she tried to focus on earning her degree. It was tough finding a balance between working, studying and caring for her mother, who developed Parkinson's disease as soon as Bekeran's father died.

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