People of SFU

This former Olympian is helping bring female Afghan scholars to SFU

October 28, 2021

One of the first two female athletes to represent Afghanistan at the Olympic games, former SFU student Friba Rezayee is regarded as a trailblazer for Afghan women’s freedoms. Rezayee continues to empower the women of Afghanistan through her work as the founder of Women Leaders of Tomorrow (WLOT), a Vancouver-based charity, which offers online English classes, international post-secondary application assistance and sport programs throughout Afghanistan.

Rezayee began her post-secondary journey at SFU, and sees education as a vital element of women’s empowerment. “Empowerment is to be able to achieve your goals, and to be able to practice your innate rights as a woman,” says Rezayee.

Rezayee has fought hard for her sense of empowerment. Born in Afghanistan, Rezayee and her family fled to Pakistan as refugees. There, she remembers watching boxing on a small TV in their home and being inspired by the power, strength and confidence of boxing champion Laila Ali.

When Rezayee and her family eventually returned to Afghanistan, she sought out training as a boxer. As a woman, she was denied training—however, a judo coach was willing to teach her. Through judo, she found her own strength and confidence.

“It’s full control of your body and your mind,” says Rezayee, “and that’s very empowering.”

Eventually, Rezayee’s talent and work ethic earned her a spot on the 2004 Afghanistan Olympic team, competing in judo in Athens.

However, as unrest escalated in Afghanistan, Rezayee sought to leave the country again, this time setting her sights on Canada. Acknowledging a dream and opportunity her mother had never achieved, she hoped to attend university.

She enrolled in her first Canadian course at SFU: Psychology 100.

Attending her first lecture, Rezayee describes feeling enlightened and seeing opportunities that were now opening to her. “Education has played a vital role in supporting me, and helping me become the person who I am now.”

Rezayee also expressed gratitude for SFU’s Student Services staff for being accommodating when she ran into delays attaining her visa—and for supporting her in other ways as well.

“In 2012 I lost my mother in Afghanistan, and I could not move forward with my applications in a timely manner,” she says. “Not only was my contact in Student Services understanding, but she asked me, ‘Do you have a support group, or can I help you find a support group to help you through these hard times?’ It was a very good experience. I felt that I was home, that there was somebody who cared about me.”

With her unique experiences, Rezayee is now working to ease the often slow and complex visa application process for others. One of her latest projects involves helping SFU identify female Afghan academics to study, teach and research at the university, especially as the new Taliban regime has barred many young women from education.

Rezayee’s organization, WLOT, runs English language and mentorship programs that have brought her into contact with many talented and aspirational young women who are now being forced to stay at home.

“Hundreds and hundreds of girls’ education has been interrupted,” she says. Currently, high schools in Afghanistan have been closed to female students above grade 6, and access to university is extremely restricted. Women’s gyms and sporting facilities have also been shut down.

As opportunities within the country have closed to them, Rezayee hopes to afford these women and girls the opportunity to study in Canada. She is currently collaborating with SFU and partner organization Scholars at Risk, which creates relocation opportunities for scholars facing persecution in their home countries, to make that hope a reality.

Rezayee also aims to help Afghan women still living in the country access education, using the infrastructure already in place from WLOT’s online English classes. She hopes to connect women in Afghanistan with figures in higher education, to provide them with academic learning opportunities they cannot find at home.

“Now is the critical time,” Rezayee says. “Now more than ever.”

Faculties and departments across SFU have committed over $250,000 to creating scholarships and teaching positions for Afghan students and scholars fleeing persecution. However, more funding is still needed for these scholars to be able to safely and comfortably relocate to Canada.

For more information on how you can support Scholars at Risk at SFU, visit SFU Advancement. All donations collected through our partnership with Scholars at Risk will go directly to scholars, helping to cover costs including support for resettlement in Canada, plane tickets, funding for additional family members traveling with the scholars, mental health and health care, research materials and more.