Marwa Zamir, Afghan refugee in Ireland: ‘United, we can make a difference’

World Refugee Day is celebrated each year on 20 June. This year’s theme focuses on solidarity with refugees. Marwa Zamir’s message emphasises refugees’ resilience and the need to work together for a future of peace and security.

Marwa Zamir is a twenty-year-old woman from Kabul, Afghanistan, who arrived in Ireland in 2016 as a refugee at 13. After three years of living in a Direct Provision centre in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, she now lives with her family in Lucan, Co. Dublin.

Currently entering her third year of studying pure law at Maynooth University, Marwa is the youngest member of the UNHCR Refugee Advisory Board in Dublin. The board was formed by UNHCR in Dublin in 2022 to promote the voices of refugees in policy decisions that affect them. Marwa is an advocate for girls’ education, refugees, and youth engagement.

A sense of nostalgia

Marwa’s eyes are filled with nostalgia as she talks about her most cherished childhood memories of growing up in Kabul. She remembers her close-knit family, spending time with her cousins, swimming, having barbecues, and playing music, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy despite the Taliban’s restrictions.

This existence was shattered when an explosive device detonated near the Zamir children’s school one day, and the family knew they had to leave Afghanistan for their safety.

In an anthology entitled Correspondences, Marwa published a poem entitled “In Kabul I was Busy Playing” in which she described the fear of that day, clinging to her mother as she tried to block out the images of the scene from her mind.

Marwa remembers her journey to Ireland and describes how she was the only one happy about the family’s move. She knew she would no longer face the same educational barriers as in her home country.

Committed to the ECOSOC Youth Forum

In April, at the ECOSOC Youth Forum in New York, Marwa prepared to speak on issues such as the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education in Afghanistan and youth engagement. The speech, which she unfortunately did not get the opportunity to give, read, “If a girl is educated, a family is educated. When a family is educated, a society is educated. When a society is educated, there is no space for poverty and hunger. This is why the solutions to poverty around the world starts by educating young girls, empowering them and equipping them with the tools to transform society.”

A father and uncles as role models

Growing up watching her father work as a project controller with UNHCR, contributing his expertise in engineering by mapping and building different schools around Afghanistan, Marwa always knew that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. Her mother worked for the family’s charity, the Zamir Foundation, and raised the couple’s four children.

The Zamir Foundation was created by Marwa’s uncles, Assad and Zabi Zamir, and aimed to tackle sanitation problems, access to education, and nutrition. Assad served as Minister for Agriculture and was an expert Afghan advisor to the UN World Food Programme.

The family’s history of advocacy work has undoubtedly inspired Marwa. Currently in her second year of studying Law at Maynooth University, she is the youngest member of the Irish UNHCR Refugee Advisory Board, a youth leader with the Irish Refugee Council, and has contributed to an educational resource on the Irish Direct Provision system, ‘Tight Spaces’.

Marwa explains that the project’s title reflects the physical and mental impact that seeking international protection can have on a young person. The work will be published as part of the Junior Certificate curriculum next academic year.

Growing in confidence

Last January, Virgin Media released a series, ‘Second Chances’, in which Marwa takes part in a theatre workshop, telling her story to an auditorium to overcome her insecurities and fear. The workshop facilitator advises her to look at her sister as a focal point while she speaks. ‘No, I won’t look at my sister, she will make me laugh’, smiles Marwa.

“Growing up, everything was done indoors. I was very shy when I moved to Ireland, even talking to a stranger would be a big deal for me. Then I joined Foróige [an Irish youth development organisation] at fifteen and then at seventeen, I joined the Irish Refugee Council.”

Recognising the extent of her achievements at such a young age, Marwa remembers the introduction day three years ago after she was selected to sit on the UNHCR advisory board as an eye-opening experience.

A member of the UNHCR advisory board in Ireland

“They were all saying that they had twenty years of experience, had worked with the Red Cross, and then it came to my turn, and I was like, I’m only a Leaving Cert student, I’m only eighteen. It was before I entered law, so I didn’t know the legal language and policies they were talking about. It was a bit hard to match their standard.”

An actor of change and inclusion of youth

Marwa hopes to enact change through her studies, activism and volunteer work. “One of the hopes that I have is to work with the UN, that’s why I’m really involved with UNHCR and UNICEF here in Ireland.”

It is her hope and dream for the future that the young, hopeful people of Afghanistan will one day have the platform to voice their concerns and participate in shaping their future.

“This Refugee Day, let’s celebrate the resilience of refugees and work together for a future of peace and security. United, we can make a difference.”

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