Zarmina Nekzai, 58, arrived in Ottawa Sunday after walking from her home in Barrie for 13 days to support gender equality and raise awareness about domestic abuse among Afghan women and girls.
“I feel very excited, I feel very nervous,” Nekzai told Global News Monday. “There’s a lot of memories, a lot of wishes. every step, I put in a wish for all the women and children around the world.”
The journey Nekzai took from Barrie to Ottawa was 412 kilometres, and it wasn’t without some bumps and hurdles along the way.
One of the hardest times during the walk, Nekzai said, was when there was a lot of wind and water around her.
“I was always thinking about the people, always thinking about the children,” she added.
Nekzai’s goal is to have education, healthcare and shelter available for all women and children.
“When empowered, women are safe, healthy and educated. Empowered women also have healthier families and grow economies,” she said.
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Nekzai grew up in Afghanistan and realized women at a young age that were treated differently. When she was in Grade 8, she decided she would dedicate her life to fighting for women’s rights.
“I worked almost four hours after school to teach literacy for young women and other women in small villages,” she said.
In 1981, Nekzai was taken hostage with 18 others while travelling by bus to Kabul. Three women were killed, but Nekzai survived.
“I am the one who’s lucky. It was between life and death, and I survived,” she said.
In 1988, Nekzai moved to Canada and she is now an occasional teacher with the Toronto District School Board.
Since moving to Canada, Nekzai has participated in multiple initiatives supporting gender equality in Afghanistan.
In 2010, she returned to the country to work with widowed women and children, teaching them about proper nutrition and giving them food and winter clothing. In 2013, Nekzai funded a project to build four additional classrooms at a local high school for girls, and in 2015, she opened the first subsidized daycare in the Mir Bacha Kot region in Kabul.
In 2016, Nekzai was working with volunteers in Afghanistan. One day, children were playing during recess when Nekzai gave them some balls to play with in the yard. She watched the girls play outside, excited and delighted.
“I was thinking about the children. What do the children deserve in sport, in education?” Nekzai said. “I was thinking hockey is a Canadian national sport. Why don’t I build a hockey rink in Afghanistan?”
In 2017, the project came to life and a hockey rink was built for girls in Kabul. Nekzai then wrote a book about her endeavours called Hockey Girls of Kabul.
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“The reason I did this walk is to raise money to build a shelter for women and children,” she said.
Nekzai’s first goal is to build a shelter for women and children in Afghanistan, but she hopes to broaden her work from there.
“My goal is to do all around the world — it’s whatever country after that,” she said.
When Nekzai arrived in Ottawa Sunday, she chose to participate in the Sporting Life 10k Ottawa, which supports a camp for children with cancer.
Her 412-kilometre walk from Barrie, which began April 29, was funded through sponsors — sometimes she stayed at people’s homes and sometimes she stayed at hotels.
On Monday morning, Nekzai was greeted at Ottawa’s Centennial Flame by Barrie-Innisfil MP John Brassard. She also met with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer Monday afternoon.
“I am proud of Zarmina’s efforts and I look forward to having her here in Ottawa to talk with Parliamentarians about gender equality in Afghanistan and her journey to Ottawa,” Brassard said in a statement.
Nekzai plans to walk to British Columbia in the future to support empowerment among women and children, but she’ll be returning home to Barrie in the meantime.
“I wanted to see how I could do my first journey,” Nekzai said. “Fortunately, I don’t want to give up, I will be continuing with my journey.”
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