Mehwish and Maria Zaminkhan pose for a picture on UofL's campus.
Mehwish and Maria Zaminkhan pose for a picture on UofL's campus.

Mehwish Zaminkhan feared for her life on her daily walk to school.

“Every time I used to pass by a boy or man in the street, my heart would start beating really fast. I was like, ‘Oh my God, the death is coming.’ I would freak out. My arms would get cold. My forehead would start sweating. It was a really hard time,” she said.

The walks became necessities after Taliban, fully armed, entered her school in Pakistan and banned girls’ education. Instead of accepting defeat, Mehwish continued her quest by attending a school in secret. It was not without severe risk.

“We were putting our lives in danger,” Mehwish said. “My mom didn’t know about it. I somehow convinced my grandma. All my friends were going and my teacher wanted us to continue our education. My grandma loved me so much and she couldn’t say no to me. 

“It was not easy to go outside and think your life is done.”

After Mehwish moved from Bazira Village to Islamabad, Pakistan, with the rest of her family, it took a 7,000-mile voyage to Louisville, Kentucky, for the family – including sisters Mehwish and Maria – to ease those concerns.

Recently, Mehwish and Maria, freshmen at the University of Louisville, shared their experiences in a book, “No Single Sparrow Makes a Summer,” they helped author during their time at Iroquois High School. The book features nine different young women who documented their stories from all around the world.

“When I heard about this program, I thought this was the chance I could write and express myself,” Maria said.

Beyond a way to share their stories, her sister viewed this as a platform to aid others.

“I really want the young generation to learn from this,” Mehwish said. “I really want this book to impact their lives. We’re all teenagers. We go through stuff. They think there is no light at the end of the tunnel. If they read this book, they may see us as role models and how we overcome all these obstacles.”

The 14-month project began in June 2017, and the authors participated in nearly 200 writing workshops. For some, like Mehwish, the more daunting task was learning English during the process.

“When we first came to the U.S., it was really hard, especially for me,” Mehwish said. “Maria went to school in cities where they learned English. In Bazira, there was no English. I started going to English conversation club and Americana community centers to learn how to communicate, so my English would get better.”

While many spend years trying to tackle the language, the motivated sisters adapted quickly enough to be accepted into UofL.

“I was having the dream to become a physician,” Mehwish, a biology major, said. “The major classes are hard, but I think we can do it.”

“I’m majoring in criminal justice,” Maria, a criminal justice major, added. “I always go early and sit in front so I can learn. I want to be a lawyer.”

They have never wavered from their lofty goals, but four years ago, those same goals and desires had severe limitations – and nearly ceased to exist – while living in Pakistan. Their dreams could not be realized unless they made a change.

Now, with the assistance of faculty, staff, and the community, the two have the resources – they specifically noted the writing center and REACH – they need in an environment that breeds success and inclusion.

“Louisville is a very welcoming city,” Maria said. “When we came here, we didn’t have anybody here. We were so new to the culture. People around here, they help us. Our neighbors, our community members – they always help us. I feel like Louisville is the best city.”

Maria and Mehwish Zaminkhan spoke with Mark Hebert for the UofL Today radio show. The full interview is available online.

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Ira Green is a social media and digital marketing specialist for UofL’s Office of Communications and Marketing. Before joining the team in 2018, Green previously spent eight years as an assistant sports information director in the Cardinals’ athletics department. The Florida native graduated with a B.A. from 2017 UCF before earning an M.S. from West Virginia. An avid college basketball and Major League Baseball fan, Green advocates for the Oxford comma and the New York Yankees.