University of Westminster student Maryam Khurram plans to rebuild her home — literally.
For Khurram, the meaning of “home” is beyond a structure of bricks and wood.
It is her homeland, where she was born and raised, completed school and finished her bachelor’s degree in architecture with dreams of serving her homeland before the fall of Afghanistan’s government on Aug. 15, 2021.
During the past 40 years of war in Afghanistan and with the recent fall of the government, many buildings fell, as did the bombs and blood.
But Khurram’s dreams and passion for rebuilding her country never diminished. This passion led her to work hard to realise her dreams.
She was one of the few lucky Afghan applicants who were able to get a fully funded scholarship for a master’s programme in International Planning and Sustainable development at the University of Westminster, London.
“Through urban planning, more people can benefit from a better quality of life and environment,” she says.
This is why Khurram changed her major from architecture to urban planning, although some of the best moments of her career have been working as an architect.
Part of her job in the Kabul Municipality was designing a series of women-specific shopping malls, recreational areas, and residential-commercial complexes. She even led the design of Kabul city’s new National Zoo.
Khurram was a member of Kabul Municipality’s zoning team and played a key role in preparing zoning regulations for unorganized settlements in Kabul.
Today, as a University of Westminster student, she’s charting a different course for her future — a privilege made more precious with the Taliban’s recent ban on women’s education, restricting them from going to universities and schools.
We caught up with Khurram to learn more about her remarkable journey:
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you find out about the Chevening Scholarship?
I learned about the Chevening Scholarship from my classmates at the university. At that time all of us were looking for opportunities and scholarships to continue our education after finishing our bachelor’s degrees.
Hearing about all the benefits the Chevening Scholarship provided made me very excited. I dreamed about getting a Chevening scholarship every day, and I worked hard to achieve it until I made it.
2. What was the easiest and hardest part of the application process?
I wouldn’t say the easiest, but the most exciting part of the application process was writing the essay questions. During this process, I got a chance to look back at my activities and achievements, assess them, and think about developing them in the future.
Waiting for the result was the most difficult part of the process. Obviously, this part is difficult for all applicants but for me, it was exhausting.
I was told by the Chevening alumni that applications from Afghanistan will most likely not be considered due to the political issues in my country.
3. Why do you say your women-specific projects in your home country were the most important to you in your LinkedIn?
Working on these projects, funded by UNDP, was the most crucial part of my career for many reasons.
Firstly, I got the chance to work with an amazing team and benefit from their knowledge and experience.
Secondly, these projects created job opportunities for women who didn’t have anyone to provide for them, as well as helped them promote their small businesses.
There were also capacity-building programmes included in the later phases of this project which would help them improve their knowledge and skills.
Knowing that I was a part of an amazing women empowerment project made me more motivated to work on these projects.
4. Why did you choose to further your studies in urban planning at the University of Westminster? Why not architecture?
Architecture has been my dream job since I was a child, and I have had the best moments of my life working on my architecture projects. But in my recent job in Kabul Municipality, I got involved with some urban planning projects in Kabul.
Seeing that my country is in great need of urban planners, I realised that by improving my knowledge and working in this field I could enhance the living conditions of millions of people in Kabul and other cities in my country.
Working in this field would benefit people on a greater scale, and this convinced me to change my field of study and continue my education in urban planning.
5. What has been your most memorable academic experience in the UK and at the University of Westminster so far?
The two site visits to Medway Council and Norwich with my friends and instructors were the most memorable parts of my education. These site visits gave me an overview of UK architecture and urban planning, as well as life in the UK.
Additionally, studying and getting familiar with a new academic method, which was very different from the one I was accustomed to, was both challenging and exciting for me.
6. What has been your most memorable non-academic experience in the UK so far?
The most memorable experience I had in the UK was attending the Chevening orientation.
I met some amazing people with the same level of energy and passion for learning as myself and made some great friends, which I hope I will see in great positions and places in the future.
7. What has been the most emotional part of your Chevening journey so far?
I have enjoyed every single day of my life since I came to the UK. But I cannot help thinking about all those Afghan applicants who have worked as hard as I have on their applications yet couldn’t get the chance to do the same.
It’s not because their applications were weak but because they weren’t able to travel to a third country during this process. Thinking about them makes me very emotional, and I hope the situation changes the following year.
8. How do you plan to make a difference with your University of Westminster degree?
After I complete my master’s degree in the UK, I am planning to get a job and earn experience in my field for a couple of years. Then I’ll return to my country and make the most use of what I have learned.
My immediate plans after I return to my country will be to continue my full-time job in Kabul Municipality, as it is a proper platform to implement my learnings.
Besides, I want to teach at one of the universities in Kabul so that I can share my education and experience with my colleagues and students.
I want to have my own design studio with a strong team of knowledgeable urban planners to prepare and implement various urban planning plans on a regional and urban scale, and also, research and solve urban issues in Afghanistan.
In my country, there are very few women who have had an education and are active in the engineering field. For this reason, we founded the Afghan Female Engineers Association to encourage and support women in this field.
Using the network and leadership skills I have gained through this scholarship, I want to contribute to this association and broaden the range of our services which includes creating educational and job opportunities for engineer women all over the country.
In addition, in the future, I want to have the cooperation of international engineering associations and bring scholars from other countries to conduct seminars and workshops for students in Afghanistan.
9. What do you like and dislike most about the UK?
The first and most obvious thing I noticed when I first came here, and what I loved the most about the UK, was the diversity and people’s understanding and acceptance of each other.
People are very kind and always willing to help, this makes life in London much more manageable and enjoyable for students who come from countries with different cultures.
Besides, the architecture is incredible. I enjoy going out in my free time and looking at the fantastic buildings.
London is wonderful, but one thing that bothers me is that the weather gets super cold in winter, and I don’t like cold.
10. What is the one thing Brits can learn from Afghans?
Hospitality. It is a well-known fact about Afghan people that they are one of the most hospitable nations in the world.
You can go to any random house in Afghanistan, and they would accept you as a guest, and regardless of their wealth and living conditions, they would feed you, be kind to you and treat you like a family member.
Even if they don’t know you, they believe you are the guest and as such, a friend of God.
Additionally, one thing that the whole world should learn from Afghans is their strength and resistance in the face of difficulties.
No matter how difficult the circumstances are, they will still stand up and work hard for their goals and bring positive changes in their country.