Hila enters every room with an energy as big as her smile. Her Afghan-German identity, and the history that accompanies it, has led her toward a self and selfless-motivated path of working to enable access to higher education for refugees. Growing up with an Afghan-refugee mother, and a self-made Afghan father, who came to Germany to build a brighter future for his home country, tearing down the walls of the university ivory tower, instilled in Hila a passion and aspiration for the arts and philanthropy. It was after her Political Science studies, her experience as a translator and her work for Human Rights Watch, that Hila found her calling as one of the founding members of Kiron as the coordinator of Academic Partnerships.
Tell us about your journey…
My mother is a refugee from Afghanistan who left because of the civil war. My father, is a self-made-man, he is my hero! He managed to build his life from nothing when he came to Germany in the 70s. He worked in so many different fields, but on the whole, he is a true philanthropist. I have Afghan roots, but I grew up in Hamburg. Sometimes, when I am in Germany, I feel more Afghan, and other times, when I am abroad, I feel more German. The chaos, lateness and out of order lifestyle of Afghanistan makes me feel really German. But when it comes to kindness, I connect with my Afghan roots – I love the hospitality and warmth of the culture. My favorite Afghan word is Sabr – which means patience, ease and endurance. Whereas my favorite German word is Erhabenheit, which means augustness and dignity. While it can seem like two different worlds, I have found a sort of balance, making the best of both.
Growing up, I always felt torn between the world of the arts and the urge to do something impactful. I loved painting, theater and writing screenplays. While it was easy to lose track of time in my own creative world, I felt selfish, like I should be using my time for the greater good. I have always felt very privileged and lucky, especially around the turn of the century, when I was 12. I remember becoming aware of global issues, particularly during that time in Afghanistan, when girls were not allowed to go to school. I felt lucky, like it was by chance that I was in Germany, able to study freely without having done anything to have deserved that. It was back then when I realized, that I wanted do something with purpose and value in life. I chose to lay my paint brush aside and study Political Science, because even back then, I knew it would lead me in the right direction. I thought one day I would return to Afghanistan, supporting the country, like my father does, and help people with my idealistic ambitions – building my own NGO and starting something with impact. I knew that in order to make a difference, I needed to understand the system, so I put my energy into studying.
My journey with Kiron started way back, before I even knew Kiron would exist. I studied Political Science and Economics with Vincent Zimmer in Göttingen six years ago and later graduated in Politics, Economics and Philosophy at the University of Hamburg. I did many internships in the European Parliament and NGOs and during my studies I worked as a translator for Afghan refugees and local authorities. I always knew that I had an entrepreneurial drive in me, like my father, but I also knew I wanted to focus on social good and human rights. I came back to Berlin in 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis and started working with Human Rights Watch, when I reconnected with my old college friend, Vincent. This was when I had a sort of enlightening moment, that social impact and entrepreneurship were one in the same, it was never about choosing which path I should take, rather about finding a way to combine the two. It was then, that I heard about the Kiron idea. A brilliant idea, but one with no organization, no team, no funding, nothing– this was my chance. I gathered all my energy and resources and joined the founding team of Kiron. This is how it happened, how I found Kiron, or more accurately, how Kiron found me.
It was almost as if my subconscious had known all along that Kiron would be home for me. It was already during my internships, and later, in the early stages of my career, that I was consistently confronted with the difficulties of access to higher education for young refugees. I heard and translated countless stories of bureaucratic barriers and seemingly non-existent opportunities for building a new life, a better future. At the time, I didn’t realize that the lack of education was the issue, but when it finally clicked, it reminded me of my dad, and his story as a young Afghan man. Like many refugees today, he came to Germany at age 17 without proper documents. He was really motivated and taught himself German and even went as far as faking his legal documents to access the University of Hamburg. And he succeeded. As a child, I found this funny, but later I realized the deep significance behind his story and its relevance for so many refugees worldwide and for my own journey with Kiron.
Growing up, I had always read about Afghanistan and got lost in stories and old pictures. I saw photos from before the war, listened to family tales and of course, followed the stories in the media. But it wasn’t until 2012, when I went back to Afghanistan with my father, that I truly understood just how wounded the country was. Stepping on Afghan ground for the first time, I could feel its troubled soil. Even back then it was very emotional, and since, despite the situation becoming more critical, with attacks rising, Afghanistan has been declared safe, and refugees are being sent back. This doesn’t feel right. I believe, that all people, refugee or not, should be seen for their potential, not for where they come from. I – we – have a long way to go, but by not judging, and by recounting the stories I have heard and leveraging the experiences I have had, I know that the future can be better for refugees all over the world. They have the potential, we have to give them the chance.
What is your Role at Kiron?
Coordinating Academic Partnerships, the partnership development with our partner universities all over the world. Making sure that our students have the opportunity to transfer. In partnerships, we work closely with the curriculum team, so we coordinate the process, of ensuring through the matching and learning agreements that the recognition is given. We also work on new projects, like KironX, so we have developed partnerships with the MOOC providers such as edX, which allows us and our partner institutions to jointly produce new content and to make it relevant to the curriculum we have developed. I also work, that is my personal passion, on the question how we can establish a sustainable business model, in order to ensure that we can have long lasting impact.
What is your Mission for Kiron?
My vision for 2050 is that we have reached hundreds and thousands of students all over the world and have provided a successful pathway into higher education. That we have revolutionized access to higher education and have shown the world that we look for performance based education and have resolved the bureaucratic barriers, so students are purely judged on their performance and not on their past, better equipping them for a better future.
In order to get there, it is key to scale appropriately and establish a successful business model that can help increase our global impact. Key partnerships with stakeholders, political players, corporates and universities that have been supporting our work are vital in order to reach Kiron’s full potential.
Also, I believe, that we need to push for female empowerment. To all our female students out there: You have shown that you are not taking no for an answer and chose to pursue education, even when facing some of the most difficult challenges. Your dedication and willpower make you a role model, empowering many more girls and women to pursue their dreams and shape the future society.
Kiron means to me…
I don’t have kids, but Kiron is like my baby – I feel that there is almost no separation between Kiron and myself.
What are the challenges you are facing?
To ensure that what we are doing, especially on a global scale, is meaningful in the respective context. For example, to me, that means understanding that the needs of our students in Jordan and in Germany may be different. We need to learn about the needs of our students, understand them, and then do the best we can to balance and cater to the needs of all Kiron students, no matter where they are located or what their situation may be.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The Kiron team is what makes it such a unique place. Especially in 2015 – there was a huge movement of volunteers coming from everywhere to support Kiron, and it gave me, all of us, an incredible unique drive and positive spirit. That drive and motivation of the team, along with the highlights and journeys from our students, and especially my buddy Ahmad, in Hamburg, are what make working with Kiron so special.
What was your favorite moment at Kiron so far?
When our students took the exam at FH Lübeck and the results were just amazing. Particularly when I found out that my buddy got a straight A.
Describe yourself in own sentence:
Optimistic – in my overall outlook, and supportive – when it comes to team. These combined, lead to being driven!
What do you like doing?
I wish I could say I have just finished my last painting in my free time, but lately free time has been limited. But, in the time I do have, I love to spend it with family and friends. I enjoy exercising and boxing with my sister. In the summer, I especially love Berlin and make the best of all the parks and go exercising with my friends.
Some last words for Kiron…
You should never stop dreaming – it might sound cheesy – but we should make sure to follow the path that we have created and think even bigger.