Ms Shaesta Waiz did not let her gender or her background stand in the way of earning degrees in aviation. She is using her round-the-world trip to raise funds to help students interested in science, technology, engineering and maths, and do outreach in less-privileged nations about these subjects. (ARIFFIN JAMAR / The Straits Times)
SINGAPORE - Living the American dream is not easy when you are an Afghan. Shaesta Waiz, a refugee from Afghanistan, was told that when she informed her family of her wish to be a pilot.
"I remember one of the first things I heard was my grandmother saying, 'If you become a pilot, what Afghan man will marry you?'" the 30-year-old told The Straits Times. She was in Singapore for five days, from July 29 to last Wednesday.
But she was determined to make the sky the limit, and to do that, she had to smash through glass ceilings. Today she is on a solo trip around the world, and if completed successfully, it would make her the youngest woman to have done so.
Waiz was born in a refugee camp in 1987 after her family fled the fighting that erupted after the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
At three months old, she moved from a refugee camp in Pakistan to Richmond, California in America.
Waiz went to school in an underprivileged district. She had to share textbooks with classmates, and many of her peers eventually dropped out of school. At 18, she boarded her first commercial flight from California to Florida, and that inspired her to be a pilot.
As a child, Waiz had been very shy and timid. "You would not believe me if I had told you then that I would do the things I have done now. I was afraid of everything. I would hide when planes flew overhead because I thought they would fall on me."
Waiz was also raised in an Afghan household that followed traditions and customs. So when she told her family of her dream, it was greeted with scepticism.
Aviation is an expensive field to pursue, she was told. She was pursuing an American dream, but best if she remembered she was an Afghan woman and that such dreams were not things they pursued.
She said: "It was so discouraging. I have never looked at myself as an Afghan or American. I am just a person and I want to fly. I don't care what my background is. Why should that matter?"
When her family realised the determination and steely resolve Waiz had to fulfil her dream, they supported her decision.
But the only way Waiz could put herself through school was with scholarships and student loans.
"That is one of the reasons that doing this trip around the world - raising funds for Dreams Soar Inc - is so important to me. I am here because of the scholarships that helped me," said Waiz, speaking about the not-for-profit organisation Dreams Soar Inc she founded in 2014.
She is raising funds for the organisation to offer scholarships for students interested in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem), as well as to do outreach in less-privileged countries about these fields of study.
The outreach is especially focused on girls, young women and minorities. Waiz, who now has bachelor's and master's degrees in aviation, started the trip on May 13 and is set to complete it next month. By then, she would have flown across five continents, made 34 stops in 19 countries, totalling about 48,000km.
When she was younger, she would go to aviation conferences and notice that women were under-represented. "More than that, even the women I saw did not look like me. I was this brown girl wanting a dream that seemed to be for only this set group of women," she added, comparing her Afghan heritage to the mostly white American women she saw.
As part of the global trip, Waiz stopped in India and met girls at orphanages. She said they were very intelligent and determined, but limited by the cultures and countries they lived in.
"There is a spirit about them that inspires me. These girls, and so many other people I have met along the way on this trip, have shaped my future outlook," she added.
Waiz said that while the main purpose of this trip was to raise funds and do outreach, she feels like there is more to be done. From her experience visiting Afghanistan four weeks ago - her first trip back to Kabul in 30 years - Waiz said she would like to build a Stem school for girls there.
She said: "If I could build a place that Afghan girls feel safe to go to and create solutions for Afghanistan, then, maybe one day, this could grow and become global. I just want these girls to see what Stem can do, because most of them have such vague ideas of what it is."
In Singapore, Waiz met students from Girls2Pioneers and Changkat Changi Secondary School. Girls2Pioneers is a programme by the Singapore Committee for United Nations Women, which aims to change the gender imbalance by encouraging young girls to pursue careers in Stem.
The Dreams Soar team also said that Singapore was a desired destination for the maintenance of the Beechcraft Bonanza A36 plane Waiz is using.
Waiz's next stop is Bali, Indonesia. She hopes that her story inspires a generation of women and children to fight for their dreams.
She said: "Dreams are universal and don't belong to just a certain group of people. So attempt every dream like they belong to you, because they do."