From her home – a single bedroom in a house shared by four families – she could hear the sound of drones landing not far from Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan, where her family had fled in the 1990s to escape the Taliban’s rise.
“I was just living in this violence, but it was a given, so I couldn’t do anything about it,” Summia says. Sometimes there were bombings once or twice a week. “At some point, people stopped talking about it. It would happen, and everyone would move on.”
But life there was a privilege compared to Afghanistan, she tells the BBC. At least she got to go to school.
On a visit to Kabul in 2002, just after the US invasion, a girl not much older described only being able to attend school by pretending to be a boy. Summia was six, but she remembers it clearly. She vowed then that she would to take learning seriously.
It would be hard to dispute that she has. In October, Summia, now 22, will become the first Rhodes Scholar to hail from Afghanistan, one of 102 students to earn a place in the 2020 class of the world’s oldest postgraduate scholarship.
Now finishing her last term at Earlham College, a liberal arts university in the US state of Indiana, her outlook is bright and she laughs with ease, the fluent torrent of her words belying the traumas of the journey that has taken her from refugee to Rhodes Scholar.
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The burden of a vexed legacy
It is a view that contradicts a legacy of imperialism linked to the Rhodes, one of the world’s best-known and most competitive scholarships.
Endowed by Cecil Rhodes through his will in 1902, it was initially intended to encourage closer ties between the US and Britain through funding postgraduate study at Oxford. For most of its history, it was only open to men from the US, Germany and the Commonwealth.
Rhodes supported a vision that saw “the bringing of the whole world under British rule”.
“He was an imperialist who believed in white supremacy and did not want people of colour or women to be part of the Rhodes Scholarship,” Summia says. Initially, she did not want to apply.
She had a change of heart when it struck her that it would be easy to say no, she says, “but it’s harder to accept it, take the burden of the legacy of it, and actually do something to change it – that’s a real responsibility.”
“I realised I shouldn’t run away from admitting the colonial history,” she adds. “It’s people like us who need to change [the