Freshta Caron risked her life to go to school and then to work as an interpreter in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban killed her friends. Now a student, she's got her sights set on her war-torn country's highest office.
"Mantoo is a special dish in Afghanistan," Freshta Caron* says as she serves up meat dumplings and fragrant yellow and white marble-colored rice. We have met at her friend's downtown apartment. Mantoo is intended for special occasions - to welcome a president, a governor - or a relative who's been away for a while. It would normally take three days to prepare. The meat is usually marinated and the flour is made from scratch - work, in this instance, carried out by a local Afghan takeout restaurant. Caron obviously wanted to make a good impression.
Home-cooked food is one of the many things Caron misses from Kandahar. In her frequent Skype sessions with her family, one subject that always comes up is the big feast they will prepare when she returns.
"We'll be sure to cook everything for you!" her mother reassures her.
But for now home is Canada, and it has been her Canadian 'family' - made up of the diplomats and soldiers she worked with in Afghanistan - who have provided her with friendship and moral support since she arrived over two years ago. Her circle has begun widening to include students since she started studying international relations last fall. Dressed in jeans and a sweater, her long dark hair falling loosely around her shoulders, Caron looks every inch a Canadian university student.
Back in Kandahar, she would be expected to cover up with a burkha when out in public and wear a headscarf indoors. She doesn't miss the restrictive rules governing many aspects of life there.
Caron was just seven at the time of 9/11. The Afghan Taliban had been harboring al Qaeda members blamed for the attacks. Rumors of a foreign invasion spread. Caron remembers being terrified.
"We thought that the US will come to Afghanistan and kill everyone," she recalls.
But her father sought to reassure Caron and her siblings. "Americans are not so crazy as to kill everyone here! They will only follow the Taliban and al Qaeda," he said.
She remembers the bombardments by the US-led forces late at night and the Taliban returning fire. Many neighbors were killed and homes destroyed. Caron says she and her extended family - parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles - huddled in windows and doorways for shelter. Her home, like the buildings around it, bore the shattered windows and cracked walls that are scars of war, but the family survived.
At the same time as the Taliban were being pushed back, the international forces were making it possible for children to go to school, something few - and no girls - had been unable to do before.
Caron's face lights up as she recalls how, aged seven, she started going to school.
There was no building. Her class, a mix of boys and girls, sat in the sand. The chalkboard was held upright with stones. "But we were still happy!"
Her father, a shopkeeper, was determined that she would get the education he never had.
Schoolkids as targets
But getting an education was a life-threatening affair.
"A lot of girls and boys were getting killed for going to school," she says. "We knew the Taliban would kill us one day."
She tells of 15 11-year-old girls, schoolmates, who were victims of an acid attack. Some were severely burned and disfigured. Two lost their eyesight. One of the victims vowed to keep going to school until her "last breath of life."
Today, it's estimated that 6 million boys and girls are in school around the country.
"People aware of their rights will not agree with the Taliban," Caron says. "They target children because when they grow up, they will be against them [the Taliban]. They want to destroy the next generation. They don't want a peaceful Afghanistan."
Only around 30 percent of Afghans complete primary school. Caron was one of them. Later she got to study in a proper school building, built by the Canadians. She would spend her afternoons at school plugging away at English - until she was fluent.
It was also the Canadian military, she recalls, that brought school supplies to students and built buildings and infrastructure to support Afghan civilians. She remains grateful for the support.
"I know these people helped us, and I wanted to help them back."
Caron was just 15 when she became an interpreter for them. It was a natural progression. To work with the Canadian military - and the international community generally - was a bonus. It was a dream job.
But Kandahar, dubbed Afghanistan's "assassination capital," was becoming more dangerous. Five hundred members of the political elite had been murdered over a decade. Although, the international forces managed to hold the Taliban at bay for a while, in 2006 it had once again become resurgent.
Young Afghan women working for the international force had always been seen as traitors by the Taliban - and were being targeted. Two of Caron's best friends, teenagers like her, were ambushed and murdered on their way to work.
But instead of becoming depressed, it made Caron defiant. She wasn't going to stay home, stay silent.
"When I see those situations, my blood goes on fire! If I get killed for the same reason, that is an honor for me," she says. "We want peace. Giving up isn't a solution; fighting is the solution," she says.
The killings left her more determined than ever to keep going to work - for a while.
Then the Taliban kidnapped her 11-year-old brother. It was a turning point, she say, that made her weak. The Taliban interrogated him - about her. He didn't give her identity away and still managed to return home alive though severely beaten.
"He's my hero," says Caron.
But she could no longer stay in Kandahar. In October 2011 she arrived in Canada under a special immigration program for Afghan interpreters at risk.
Caron doesn't really mind the cold - you can get clothing for that, she says. She enjoys hockey games but doesn't much like poutine, a mound of cheese, gravy and potato popular with Canadian students. Last year, she began her university studies. But she has her mind and heart firmly set on the future.
She would like to go into politics in Afghanistan and has her sights set on the highest office. Her Canadian professors half-jokingly call her "Madame President." But she isn't kidding.
"I think if a man can do it, why not a woman?" she says matter-of-factly.
Time is on her side. She is just 20. In Afghanistan, you have to be at least 40 to become president.
"I will go back. I am optimistic. I believe in my generation. We are 'the change.'"
*Freshta Caron is a pseudonym meant to help protect her identity.