She sang recently at the White House and has been the host of her own TV show in Afghanistan but for Mozhdah Jamalzadah the opportunity to return to her former high school is an opportunity she couldn't miss.
On Sept 23, Jamalzadah, widely known as the "Oprah of Afghanistan," spoke to a rapt audience of 500 grade 11 and 12 students in the John Oliver Secondary auditorium. She shared her life story as an immigrant from Afghanistan, her fond memories of high school, as well as fielding some questions from students.
At the beginning of her talk Jamalzadah gave a brief history of the wars in Afghanistan and told the students about the significant challenges that exist today especially for women and children in the country.
"The problem now is the culture is very backwards. During the time when the Taliban was there I'd watch the news and see what was going on. Jamalzadah said that 30 years of war have had a detrimental effect on education since 90 per cent of Afghanis are illiterate. "You see what is going around in the rest of the world and see how lucky we are (in Canada)"
Graduating from John Oliver Secondary School in 2000, Jamalzadah went on to study broadcast journalism at British Columbia Institute of Technology and political science and philosophy at University of British Columbia.
While in post secondary studies she contemplated what she could do to help people back home in Afghanistan. She decided music was the best medium for her message to be heard and she dedicated herself to five years of vocal lessons while working and attending university.
Jamalzadah's career had a break with the song Afghan Girl written by her father, Bashir in tribute to a group of girls attacked in Afghanistan with acid in 2008. Translated, the Farsi lyrics read "I'm an Afghan girl - don't break my wings, don't break my honour."
Another great opportunity came on March 8, 2010 when she was invited to sing at the White House on International Women's Day and perform Afghan Girl for an audience of dignitaries including President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Jamalzadah told the students that she is proud of the fact that she was the first Afghan to perform in the White House.
For the past 10 months, Jamalzadah has hosted the Mozhdah Show on Afghanistan's 1TV channel. Widely known as the "Oprah of Afghanistan" she courageously tackles issues taboo in Afghan society such as divorce, child abuse and domestic violence. Jamalzadah told the students that she believes in the power of the TV medium to make changes in Afghan family life. "By securing a family you secure a country."
Besides her work as a performer Jamalzadah helps run an orphanage in her country for 156 children.
Even though Jamalzadah admits she wasn't a straight "A" student, she took her mother Nasri's advice that ultimately hard work is most important.
"At the time I didn't know if I'd succeed but you can never go wrong with education and you can never go wrong with hard work."
Speaking as a mentor, Jamalzadah shared some good advice she received over the years from her teachers. "You are lucky to have teachers like this and the way high school teachers are there for you is different than in university."
Teachers told her that if you have a goal it may take 10 years to achieve it; to never give up, when one door closes another will open up; always think positively and you'll attract positive energy; and most importantly, always follow your heart. "My heart led me to Afghanistan and it was a great success."
Jamalzadah admitted that she had some tough times while attending John Oliver and that she was bullied. She had a few words of advice for the bullies. "You need to focus on yourself, not on bullying, its bad karma."
Jamalzadah told the students to never forget high school. "It's the sweetest time you'll have. Take advantage of it and be nice to each other."
Following her talk about a dozen students lined up at microphones to ask Jamalzadah questions. One student asked her to sing and the auditorium went silent as she sang a few lines in Farsi and in English. The auditorium exploded in applause and cheers as she finished, winning a few new fans.
Another student asked Jamalzadah what drives her to be successful to which she answered, "The people in Afghanistan."
"There are people that can do what I can do here. But no one can take my spot over there. I'm the only one who has the guts to do this."