Hasina Hussain Zada fled her homeland of Afghanistan in 2021 after being granted asylum in Canada, and settled in the Town of the Blue Mountains.
While in Afghanistan, Zada joined the non-profit organization Free to Run as a way to assert her freedom in her daily life. The organization is featured in the documentary Free to Run, about a group of women in Afghanistan who started running to deal with the sometimes oppressive reality they faced day-to-day. The documentary will be screened in Collingwood next month as part of the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour, and Zada is expected to take the stage to speak about her experiences.
“Free to Run taught me how to be myself, and how to have my freedom,” Zada said. “In my country, we did long-distance running to run away from challenges. We felt very free – freedom of mind, and freedom of everything.”
After graduating from school in Afghanistan, Zada studied physical education in college. She graduated from college in 2015.
In the summer of 2016, she first became aware of Free to Run. Free to Run is a non-profit organization that uses adventure sports to support women and girls living in areas of conflict to build their physical, emotional and social well-being. The organization supports women in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“My friend texted me...and said they were looking for athletes to take women to other provinces for a seven-day hike. She asked if I was interested. I didn’t know what it was,” said Zada, with a laugh.
“It was hiking and sport, so I said yes.”
Zada had to get permission from her father to attend.
“My father didn’t agree I should go alone because I didn’t know anyone,” she said, noting her father eventually agreed to let her go. On the trip, she met Stephanie Case, the president and founder of Free to Run. Case asked Zada if she would like to join the organization, to which Zada agreed.
“My journey started there,” she said.
In 2018, Free to Run hired Zada as a program officer, and she made the leap to program manager in 2020.
When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 2021, Zada knew she needed to leave the country. She applied for asylum in both Canada and the U.S.
“Canada processed my application fastest, so I came to Canada,” she said.
Zada made the trek with a friend who had connections in the Town of the Blue Mountains, which is what led to her moving to the area when she arrived.
“He knew people. They said I could work at Blue Mountain. I didn’t know anyone, so I thought Blue Mountain was an opportunity for me,” she said. “When I came to Canada, I (worried) I couldn’t do anything. It was a new country and I had to start from the beginning. It can be hard as a refugee in another country.”
She got a job at Blue Mountain Resort, and currently still works there. Zada’s parents and younger sister were recently granted asylum status and just joined her in Blue Mountain at the end of August.
“I hope I can bring my whole family here,” she said.
Zada says there are many differences between her experiences growing up in Afghanistan and her experiences living in South Georgian Bay.
“I see lots of women and girls who can do whatever they want. These are things that don’t happen in my country,” she said.
She also notes differences in where she can run. In Afghanistan, there were certain areas where women felt comfortable to exercise, and other areas they couldn’t.
“Here, you can run everywhere,” she said with a laugh.
Zada is currently training to run in the New York City Marathon in November.
The Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour brings films from the 47th annual Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival to more than 40 countries around the world. The tour will stop at the Collingwood Cineplex on Oct.11, with a screening of eight short films, including Free to Run.
“The film’s message is to not forget Afghanistan and don’t forget the women of Afghanistan,” said Zada. “The women of Afghanistan can’t do anything and that’s really heartbreaking.”