World News

Born in a refugee camp, she's now flying solo around the world

Posted August 1

The first time Shaesta Waiz remembers seeing a plane, she was a child watching the news about an aircraft accident.

"I said to my mom, 'I hope I never ever have to fly in an airplane,'" she said. "I was so scared and terrified."

Now Waiz is a certified pilot in the middle of a solo flight around the world. By the time the 30-year-old completes her journey in September in Daytona Beach, Florida, she plans to have made more than two dozen stops in some 18 countries.

She also hopes her trip will "inspire girls and young women worldwide to dream big and achieve more," especially in the fields of science, math, engineering and aviation.

Her flight, in a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza A36, will take Waiz more than 25,000 miles. But it pales compared to her personal journey, which began three decades ago in a refugee camp in Afghanistan.

Struggling with dreams

Soon after Waiz was born in the refugee camp, her family came to the United States in 1987 to escape the Afghan-Soviet War.

One of six girls, she grew up in Richmond, California. As a child, becoming a pilot was not anything she thought about.

"I struggled (as a girl) with dreams, and I thought ... a woman like me, the best thing to do is have kids ... so they might do something grand," Waiz said via Skype from a stop in Sri Lanka.

Her only female role models were the women in her extended family. "They were all housewives, and that's all I aspired to be."

As a child she didn't live near an airport, and nobody in her family flew.

"We weren't wealthy enough to fly in an airplane," she said. "It was something out of reach, something very scary."

The first time Waiz remembers being on a plane, she was a teenager going from California to Florida. She remembers buckling her seat belt and praying.

"I thought this airplane was going to launch into the sky like a rocket ... like a roller-coaster," she said. But when the plane took off, "it was so romantic."

'What Afghan man would want to marry a woman who flies?'

In the years that followed, Waiz started plotting her dreams. She went from a community college to an aeronautical university.

She also began to navigate cultural resistance from members of her family.

Her uncle told her women did not belong in the cockpit. Her grandmother asked her, "what Afghan man would want to marry a woman who flies?"

Growing up, Waiz always straddled two cultures. She attended American schools, but spoke Farsi and Pashto at home. She was training to become a pilot, but her family still enforced a curfew.

"Growing up in the United States, I never felt like I was American ... my parents reminded me that I was Afghan, I was not American," she said. "But sometimes, when I would speak to my cousins in Afghanistan, they thought I was American. There was confusion of where I belonged."

Flying changed that.

"When I was in an airplane, all of that (confusion) disappeared," said Waiz, who now lives in Daytona Beach. "The plane does not care. The plane responds based on the skill of the pilot. In the air, I can be whoever I am."

Return to Afghanistan

Waiz's route so far has taken her to Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

She also made a three-day stopover in Kabul last month. It was the first time she'd returned to Afghanistan since she left as a baby.

While there Waiz met with the president and the prime minister of the country, connected with her extended family and began to dream up what she wants to do next.

"I had the chance to meet a lot of my cousins, a lot of young girls," she said. "What I noticed is that these girls are so ambitious, and they're so hungry to do something."

She also noticed that the ambition of these young Afghan women came with limitations: They had to be accompanied by their fathers to be able to move around the city.

Waiz is funding her trip though sponsors and a nonprofit, Dreams Soar, that she founded to inspire future generations of female pilots and women in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). As she notes on her website, only a small percentage of the world's pilots are women.

Her family is now supportive of her passion. And after her trip to Kabul, she's dreaming of starting a STEM school for girls in Afghanistan "so that young girls can go somewhere and use their talents."

For Waiz, the world has opened up since she was a scared teenager buckling up for her first flight.

"I used to read in geography books about countries like Sri Lanka and India and Greece and Italy. To me they were just names in a book," she said. "And when I sat in that plane and that plane took off, (I thought) maybe one day those names could be memories."

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