DALLAS — (TodayNews) — When the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, Fahima Sultani and her fellow students tried for days to get into the Kabul airport but were rebuffed by armed extremists.
“No education, just come home,” she recalled one scream.
Nearly two years later, Sultani, now 21, is safely in the US working on a bachelor’s degree in data science from Arizona State University at Tempe on a scholarship. When she’s not studying, she enjoys taking walks in nearby Tempe Butte, which she enjoyed in her mountainous homeland.
After seeing students like Sultani rush to leave in August 2021 as the US pulled out of Afghanistan after 20 years, colleges, universities and other groups across the US began pooling funds to fund hundreds of scholarships so they could continue their education outside of their home country.
The women of the Sultani generation, born around the time the US toppled the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks, grew up attending school and watching women build careers. The return of the Taliban has upended those freedoms.
“Minutes after the collapse of the government in Kabul, US universities said, ‘We’ll take one.’ “We’ll take three”; “We’ll take the professor.” “We’ll take a student,” said Allan Goodman, CEO of the Institute for International Education, a global nonprofit that helps fund such scholarships.
The fears that forced schoolchildren to quickly board the plane soon came to fruition as the Taliban imposed a harsh Islamic rule that girls could not attend school after the sixth grade, and women who had to wear the veil again were banned from universities, parks and gyms and banned from most jobs.
Sultani is one of more than 60 Afghan women who arrived at ASU by December 2021 after fleeing Afghanistan, where she studied online at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh during the pandemic.
“These women have come out of a crisis, gone through a traumatic experience, boarded a plane with no idea where they were going, and ended up in the US,” said Susan Edgington, Executive Director and Head of Global Academic Initiatives at ASU.
After attending US universities and colleges over the past two years, many of them are nearing graduation and planning their futures.
Mashal Aziz, 22, fell on a plane in Kabul a few months after graduating from the American University in Afghanistan. After leaving, she began scouring the Internet to find out which schools offered scholarships and which organizations could help.
“You have already dropped everything and think maybe there are obstacles to your higher education,” Aziz said.
She and three other Afghan students arrived at Northeastern University in Boston in January 2022 after being flown first to Qatar and then to a military base in New Jersey.
This spring, Aziz received a bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting. This fall, she plans to begin work on her master’s degree in finance at Northeastern University.
Barriers for departing students can include everything from having to help overcome a language barrier, to getting credit for courses they have completed in their home country, to paying tuition fees, Aziz said.
Just two days after the fall of Kabul, the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma announced the establishment of two scholarships for Afghans seeking asylum in the US. The university later established five more scholarships for some of the young Afghans who settled in the area. This fall, five more Afghans received scholarships to study there.
Danielle McDonald, an associate professor of anthropology at the school, organized regular meetings between TU students and college-age Afghans who had settled in the Tulsa area.
The events are attended by about two dozen young people, where they talk about everything from American slang to job hunting. According to McDonald, their outings included a visit to a museum and a basketball game.
“It has become a really great community,” she said.
For many young people leaving Afghanistan, exposure to the US has made the country a natural destination.
This was the case with 24-year-old Hamasa Zirak and her 30-year-old husband Hussain Sayfniyat. In Kabul, Zirak studied at the American University of Afghanistan, while Sayfniyat worked for an American technology company.
They both started studying at Rutgers University in New Jersey last fall. He can get a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering this fall. She is studying to earn her Bachelor of Business Administration degree, which she will graduate in 2025.
“At first I had a lot of worries because I was thinking about how to continue our life in America; how can we find a job? Zirak said. “It was tense at first, but everything is going smoothly.”
Sultani, like many others who have left Afghanistan, often thinks of those who remain, including her sister, who used to go to university and is now forced to stay at home.
“I can go to universities while millions of girls have returned to Afghanistan, they don’t have the opportunity that I have,” Sultani said. “I can dress the way I want, and millions of girls in Afghanistan right now don’t have that option.”
This fall, 20 Afghans will be studying at Western Kentucky University at Bowling Green. Atifa Kabuli, 46, studied nursing there for the last two semesters but is now focused on preparing for exams that will allow her to practice medicine in the US.
Older than most of the incoming students, Kabuli left her career as an OB/GYN behind. During the first Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, she could only continue her education in Pakistan.
When the Taliban regained control, she knew that she and her husband would have to leave so that their daughters, now 15 and 10, could continue to go to school. She said her time at WKU helped her gain confidence in obtaining her medical license in the US.
After an initial flurry of scholarships, efforts to help Afghan students continued, including the creation of the Qatar Afghan Scholarship Project, which helped fund 250 scholarships at dozens of US colleges and universities.
But there are still more young people who need support to continue their education in the US, or even to enter the US from Afghanistan or elsewhere, explained Yona Kokodyniak, senior vice president of the Institute for International Education.
Yasamin Sohrabi, 26, is one of those still trying to find her way to the US Sohrabi, who studied law at the American University of Afghanistan, realized that as the withdrawal of American troops approached, she might have to go abroad to continue her studies. The day after the Taliban took over Kabul, she found out about her admission to WKU, but was unable to get to the airport to leave Afghanistan.
A year later, she and her younger sister, who also went to university, received visas to Pakistan. Now they are trying to find a way to get into the US. Their brother, who accompanied them to Pakistan, is also applying to the school.
Sohrabi said she and her siblings are trying not to focus on what they have lost, but instead on how to get to the US to continue their studies.
“It’s one of the things we think about these days,” she said. “It keeps us moving forward.”
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