DALLAS (AP) — As the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, Fahima Sultani and fellow college students tried for days to enter Kabul airport, only to be turned away by armed extremists.
“No education, go home,” she recalled, shouting.
Nearly two years later, Sultani, now 21, is safely in the United States and preparing her bachelor’s degree in data science at Arizona State University in Tempe on a scholarship. When she’s not studying, she enjoys hiking up Tempe Butte, the kind of outing she loved in her mountainous homeland.
Seeing students like Sultani rush to leave in August 2021 as the United States withdrew from Afghanistan after 20 years, colleges, universities and other groups across the United States began assembling funding for hundreds of scholarships so they could continue their education outside of their home countries.
Women of the Sultani generation, born around the time the United States drove out the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks, grew up attending school and watching women pursue their careers. The return of the Taliban has upset these freedoms.
“Minutes after the government collapsed in Kabul, American universities said, ‘We’ll take one’; ‘We’ll take three;’ “We will take a teacher; “We’ll take one student,” said Allan Goodman, CEO of the Institute of International Education, a global nonprofit that helps fund such scholarships.
Fears about students getting on flights quickly were quickly justified as the Taliban instituted a harsh Islamic rule: girls can’t go to school beyond sixth grade and women, once again required to wear the burqa, were banned from universities and barred from most jobs.
Sultani is one of more than 60 Afghan women who arrived at ASU in December 2021 after fleeing Afghanistan, where she had studied online at the Asian Women’s University of Bangladesh during the pandemic.
“These women came out of a crisis, out of a traumatic experience, boarded a plane not knowing where they were going, ended up in the United States,” said Susan Edgington, executive director and chief operating officer of ASU’s Global Academic Initiatives.
After making their way to universities and colleges across the United States over the past two years, many are nearing graduation and planning for their future.
Mashal Aziz, 22, was months away from graduating from the American University of Afghanistan when Kabul fell and she boarded a plane. After she left, she scoured the internet, researching which schools offered scholarships and which organizations might be able to help.
“You’ve already left everything and you think there may be obstacles to your higher education,” she said.
Aziz and three other Afghan students arrived at Northeastern University in Boston in January 2022 after being taken first to Qatar and then to a military base in New Jersey. She earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting management this spring and plans to begin work on her master’s degree in finance this fall at Northeastern.
Just two days after the fall of Kabul, the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma announced that it had created two scholarships for Afghans seeking refuge in the United States. Later, the university created five more scholarships which went to some of the young Afghans who had settled in the area. Five other Afghans have received scholarships to study there this fall.
Danielle Macdonald, an associate professor of anthropology at the school, has organized a regular meeting between TU students and college-age Afghans who have settled in the Tulsa area.
About two dozen young people attend the events, where they talked about everything from American slang to how to find a job. Their outings included visiting a museum and playing a basketball game, Macdonald said.
“It’s become a really lovely community,” she says.
Sultani, like many others who left Afghanistan, often thinks of those left behind, including her sister, who had studied at university but now has to stay at home.
“I can go to college while millions of girls in Afghanistan don’t have this opportunity that I have,” Sultani said. “I can dress however I want and millions of girls now in Afghanistan, they don’t have that opportunity.”
Since the initial wave of scholarships, efforts to help Afghan students have continued, including the creation of the Qatar Scholarship for Afghans Project, which has helped fund 250 scholarships at dozens of US colleges and universities.
But there are even more young people who need support to continue their studies in the United States or even reach the United States from Afghanistan or other countries, explained Jonah Kokodyniak, senior vice president of the Institute of International Education.
Yasamin Sohrabi, 26, is among those still trying to find a way to the United States. Sohrabi, who was studying at the American University of Afghanistan, realized as the drawdown of US forces approached that she might need to go abroad to further her education. The day after Kabul was taken by the Taliban, she learned of her admission to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, but was unable to enter the airport to leave Afghanistan.
A year later, she and her younger sister, who was also accepted to college, were granted visas to Pakistan. Now they are trying to find a way to enter the United States. Their brother, who accompanied them to Pakistan, is also applying for the school.
Sohrabi said she and her siblings are trying not to focus on what they lost, but rather on how to get to WKU, where 20 other Afghans will study this fall.
“It’s one of the things we think about these days,” she said. “It keeps us going.”