Afghan Fulbright Scholars Concerned About Uncertain Future, Family’s Safety

The students are seeking help to evacuate relatives from Afghanistan.

Afghan women in burqas walking in the street in Kabul

Editor’s Note: The scholars’ names have been changed in this story to protect the identities of the students and their families.

***************************************************************************************************

Becoming a Fulbright Scholar is an honor for students around the world, but in Afghanistan, the designation has made them a target. 

Sam is studying civil engineering and like many Fulbrighters, he has worked with foreign organizations, making him an enemy of the Taliban.

“The Taliban are after us because, according to them, we betrayed them,” he says. “And for them to be able to rule the country, first they need to be able to eradicate and clear those people who are against them.”

Sam arrived in the United States in July. His wife was going to work on her master’s degree in Turkey while Sam earned his in the U.S., but their “whole plan for life collapsed” when the Taliban took over the Afghan government in mid-August.

Because of the Taliban’s harsh rules for women, Sam is concerned for his wife as well as his sister who works for the United Nations and was unable to evacuate through Kabul’s airport. Sam’s wife is a freelance journalist and social activist who applied for a visa prior to the Taliban takeover; however, her passport remains inside the Turkish embassy and her future is in limbo. 

“She campaigned against Taliban rules for the women for many years and now she’s concerned…sooner or later they will come after her,” he says.

As the chaos unfolded in Afghanistan, Fulbright Scholars began searching for ways to help their families. Cindy Quayle is an instructor at the University of Arkansas who has sought answers on behalf of the students.

Quayle is an English language instructor at Spring International Language Center at the U of A, a professional academic organization that provides English language training and cross-cultural education. Some of the center’s special programming focuses on the Fulbright Program, an initiative that allows students to study abroad for a period of time before returning to their home country. 

In November 2020, Quayle led a month-long class for 24 Afghan scholars. This summer, she taught another class for approximately 30 Fulbright Scholars, about half of whom were from Afghanistan. Those students are now studying at institutions around the country. Quayle was excited as students began arriving in the U.S. for their studies, but her joy shifted to concern when the Taliban took control of the Afghan government.

“It changed overnight when things just started to collapse in the country and then I was really worried,” she says. “And I started to reach out to the students — Are you okay? Are you safe? Where are you?”

Students who spoke with Quayle asked if she could help them modify their visas. Afghan Fulbright Scholars are in the U.S. on a J-1 visa, a nonimmigrant visa for individuals approved to participate in exchange programs. Under the visa, they’re allowed to study in the U.S. for a designated period, but then must return to their home country.

“Right now it’s more to the point of getting the State Department, getting other people to keep these students in mind because they’re not on immigration visas, they’re here for special purposes,” Quayle says. “So if things get worse in their country, are they able to bring their spouses or their families here, or what happens to them?” 

Under the Fulbright Program, students must return home for two years after their studies. Given the current circumstances in Afghanistan, Sam says that isn’t an option and wants the U.S. government to update their visa status.

“Clearly we cannot go back until the situation becomes clear,” he says. “Who knows what will happen in the future. If the situation is totally fine, it goes without saying, we are willing to go back to our homeland.”

The students are requesting three main actions from authorities. First, they want a way to evacuate their dependents out of Afghanistan to a separate country. Second, they want permission to work in the U.S. so they can send money back to family members. Third, they want a plan for what happens after they finish their program.

“Give us a clear path for after education, what we should do because our career is destroyed,” Sam says. 

***************************************************************************************************

Alex arrived in the U.S. to study engineering management on Aug. 2 and orientation at his university was emotional as classmates kept asking where he calls home. He fought back tears each time they asked and eventually had to tell them to stop.

“I don’t have any home now. It’s collapsed,” Alex says. 

The fall of Afghanistan’s government was a shock for Zoe who’s pursuing a degree in communication and development. Because she and two of her siblings have studied abroad, they’re concerned their education is now a threat to their family’s safety. 

Zoe is in contact with her loved ones who say they’re locking themselves inside their homes as they watch the Taliban walk freely outside of their windows. Her family says they’re living in fear of what happens next. 

“They are just saying that we are scared, we don’t know what to do,” she says. “There is gunshots in the air and we don’t know who they are targeting or whom they are killing.”

Zoe wanted to help her family by sending money, but in the initial aftermath of the takeover, Western Union stopped service and banks were closed. Her family had some necessities at home for the first week, but not enough food for the next week. Since then, Western Union has resumed money-transfer services to Afghanistan and banks have allowed people to access some money, but Zoe says it’s not a lot. The country’s banking system is close to collapsing, according to a BBC report

Fulbright Scholars are grateful they’ve been able to speak with their relatives, but Sara, who’s pursuing a finance degree, is concerned about continuing to do so because the Taliban is monitoring cell phones for sensitive material. She too did not expect things to crumble so rapidly and says she’s heartbroken.  

“It was like I lost my everything,” Sara says. “When I’m thinking back about women in Afghanistan, they lost their everything.” 

Sara is distressed about her nieces and cousins who cannot go to school or have a safe place to call home. Her sister-in-law, a midwife with Doctors Without Borders, says she’s depressed because she feels like a prisoner inside her own home. 

Under Taliban rule, women can’t get a proper education and can’t go outside unless they are chaperoned and in a full hijab, Sara says. Men’s attire is also subject to restrictions. They must wear Afghan clothing instead of shorts or jeans. This is a very hard time for Afghan people, especially women, children and minorities, Sara says.

“This is really a situation that they really need help, and also I don’t how can we help without being strong,” she says. “So I’m here and my body is shaking when thinking about all of these things that are going to my people, but I need to be strong and I need to get education.” 

Focusing on their studies is difficult for these Afghan students because the emotional stress is taking a toll. Eric is studying information technology and previously worked with the U.N. to establish a library. The fact that his background could endanger his family was “the most torturing thing” to him, so he deleted posts on social media that could tie him to the U.N. or his scholarship. 

The situation is difficult and the students “are all fearful and anxious,” he says. Eric often wakes up multiple times during the night and checks his phone for updates. When he sees nothing bad has occurred, he thanks God and goes back to sleep. 

“That has pretty much disturbed my whole academic activities, my whole life, and that is so painful for us,” Eric says.

Alex struggles with nightmares and eating disorders and he too is concerned about his ties to foreign countries as the Taliban goes door-to-door searching for people who’ve worked for international organizations or the Afghan government, especially the military. Alex has deleted a social media account and some posts, and has asked his family to burn his documents and destroy his computer in case the Taliban shows up.

“I fear that if they come to my house, what would they do with the family there,” he says.

Alex’s brother and father traveled to India for a medical procedure prior to the government’s collapse, so now they’re stuck there, leaving his mom alone in their home. 

Besides his connections to foreign organizations, Alex is also concerned as a member of the Hazaras, an ethnic group he says has historically been seen as an enemy of the Taliban. In July, Taliban fighters killed nine ethnic Hazara men after taking control of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, according to Amnesty International.

“I don’t know what they will do, the Taliban, when they rule the country completely and when they have ties with international community, which I assume they will have in the future,” he says. “And what will they do against me especially and my people in the larger scale?”

***************************************************************************************************

The Fulbright Program is named after former Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright whose connection to the U of A has been called into question during the last year because of his complicated history with race. The program, which operates in more than 160 countries, is a U.S. Department of State initiative that’s administered by the Institute of International Education. Afghan scholars say they were contacted by the IIE at the beginning of the crisis and asked for information about their family members, but they’ve yet to receive an update.

In response to a request for comment, we were told IIE team members were unavailable to speak with us, but a spokesperson shared some IIE resources that are supporting Afghan students. This includes the Scholar Rescue Fund, which arranges and funds fellowships for threatened and displaced scholars at partnering higher education institutions worldwide. 

“IIE-SRF is gravely concerned about and deeply saddened by the situation in Afghanistan,” a spokesperson said. “They have received many requests for assistance amidst the ongoing crisis and are deploying all of the resources at their disposal to assist vulnerable academics and to identify academic opportunities for them outside of Afghanistan.”

A State Department official said efforts are underway to answer student’s questions. 

“We know this is a very challenging time for our Fulbright students from Afghanistan who are understandably worried about their families,” the official said. “The Fulbright Program academic advisors will continue to work with Afghan students to ensure they have the support they need to succeed in their programs and find answers to their queries.”

Finding a solution for Afghan nationals in the U.S. could require new legislation, says Drew Devenport, an immigration lawyer from Springdale. 

“It’s not like they can go back now, especially given the Taliban rule,” he says. “So I think we’re going to have to see some progress, probably through Congress, to create either a temporary protected status for these individuals, or a more guaranteed pathway to get some sort of status.” 

A new special immigrant category was created in 2009 for Afghan nationals who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan. The Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 authorized 8,000 additional Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan principal applicants, for a total of 34,500 visas allotted since Dec. 19, 2014.

The legislation also reduced the minimum time in service from two years to one. As of July 30, 2021, the SIV program requires applicants to have been employed for a minimum of one year between Oct. 7, 2001 and Dec. 31, 2023. Applicants must also have experienced or be experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of their employment. Under the program, an applicant’s spouse, as well as unmarried children younger than 21, may be granted SIVs. 

To help siblings or parents get out of Afghanistan, Devenport says families could explore the U.N.’s refugee program, but it’s a bit of a “crapshoot” because countries have limits on the number of refugees they’ll accept annually.

“We have seen that in the past where a brother gets placed in the U.S. and another brother gets placed in France because they really don’t have control over where they’ll end up, it’s whatever country is willing to accept them,” he says. 

If a new Temporary Protected Status is created for Afghans, Davenport notes TPS protects individuals who are already in the U.S. from being deported. It doesn’t help solve the issue of how to evacuate family members from Afghanistan.

“So we’re back to that starting line of what do we do and how do we do it, and there’s just no real answers right now,” he says.

***************************************************************************************************

The Fulbright Scholars came to the U.S. to further their education in support of a brighter future; however, that future, at least one in Afghanistan, no longer seems possible. The students are all struggling with this new reality and feel like they have nowhere to turn for help. 

“These are all our challenges and nobody is going to listen to us,” Alex says.

The process of finding solutions for these students has been “haphazard at best,” Quayle says, because she’s on the instructional side, not the administrative side of things. Quayle has contacted various entities like the IIE, the Fulbright Program and Arkansas’s two U.S. Senators, but she’s received no direct response. 

“Them being in the United States, studying in the West, is a threat to their families and so even if their family members don’t come to the United States where they are, if they are allowed to get visas to go someplace else that’s safer would I think be a start for them to ease their worries,” she says. 

Returning home is not a safe choice as long as the Taliban are in charge, Zoe says. If she has to leave the U.S., she plans to go to a third country and try and reconnect with her family that way. 

“Studying here, going back to Afghanistan will be not possible for us,” Zoe says. “We are just soft targets. Females are completely soft targets.”

The Taliban is assigning their own people to government roles and Sara expects if she returns to her country, she will be suppressed or be subject to cruel acts. 

“For us, I don’t think there is a space left,” she says. “First they won’t accept us, and then if they accept us, I think the situation won’t be that good.”

While the students wait on authorities to provide guidance on a pathway forward, Mary plans to continue working on her economic development degree because she says the education will be beneficial and not a waste of time. However, she is hoping officials will help create a new, safe future for her and her fellow Afghan Fulbright Scholars. 

“We just ask the U.S. government, find a solution for us so that we will be free of concerns,” Mary says. “So that we will be with sure future, that we are safe and our families are safe.”

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.