Date January 27, 2022
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Forced to flee Kabul last August, 15 young Afghan women find an academic home at Brown

Brown is hosting a cohort of students from the Asian University for Women and Ghalib University, all of whom left Afghanistan abruptly in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power less than six months ago.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Maryam Khademi vividly remembers the day last August when the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan’s capital.

“I was at an office in Kabul, working as a part-time communication assistant at one of the NGOs in Afghanistan,” Khademi said. “My coworker called and said: ‘The Taliban are coming. You have to pack your belongings and burn every document that you feel could put you in danger.’”

In the hours that followed, Khademi visited a bank to withdraw all of her money and faced crowds of people attempting to do the same. Afterward, she didn’t leave home for 10 days, afraid to venture outside in her Western clothes after hearing reports that the Taliban were attacking women who didn’t abide by their strict dress codes. On television, she watched as hordes of Afghans rushed to get into Kabul International Airport, the desperation ultimately leading to stampedes.

She thought: How will I ever make it out?

That was just less than six months ago. And Khademi did make it out. Now, she and 14 other young refugees from Afghanistan — most of whom had studied together at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh — are safely living in residences at Brown University, where they are gearing up to study politics, economics and public health during the spring semester.

It’s not the first time the University has provided a home for displaced scholars from across the globe, said University Provost Richard M. Locke — and it likely won’t be the last. In 2017, Brown welcomed nearly 50 University of Puerto Rico students in the wake of Hurricane Maria, a dozen years after almost 90 New Orleans students came to College Hill following Hurricane Katrina. Brown is a member of the New University in Exile Consortium and Scholars at Risk, and in recent years, has hosted a visiting professor and three graduate students from Syria, as well as one visiting artist from Nigeria, in response to the influx of migrants into Europe from war-torn regions.

“In the face of an increasingly unstable world, there is an especially pressing need to ensure that university campuses remain physically and intellectually open and welcoming,” Locke said. “That’s why Brown has long been committed to supporting scholars who are at risk due to conflicts in their home countries — including these 15 talented Afghan women. We are thrilled to provide all the support these driven, determined students need to thrive at Brown and ultimately make a positive impact on the world.”

Jay Rowan, chief of staff in the Office of the Provost, said Locke was intent on supporting displaced students from the start. After watching the Taliban capture city after city, finally reaching and assuming control of Kabul, the provost convened colleagues from offices across Brown, including Rowan and associate provost for global engagement Asabe Poloma, to identify ways the University could help.

Thanks to that early work and a streamlined application process for students, Brown was one of the first American universities to admit displaced Afghan students. The University sent an email admitting a handful of students on Oct. 7, 2021. The cross-campus team had moved so swiftly, Poloma said, that other schools asked for advice on how to expedite applications and paperwork.  

“We were successful not just due to all the fantastic and supportive staff and leaders at Brown, but also due to the amazing partners we had locally and federally,” Poloma said. “We couldn’t have brought these wonderful students to Brown without the support of the Asian University for Women, the State Department, the International Rescue Committee and the International Organization for Migration. We also experienced a groundswell of support from our local congressional delegation, especially U.S. Rep. James Langevin, whose advocacy helped to fast-track the students’ approval to travel to Brown.”

Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, with whom Brown has partnered for many decades, was especially crucial, she said. The organization is sponsoring all 15 students while they’re at Brown, forging crucial connections between the students and other local Afghan and Persian families.

And unsurprisingly, Poloma said, she and her colleagues received a flood of emails from faculty, staff, students and alumni asking how they could help.

“The way everyone at Brown comes together to help in difficult times — it’s inspiring,” she said. “Everyone wants to help, and it’s really heartwarming. It’s clear that everyone is excited to bring these students into the fold, to learn from and with them.”

An arduous journey

Khademi was one of 148 Afghan nationals whose plans to continue studying at the Asian University for Women were interrupted by the Taliban’s abrupt return to power in August 2021. Knowing that women had been barred from pursuing post-secondary education under previous Taliban rule, Khademi and her classmates suddenly faced a tough choice: leave and continue studying, or stay and possibly abandon their academic goals.

“The Taliban were saying: ‘You cannot go to school, you cannot continue education, you don’t have the right to travel without a companion,’” said Zahra Fayeq, another AUW student who is now studying at Brown this semester. “It felt like the end of the world for me. It is my goal to be an advocate for women in Afghanistan, but I can’t achieve that goal if I can’t go to school."

In the effort to leave Kabul last August, Fayeq, Khademi and their classmates spent more than 30 hours circling the airport aboard buses, attempting to enter multiple gates only to be turned away every time. Fayeq heard gunfire ringing out through the city, some seemingly feet away from her bus, and women and children crying out in the streets. They were finally forced to leave the airport after Taliban guards threatened to shoot one of the bus drivers.

Fayeq returned home, weeping, defeated.

Hours later, a text message from AUW brought good news: Leaders from the university had found a way to transport students to, and through, the Kabul airport. On Aug. 28, wearing hijabs and carrying only their passports, phones and required documents, the students successfully departed Kabul on a cargo plane, arriving five days later at Fort McCoy, a U.S. Army base in Wisconsin.

Fayeq said it was bewildering to face such stress and adversity. She had grown up in a happy household with educated siblings and supportive parents, had graduated at the top of her class in high school and had thrived at AUW.

“It was the most difficult experience I have ever had in my life,” Fayeq said. “I was shocked for months when we first arrived in the U.S. What is this? What am I doing here? Where’s my family? My heart was so heavy all the time.”

As summer turned to fall in Wisconsin, Fayeq began to come to terms with her circumstances and to set her sights on the future. Fayeq, Khademi and other AUW students volunteered at Fort McCoy, teaching basic English to young refugees who spoke only Dari or Pashto and assisting with interpretation and clothing distribution at the fort’s donation center. Fayeq asked friends to teach her how to sew and knit. And she stayed in contact with AUW as the institution’s leaders worked with Brown and other American universities to find each student a temporary academic home.

Panetha Ott, director of international admission at Brown, said that as soon as AUW had sent the students’ unofficial transcripts, her office worked through the night to create a mobile-friendly admission application that accommodated their unique circumstances.

“Their internet access was restricted during the day and limited to occasional contact via email and WhatsApp,” Ott said. “We knew flexibility was key. We received some responses as text messages, because that’s all that was available to them.” 

Ott and colleagues moved swiftly through the applications, evaluating the students’ written English skills and academic records. By Oct. 20, 14 students from AUW had accepted offers to come to Brown. A student from Ghalib University in Herat, Afghanistan, who had been sent to a different base in Quantico, Virginia, and relocated to Rhode Island, was admitted later. In early December, most of them arrived at T.F. Green International Airport, where Poloma and other colleagues awaited them with open arms and lots of snacks.

It was the first of many moments of kindness and generosity Fayeq said she has experienced.

“On campus, I have not met even one person who doesn’t want to help,” Fayeq said. “If we ask for something, they’ll just say, ‘Yeah, of course.’ I am filled with gratitude for everyone here.

“ We are thrilled to provide all the support these driven, determined students need to thrive at Brown and ultimately make a positive impact on the world. ”

Richard M. Locke University Provost

A new beginning

Upon their arrival, Andrew Heald, program director of the Global Brown Center for International Students, helped to host a robust orientation for the students. Heald and his colleagues connected them with leaders from across campus and with fellow students. They also helped the students obtain Brown identification cards and set up bank accounts. And in between, they set up meals with local residents and visits to nearby towns. Soon, he said, they’ll also connect students with members of the local Afghan and Persian communities.

“We’re doing our best to provide the students with the same types of resources that all Brown students receive, but contextualized to their circumstances,” Heald said. “We’re focused not just on helping them manage the logistics of moving to the U.S. as international students, but also on helping them know that they are part of our community and empowering them to craft their own experiences at Brown.”

As the spring semester study gets underway at Brown, the students are enrolled in one course specifically designed for them: Perspectives in World Health, taught by Assistant Professor of Health Services, Policy and Practice Nisha Trivedi. Students will have the option to register for other courses as well, choosing from across the breadth of Brown’s Open Curriculum. As the semester progresses and the students resume earning credits toward degrees, they’ll have the opportunity to apply to Brown and/or other schools as full-time students.

Like most Brown students, Fayeq and Khademi have plans to immerse themselves in multiple activities outside of the classroom. Fayeq wants to join a taekwondo student group and attend weekly gatherings where students can practice Turkish and Spanish. Khademi hopes to meet more Brown students through club basketball or swimming.

“I really want to get to know other Brown students,” Khademi said. “When we heard we got into Brown, I was a little bit stressed at first. Just like in my first days at AUW, during the first days here, I thought, ‘All the students here have graduated at the top of their class; will I be good enough?’ But the stress has gone away day by day, because everyone has been so nice and supportive.”

The students’ career plans are similarly ambitious: Both ultimately hope to advocate for women’s rights to education and work in Afghanistan and to draw more attention to the country’s marginalized Hazara community, whether through nonprofit work or through academic research.

For the moment, Fayeq, Khademi and the other students in their cohort are focused on settling into a new home and staying in touch with their families, who live more than 6,500 miles away. Their families, after all, are the reason why their dreams are still achievable: Fayeq’s father logged long days building houses to earn enough money to send her to school, and Khademi’s parents chose work over education so their children didn’t have to make that difficult choice.

“I thought about working a little before going to a university, but my parents told me, ‘No, you don’t want to lose this chance,’” Khademi said. “I want to do this for them.”