Afghan Fulbright Scholars Have Been Left With No Clear Path Forward

More than 100 Fulbright alumni are trapped in Afghanistan, while another 119 scholars are struggling through the program with no idea of what happens next.
Nasrin Nawa, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an Afghan Fulbright Scholar in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Tuesday.
Nasrin Nawa, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an Afghan Fulbright Scholar in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Tuesday.
Walker Pickering for HuffPost

As the Taliban overtook Kabul last August, 119 new Afghan Fulbright scholars were just leaving for their new academic posts in the United States.

Bahara, an Afghan Fulbright scholar, was at the airport in Kabul on the morning of Aug. 15 shortly before the city fell — a narrow escape from one of the most chaotic events in the history of Afghanistan.

“It was a normal morning, and I was excited. I had just landed in Istanbul for a transit, and it was then that I heard the bad news,” said Bahara, who asked HuffPost not to use her last name out of safety concerns. “I was shocked and could hardly believe my ears.”

Bahara arrived in Boston the next morning, but the sudden turmoil in her home city has continued to haunt her. Sometimes, she finds herself feeling overwhelmed with memories of that day and anxiety over what will come next.

The Fulbright Program is an international educational exchange program that is sponsored by the U.S. government and designed to increase mutual understanding between Americans and people in other countries. Up until the Taliban takeover, the Fulbright program for Afghans had been one of the largest U.S. investments in education in Afghanistan. Since 2001, 970 Afghan Fulbright scholars have come to study in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. That includes the 119 current Afghan scholars.

This year’s scholars are now facing deep uncertainty. The country of Afghanistan is no longer what they once knew it to be, and the objectives they laid out in their Fulbright application statements — including their hopes of making contributions to their homeland — now hold little or no meaning.

“I wasn’t able to concentrate on my studies because I was in a weekslong phase of shock and denial after what happened back in my country,” said Nasrin Nawa, a journalist and a Fulbright scholar at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who left for the United States only a few days before the fall of Kabul. “I was a survivor carrying the guilt of leaving behind my family and friends.”

Fulbright Alumni ‘Not Safe’ Under Taliban

Besides the current scholars living in limbo in the United States, more than 100 Afghan Fulbright alumni and their families are still in Afghanistan hoping to flee the country. They worry about becoming targets for the regime because of their involvement with the United States. But they also feel like they have not accomplished what they had hoped to in Afghanistan after returning from their studies.

“I was committed to my country and the goals of the Fulbright in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad, a Fulbright scholar who returned to Afghanistan in May 2020 and had held a senior position in the previous government. He asked to use a pseudonym out of fear of possible repercussions. “But things have changed. I am not safe, my family is not safe. I can no longer work.”

Most of the Fulbright alumni held high-ranking positions in the previous government, including ministers and deputy ministers, and at international organizations, putting them in vulnerable positions under Taliban rule.

In late January, the Associated Press reported that the United Nations had received “credible allegations” that more than 100 former members of the Afghan government, its security forces and those who worked with international troops have been killed since August. That includes notices “of enforced disappearances and other violations impacting the right to life and physical integrity” of former government and coalition members, according to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

Human rights activists and members of the media also continue “to come under attack, intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and killings,” Guterres said.

Although some U.S.-based universities and congresspeople have made promises to evacuate Fulbright alumni, there have been no official attempts to do so since the fall of Kabul last summer, Mohammad told HuffPost.

Fear Of An Uncertain Future

In October, U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) introduced the Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan Fulbright Scholars Act, which would direct the State Department to automatically issue a special immigrant visa, or SIV, for every Afghan who lived in the United States as a Fulbright scholar and their immediate family members. It would also allow those who are currently in the United States to adjust their statuses so they can stay beyond their fellowships, which generally last for two years.

Currently, SIVs are only available to Afghans and Iraqis who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government as translators, interpreters or other professionals.

Garamendi’s proposed legislation would also apply to other Afghan exchange visitors in the United States, including those in the Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Grant Program, the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program and the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program.

The measure was included in the America COMPETES bill that the House of Representatives passed in early February. It now needs to be reconciled with the Senate’s version, which was approved in June 2021 but does not include the provision about Afghan Fulbright scholars.

Immigration advocates say lawmakers need to act urgently to provide relief for these scholars.

“We’re being very supportive of Garamendi’s bill,” said Jill Welch, senior policy adviser at the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. However, advocates would like the bill to address the exchange visitor, or J-1, visas that Fulbright scholars typically receive. Those visas require scholars to return to their home countries for at least a two-year period or apply for waivers before they are eligible to apply for more permanent immigration status in the United States.

That has created a major impediment for Afghan Fulbright scholars and other exchange visitors now hoping to resettle in the United States — especially for the 119 scholars who remain in the United States and cannot return to Afghanistan. Without waivers, they would be forced to either return to a dangerous situation or remain in the United States in legal limbo. While applying for a waiver successfully is possible, it is often a lengthy and costly process.

“It would be easier to just include those issues in that legislation and Congress gives the [Department of Homeland Security] permission to waive that two-year home residency,” Welch said.

“I was a survivor carrying the guilt of leaving behind my family and friends.”

- Nasrin Nawa, an Afghan Fulbright scholar at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Nawa is considered a well-known journalist in Afghanistan with strong liberal and westernized views. She hopes to continue her work as an investigative reporter ― assuming the U.S.-backed government provides the protection to do that.

“I wish I could return,” she said, recalling a time when her Kabul neighborhood felt relatively safe and progressive. Now, Taliban soldiers control it and are restricting people’s everyday lives, especially women.

“Many of my friends and women I know are abducted and threatened by the Taliban, and those who weren’t are in hiding trying to keep a low profile,” Nawa said.

“Given the current situation, it is impossible to go back to Afghanistan,” said Mahdi Soroush, a Fulbright scholar at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “After graduation, remaining in the U.S. is challenging and requires a lot of work.”

Several Fulbright alumni who are in the United States did not want to risk waiting for legislation to pass and were advised by their immigration lawyers to apply for asylum. That is what Ahmad, a Fulbright alumnus who graduated last summer, has tried to do. He also asked to use a pseudonym out of concern for his family’s safety in Afghanistan. But seeking asylum is also difficult, given the backlog of 412,000 pending applications.

“I hired a lawyer to whom I paid a great deal of money,” Ahmad said. “I also needed to waive my J-1 home residency requirement. That is a lot of work and money, yet I do not know when it will be approved.”

At least several dozen other Fulbright scholars have relocated to Canada and sought asylum there, in part because the immigration system in Canada makes it easier and faster to get permanent residency, Ahmad told HuffPost.

The SIV provision in Garamendi’s bill would provide a pathway for scholars but does not guarantee a swift resolution, as there are an estimated 40,000 pending SIV applications. Afghan advocates are also seeking to include a similar provision in the Afghan Adjustment Act, a proposed framework for creating a pathway to lawful permanent residence for Afghan evacuees beyond the current SIV, asylum and priority refugee processes.

In late January, the U.S. State Department announced that it had canceled the selection process for next year’s Fulbright program in Afghanistan. The news shattered the dreams of 140 semifinalists who were already a year into the process and suspended the program indefinitely.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article was published with Bahara’s full name and the name of the university where she studies. After publication, Bahara requested that her last name and university be withdrawn out of concerns for her family’s safety. The article has been updated.

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