Humaira Zafari didn’t think she’d make it out of the chaos of Aug. 27, 2021, when she was in one of seven buses packed with female students hoping to reach Kabul airport and board a flight out.
The last two attempts had failed, the Taliban were everywhere, and this was their last shot. Fear and anxiety gripped her, but she needed to stay calm and focused, as she was the point of contact between the young women and the people trying to get them through the gate. Zafari, 26, recalls the moment when a Taliban member blocked her way to the gate at the airport, saying, “You are a girl. Forget about education and go back home.”
Eventually, 148 Afghan students from the Asian University for Women managed to fly out of Kabul, first to Saudi Arabia, then to Spain, Virginia and Wisconsin, where they were among 13,000 Afghans being processed for resettlement at Fort McCoy. More than 76,000 Afghans have been brought to the U.S. since last summer.
“Everything happened so fast,” Zafari said. She arrived with only a small backpack and had to start her new life here from scratch, which for Zafari meant continuing her education. Zafari is now one of the 61 Afghan women enrolled at Arizona State University on scholarships that include a full tuition waiver, housing and a monthly stipend. Several other colleges across the country, including other large state universities and Ivy League schools, have accepted smaller numbers of female students from Afghanistan.
“These students were already very committed to education,” said Pamela DeLargy, executive director of Education for Humanity at ASU, who facilitated the Afghan students’ admission process and scholarships. “And their families were committed to their education or else they wouldn’t have been going [abroad] to study at the Asian University for Women.”
Bard College, a private liberal arts college in New York, has also admitted approximately 85 displaced Afghan students, the majority of whom are young women whose education was disrupted by the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government last August. Forty-four have already begun their semesters, and others are still in third countries awaiting visas to move to the United States in coming semesters.
“Resiliency is certainly a characteristic that they all have, and they would not be here without that,” said Jennifer Murray, the dean of International Studies at Bard. “I think there’s ambition and absolute dedication to their families, and, of course, there’s a lot of sadness and trauma.”
The U.S. and international community spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Afghanistan to improve education, especially for girls and young women, over the past 20 years. Reports before the Taliban takeover shows that the number of girls in primary school increased from almost zero in 2001 to 2.5 million in 2018. Four out of 10 students in primary education were girls. The number of women in higher education increased from around 5,000 in 2001 to around 90,000 in 2018.
Some of this money went toward providing high-quality, American-style liberal arts education to Afghans through the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and other U.S.-affiliated colleges outside of the country, such as the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan and the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. These investments benefited hundreds of Afghans, with most scholarship recipients being women.
However, the gains made over the last two decades were quickly reversed when the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban seized Kabul. One of the first things the hardline Islamist group did was ban girls from attending secondary education.
“I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how I would live, study and work if I were in Afghanistan right now,” Zafari said. “I can’t help but picture myself in the shoes of millions of Afghan women who have been denied basic human rights over the past year under the Taliban.”
American University of Afghanistan halted operations in Kabul last August, and many of its students dispersed around the world to complete their education and avoid becoming targets for the Taliban.
Adjusting To Life In The U.S.
Zafari settled in Phoenix in December after waiting for months at a Wisconsin military installation for her resettlement paperwork. She’s now living in a dorm at ASU.
Starting over has not been simple. The trauma of being displaced, leaving behind family amid Afghanistan’s alarming humanitarian crises and adjusting to a new culture all contribute to Zafari’s daily stress.
“It has never been easy,” she said. “What happened last August broke my sense of normalcy, and I’m still trying to make sense of things. Admitting to ASU was a dream come true, but I was too stressed to celebrate it properly.”
But Zafari has found college life to be exciting and full of fresh experiences. She was able to meet new people and interact with Americans and other international students, exposing her to a variety of cultures and experiences she would not have had otherwise.
Most Afghans began looking for jobs as soon as they arrived in the U.S. in order to gain financial stability, but Zafari believes having a degree will help her build her career and prepare for the competitive job market in the future. After getting a master’s degree in global management with a concentration on digital transformation, Zafari plans to pursue her dream of becoming an entrepreneur and starting her own business here in the U.S.
“Being in an academic environment helped me expand my network and learn important skills needed to adapt to the American job market,” Zafari said.
DeLargy said she thinks investing in education for refugees not only helps individuals but also society as a whole and the U.S. economy. About 44%of businesses on the U.S. Fortune 500 List were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. This is especially remarkable given that the overall percentage of immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up only about 26% of the U.S. population.
“By creating these opportunities for Afghans and refugees broadly, we’re better utilizing the potential and talents that individuals who are here have,” said Laura Wagner, project manager for the Initiative on U.S. Education Pathways for Refugee Students.
Access To Opportunities
Despite large enrollment efforts at ASU and Bard College, as well as the many smaller efforts from other schools, the number of Afghans who have benefited from higher education opportunities is minimal when compared to the total number who have arrived in the U.S. Most Afghans do not pursue education because they need to improve their English first; instead, many pick low-paying occupations that do not require advanced English.
Also, without scholarships or financial aid, attending college is out of reach for many Afghan newcomers who are already trying to make ends meet due to the high cost of living in the U.S.
“Survival and dealing with the cost of living becomes a priority over higher education,” Wagner said. “There can be a lot of brilliance and a lot of desire to continue or pursue higher education, but it’s just not a reality, given the cost of life to start a new life in the U.S.”
Afghans who arrive in the U.S. are eligible for federal student aid, which can fund their education through grants and loans, but in most states, they typically do not have access to in-state tuition rates, meaning they must pay more than residents of that state. Refugee advocates, meanwhile, are pushing for state legislation to make refugees eligible for in-state tuition rates.
Afghans are also navigating immigration in the United States. While some Afghan newcomers have a clear path to permanent residency through a special immigrant visa, the majority are on humanitarian parole, a temporary status that allows them to live and work in the U.S. The legal limbo and uncertainty of a temporary status means that they are unable to plan long-term for education and career, which could have an impact on their overall experience of adjusting to life here. Lawmakers on Tuesday introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide a pathway for Afghans to gain permanent residency if passed by Congress.
Zafari’s experience of displacement has been difficult, but she remains resilient and optimistic. “I want to live up to my full potential in my new home.”