Afghan students find new life and safety in Iraq

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – As the Taliban moved closer to the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August, what had been a privileged education at the Ame...


SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – As the Taliban moved closer to the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August, what had been a privileged education at the American University of Afghanistan suddenly turned into a dangerous handicap.

Students and staff frantically searched for an escape route from a country that, with the withdrawal of US forces, would fall into the hands of the Taliban – a group that described the US-funded university as a hangout for infidels and closed schools and universities for girls and women.

Iraq, however, was not the first destination that came to the minds of students as a refuge.

“OK, now I’m leaving the Taliban behind,” said Mashall, 24, a master’s in information technology student. “And now I am going to confront ISIS,” she said, describing her concern about ISIS when told her evacuation flight would end in Iraq.

These fears proved unfounded for Mashall and his classmates, who are among the first Afghan students to arrive at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. It is located in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya, a liberal metropolis dotted with parks, filled with cafes and restaurants, and considered the safest large city in Iraq.

The students said they realized it upon arrival, greeted in the middle of the night by the university president and professors with bouquets of flowers on a campus without high walls or security patrols.

So far, 109 young Afghans are studying in Sulaimaniya, part of the 300 American university students who are ultimately expected to settle there.

Many relocated students, traumatized by the loss of their homeland and haunted by worry over the families they have left behind, are still in shock and do not know how to navigate life in a foreign country.

On the college campus, a group of relocated students told their story to the New York Times, speaking publicly for the first time since their evacuation from Kabul. The Times only uses their first names and does not show their faces in photos to protect their families still in Afghanistan.

As the Taliban approached Kabul in August, Neda, a business student who worked part-time at the university, frantically fueled student documents in a fire on the nearly empty campus. “We tried to burn all contracts or documents so that they could not find the names and addresses of the students,” she said.

Students and staff feared the Taliban would stalk them and their families and kill them.

“The Taliban came to an office where I worked,” recalls Murtaza, a law student who was later evacuated. “They wanted to beat us. They called us infidels and American spies.

That August night, while Neda was burning papers, foreign university staff had already been evacuated to a British-run security complex near the airport. For nearly four hours, Neda and a handful of other Afghans threw student files into the fire.

And then it was time to leave for the British compound, in what was to become a grueling journey ending in what many students initially saw as Iraq’s dangerous destination.

But the academic administrator of the Afghan university knew better.

Vice-President Victoria Fontan had worked in Iraq and, during the pandemic, had collaborated with her counterpart in Sulaimaniya on an online program. When the University of Kabul began to look for a place to resettle the students, it thought of Iraq and a network of powerful friends sprang into action.

Iraqi President Barham Salih, founder of Sulaimaniya University and a former refugee himself, has pledged to welcome up to 300 students and made sure they enter visa-free or, in some cases, even without passport.

“The Iraqis have really taken a huge leap of faith in this,” said Jared Cohen, managing director of Jigsaw, a technology incubator formerly known as Google Ideas. He made a personal commitment after being approached by a friend, a BBC journalist of Afghan origin, to help evacuate the students.

Mr Cohen said he secured pledges of $ 3 million from US philanthropists in a single afternoon to evacuate and fund the studies of 109 Afghan students in Sulaimaniya and to relocate another group of civil society professionals. and journalists in another country. The Qatari government provided planes to evacuate the students.

Afghan university president Ian Bickford said another 106 students were sent to the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, and around 200 to other countries, including Pakistan and the United States.

Another 375 U.S. university students are still in Afghanistan, along with many other staff and hundreds of alumni, Bickford said. Many are in hiding.

Afghan students still have access to online courses taught by teachers now living outside the country. But many of those students no longer have reliable internet access or feel safe going online, their former classmates said.

Some students, like Neda, are still traumatized by their escape. The British security complex where she was sheltering with foreign university staff was taken over by the Taliban, who demanded money and vehicles before letting the occupants leave. Neda was terrified that the Taliban, who then took photos and videos of everyone on the airport buses, would recognize that they were not foreigners but Afghans.

When they finally arrived at the gate of Kabul airport with the foreign staff, she said, the British soldiers barred them from entering.

“They said, ‘No you’re Afghans, you can’t go,’” Neda said. She said they were kicked out of the airport and into an area controlled by the Taliban. “I was in a terrible situation because I had never seen the Taliban face to face.”

Eventually, she went on a Qatari evacuation flight on August 21, leaving in a sandstorm amid the chaos of foreign soldiers, including Turks, trying to control an airport overrun with people desperate to escape. .

“The Turkish army and the US military have treated us very badly,” she said, wiping away her tears. “I mean, it was my own country, it was my own land. But they still yelled at us.

Neda did not tell her family that she was going to Iraq because she knew they would be worried. “All you hear about Iraq is the Islamic State and the explosions,” she said.

One of the other students, a political science student named Fatima who is considering becoming a diplomat, had only lived in Kabul for four years. For years she and her family were refugees in neighboring Pakistan, but she persuaded them to return to Afghanistan so that she could continue her education.

“When I arrived in Kabul, I thought I belonged to this land and it belongs to me,” she said. “It was such a beautiful feeling.”

Now Fatima finds herself in another country and wonders what the future holds for her.

Murtza, 22, a law student who was among the displaced, said he was missing in Kabul, even with its frequent power cuts. I didn’t feel safe around Kabul, ”he said. “But it was my hometown. It was my country. It was my soul and it was my heart.

Mujtaba, a law student, was among a group of students who moved to Sulaimaniya in October. Before leaving, he would stay awake at night, listening to the constant roar of planes leaving Kabul.

“We couldn’t sleep because of the noise. And not just the sound, the thought that so many great people are leaving the country. It was just devastating, “he said. Now he has become one of them. But he says he is determined to return to Afghanistan when he can to help rebuild it.

Mujtaba taught English and ran a book club in Kabul, while teaching his mother to read.

He showed videos of his brother and sister reading with a flashlight during a power cut in Kabul. While her brother is still in school, Mujtaba said, her sister, a ninth grade, was forced to quit. after Taliban closed girls’ high schools.

In the small room he shares with another Afghan student in Sulaimaniya, Mujtaba writes inspirational notes to himself on sticky notes placed above his desk.

“Be strong,” said today’s note, with a smiley face drawn below.

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