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Afghan Fulbright suspension a “double-edged sword” punishment

The US state department’s announcement that the Afghan Fulbright program would be cancelled for the 2022/23 academic year has prompted backlash from students and stakeholders.

The Fulbright Foreign Student program in Afghanistan has allowed scholars to study in the US, but is extremely hard to get into, with around a "20% success rate". Photo: Defence images/Flickr

I was aiming for Fulbright before I even started university

The Fulbright Foreign Student program’s cancellation is a blow to hundreds of students – both those who were semi-finalists for this year’s cohort and those who were wishing to apply in the future.

Upon the announcement of the selection process not moving forward for the next academic year, a state department official declared the program would continue for the 100 Afghan students who are already in the US for their studies.

When contacted by the PIE for further comment, the state department said it is “committed to ensuring they are supported and have an academically enriching exchange experience”.

“While the selection process for the 2022-23 academic year will not move forward at this time due to significant barriers impeding our ability to provide a safe exchange experience to future participants, once future conditions allow for us to again safely support Fulbright opportunities for Afghan students, we will again invite applications at that time,” they said.

“The US has a longstanding commitment to the Fulbright Program in Afghanistan, which has supported more than 950 Afghan Fulbright students since 2003. These alumni are part of a network of over 9,000 alumni of US government exchange programs in Afghanistan and more than 1 million exchange participants globally.”

“I was aiming for Fulbright before I even started university,” one Fulbright semi-finalist and alum of the American University of Afghanistan told The PIE News.

“I knew the master’s degree I’d pursue and gradually prepared for it for years – this news was hard to take in.”

“Continuing to enable citizens – the brightest of them, often with no political affiliation, is exactly the opposite of the terrorism, extremism”

The student went on to say that the current cohort of semi-finalists have been “victims of the politics” and that their only fault was the “pursuit of education”.

“[It] needs to continue not only for us but for the thousands of bright and talented Afghans aiming for a better future,” they added.

Another told of how they had worked for six years to get a Fulbright scholarship and, as they finally were so close, their “dreams and future were destroyed”.

“I believe it was wrong, unjust and a politically-motivated decision – we worked hard, spent a lot of money and time and energy to reach this stage,” they said.

UNICEF joined stakeholders in urging the state department to reconsider in a tweet.

“Afghanistan is not just the place filled with the history of war and all the horror – they’re just incredibly bright minded and kind hearted people”

“Afghanistan’s youth need every educational opportunity they can get. Education is the foundation of their future… please go the extra mile for them. Please put yourself in their shoes,” tweeted chief of UNICEF Afghanistan’s comms, advocacy and civic engagement Sam Mort.

The cancellation comes despite multiple letters endeavouring to offer “longer-term assistance” for those displaced by the Taliban takeover and flexibility in the F-1 and J-1 visa process.

Mustafa Jamal, a former scholar in the UK’s Chevening program – the country’s equivalent to the US Fulbright scheme – said the move takes “resemblance of the punishment of the people of Afghanistan by a double-edged sword”.

“As a former Chevening scholar, I fully understand the life-changing impact of higher education through scholarship schemes such as these,” Jamal told The PIE.

“Continuing to enable citizens – the brightest of them, often with no political affiliation, is exactly the opposite of the terrorism, extremism, and their supporter and sympathisers plants.

“Such schemes deserve to be prioritised as the most efficient in the war against terror and extremism – there remains no reason to even think about stopping these schemes,” he continued.

He went on to say he found it hard to understand the rationale and motive behind the move, and how it does not and cannot put any pressure on Taliban terrorists.

During a live panel, set up by the AUAF Alumni Council – which told the PIE that the panel was arranged to raise awareness and amplify the voice of abandoned Fulbright semi-finalists – major players discussed the fallout and what the cancellation means for those students affected.

“I’m tremendously disappointed to learn that the state department made this decision, especially without consulting the members of the Fulbright board, such as myself,” said Heather Nauert, a former state department official and a member of the Fulbright board.

“This is the best diplomatic program that America has going – the scholars are an important part and integral to the Fulbright program overall,” Nauert continued.

“Afghanistan is not just the place filled with the history of war and all the horror. They’re just incredibly bright minded and kind hearted people,” human rights lawyer Rayhan Asat explained.

“And one of the great example is Maya, who is the first Rhodes scholar. And that’s what Afghanistan represents… this is an incredibly important opportunity for emerging Afghan leaders to come and learn and be able to share their knowledge and represent the real Afghanistan.”

Summia Tora, the first Rhodes Scholar to the UK’s University of Oxford from Afghanistan, also expressed her concern about the fact candidates went through so much hardship only to be told via an “email” that they would not be going forward with the program.

“This is the best diplomatic program that America has going”

“I cannot emphasise how much effort it takes, and it’s so difficult as an Afghan, to first of all, find access to such great opportunities at a very large scale, but also then to have so many hurdles to overcome – I only imagine what the pain is like for students who went through this whole process and ended up getting a simple email with no further explanation of why,” Tora said.

Another semi-finalist told the PIE that the despite the logistical difficulties said to be the issues stopping the program, the political element is still “conditioning” education.

Jamal urged the state department to revisit and reconsider its decision.

“I do understand the hard time and all the anxiety you have been through, and the high hopes that kept you preparing to apply – it is utterly disappointing to know that this opportunity is being taken from you,” he said, addressing the current cohort and those beyond.

“Resilience will pay off, in one way or another – you are capable enough to achieve your goals, and it is well known that there is light at the end of the tunnel… keep on working hard,” he added.

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