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“There’s no hope”: Afghanistan students still waiting for evacuation

“Being a student in this university is like a threat,” said Hafizah, a female undergraduate student at the American University of Afghanistan. 

Despite the university's attempts to evacuate all its students, over 300 remain in Afghanistan. Photo: Unsplash

The AUAF flag was replaced with the Taliban flag, and the militant group posted a picture from the campus on social media, calling the students “wolves” trained against Islam

It wasn’t always like this. Hafizah, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, enrolled in AUAF because it was “the best” university in the country, offering excellent facilities, the chance to study in English and eventually opening doors to government jobs. Her goal was to graduate and work for the embassy in Afghanistan. 

But when the Taliban seized control of Kabul last August, the university was one of the first places the insurgents claimed. Despite the administration’s attempts to evacuate all its students, Hafizah is one of the approximately 350 students still remaining in Afghanistan.

Another of these students, who wishes to remain anonymous, says they now live in fear of “being captured by the Taliban and shot dead”. 

On August 15 2021, Hafizah was due to sit an exam on AUAF’s campus, located in the heart of Kabul, near the national assembly building and the Darul Aman Palace.

The private not-for-profit university was founded in 2006, funded by American aid and inaugurated by First Lady Laura Bush. The university describes itself as “a beacon of educational quality and academic freedom” that “empowers rising leaders”, including women and minority groups. The Taliban dislikes its Western connections and values. 

The evening before her exam, Hafizah says she received an email from the university administration informing her that her exam was cancelled, the campus would be closed and that the faculty would be leaving Afghanistan.

The next day, Kabul fell and the Taliban entered the university grounds. The AUAF flag was replaced with the Taliban flag, and the militant group posted a picture from the campus on social media, calling the students “wolves” trained against Islam, according to the New York Times. Students at the university have been desperately trying to flee the country ever since.

In October 2021, the Qatar Foundation announced a new partnership with AUAF, stating that “over the next two years, students from the university, faculty and staff, will be temporarily hosted at Qatar Foundation’s Education City in order to continue their regular studies at AUAF”. 

The students remaining in Afghanistan quickly picked up on the development. “When the news of the AUAF agreement to relocate students in Doha spread, every student of AUAF was excited,” said one student, “and it created hope for us that we are not left.” 

The students claim that they did not receive any immediate correspondence about the new partnership, but after a “series of emails from students”, the university told them that 100 AUAF students would be evacuated by October. This didn’t happen. The students say that they were then told that 100 students would be evacuated in November, and an additional 100 evacuated in 2022.

“Now, it has been more than five months that no one [has] heard anything regarding Doha relocation or any evacuation to another country,” the student said. The students say they have been told that Qatar is no longer issuing visas but that the university has “promised” to relocate them. 

“AUAF is committed to doing everything we can to helping these students fulfil their potential. And for many of them, that will mean rebuilding their lives outside of Afghanistan”

“We are we are continuously mindful of the fear that our students experience today in Afghanistan,” said Ian Bickford, president of AUAF, “and their extremely legitimate concerns for their own future.

“AUAF is committed to doing everything we can to helping these students fulfil their potential. And for many of them, that will mean rebuilding their lives outside of Afghanistan.

“We are very grateful to the state of Qatar for offering aid and continuing to work with us on the relocation and resettlement of a large cohort of our students to a safe, secure and predictable environment where they can continue their learning.”

A spokesperson from the Qatar Foundation confirmed that it will support “up to 200” AUAF students and is “working with its partners… to bring the AUAF students, faculty and staff, to Qatar as soon as possible”.

“We are very pleased to be able to host the AUAF at Education City,” the spokesperson said. “As part of our agreement, between Qatar Foundation, Qatar Fund for Development, and the American University of Afghanistan, QF will support the continued education of up to 200 of the university’s students, over a two-year period, all of whom will reside and study in Doha to ensure they can continue their education in a safe environment.”

The university had attempted to evacuate students immediately after the Taliban’s takeover. At the end of August, Hafizah was invited to board a bus to the airport. She waited there for over six hours with her classmates, before receiving an email from the university saying that the evacuation attempt had been abandoned and they should return home. 

Some students did manage to leave the country and are now attending other universities. Last October, CNN reported that 109 AUAF students were attending the American University of Iraq while 106 were at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. But the students who remain in Afghanistan have been told that neither country is currently issuing visas. 

“I am constantly frightened that the Taliban might find us out and kill us”

The students believe that they are in danger while they remain in Afghanistan. In 2016, the Taliban attacked AUAF, killing 15 students and staff members. In January 2022, it was reported that a former AUAF student had been shot and killed by the Taliban at a checkpoint on her way home from a wedding.

“I am constantly frightened that the Taliban might find us out and kill us,” one student said, explaining that they have destroyed their student ID and other documents connecting them to the university. 

AUAF continues to provide online classes for the students. “It is really difficult to study and learn when you are in the situation we are in,” Hafizah said, adding that she faces problems with electricity and internet access. 

Hafizah is desperate to continue her education in another country. The Taliban famously banned female education when it was last in power and, on March 23, the group reversed its decision to allow girls to attend secondary school. “The moment that the Taliban took over this country, there’s no opportunity, there’s no hope for females in Afghanistan,” Hafizah said. 

“When I first joined AUAF, I was hopeful about my future,” another student said. “But it only lasted a few months. Afghanistan remains a land of sorrow and death for young people, particularly women who want to make a better life for themselves.” 

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