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When the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August, the American University of Afghanistan closed its campus in Kabul. With the help of the U.S. State Department and other countries' governments, the university worked to evacuate students, alumni and staff, succeeding in getting roughly 450 out of the country; most of the students who left transferred to the American University of Iraq Sulaimani and the American University of Central Asia. But when the last U.S. military plane left Kabul on Aug. 30, about 350 students remained at AUAF.
Nearly eight months later, most of those students are still stranded, despite the best efforts of AUAF and its supporters.
In December, AUAF signed an agreement with the Qatar Foundation and Qatar Fund for Development to evacuate students and relocate the main AUAF campus to Doha. The initial plan was to relocate about 100 students to the Qatari capital.
But as soon as the institutions began working together, “it became clear that the process was more difficult,” according to one AUAF source.
The organizations need to obtain permission from Qatar and create a new visa process specifically for AUAF students—which is taking longer than expected, the source said.
AUAF president Ian Bickford said the university’s highest priority is to relocate and resettle the students who remain in Afghanistan to safe campuses.
“We’re doing everything in our power to do so,” Bickford said. “We’re very grateful to the state of Qatar for stepping forward in our hour of need. And we’re continuing to bring students to Education City in Doha and rebuilding our programs there. The effort is taking time, and we continue to educate our students online, in the interim period, so that they can continue to make progress toward building a better life.”
Bickford said he’s “hopeful and confident” that many more AUAF students will be evacuated this year.
The students are begging AUAF to get them out of Afghanistan, saying they’re tired of false promises and delays. At first they were told 100 students would be evacuated to Qatar by October. When that deadline passed, they were told it would in November—with an additional 100 relocated in 2022. But students say no one has been evacuated since the partnership with the Qatari groups was signed late last year.
“Donors are saying that we are going to evacuate you,” said a male AUAF student who requested anonymity. “But it’s been eight months and we are still not evacuated.”
AUAF blamed the delay on the fact that Qatar cannot issue student visas quickly enough, which the student said doesn’t make sense because the country is hosting the men’s FIFA World Cup in November and December and seems able to provide plenty of visas for that.
“Thousands of people will go there to watch those matches,” he said. “So they are granted to those people, but not students whose lives are in grave danger and whose future is bleak in Afghanistan under Taliban regimes?”
He said he fears for his life under Taliban rule, especially since a Taliban guard shot dead one of his AUAF classmates at a checkpoint. The Taliban have called AUAF students “U.S. trained infidel wolves in sheep’s skin,” scrawling the message on campus walls, he said.
“I live in constant fear, anxiety and depression,” the student said. “It doesn’t feel good anymore. How would one feel if they stay at home hiding for nine months, and they are jobless, and they are worried for their lives?”
A female student, who also requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said she feels targeted by the Taliban because of her gender. Women students and scholars at Afghanistan’s public universities are worried that the Taliban will further restrict education for girls and women.
“We are facing many security problems,” she said. “We are in grave danger. As a female student, it’s more difficult for me to survive in Kabul.”
She urged the university to take action, noting that her mental health has suffered.
“’I’ve been depressed for the past eight months, and I cannot focus on my studies,” she said. “I cannot even focus on my life … Sometimes I feel really sick, and I’m crying to myself because I’m thinking about my future—there is nothing for me.”
The male student said he and his classmates are so desperate to leave that they even suggested AUAF evacuate students to Pakistan, then later move them to Qatar.
“You know we cannot even go to a grocery shop because they check mobile phones at every checkpoint,” he said. “Everywhere in every street, you can see a Taliban fighter. We just asked AUAF to please evacuate us to at least Pakistan … but they say Pakistan is not safe. Is it safe here? Are our lives safe here? No. We are just asking, please take us somewhere safe.”
The war in Ukraine has complicated evacuation efforts, according to the AUAF source. The university has applied for student visas to Kyrgyzstan, but officials there said the region was unsafe because of Russia’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine.
Furthermore, the AUAF source said, outside interest in the students’ plight is waning. Friends of the American University of Afghanistan, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, created an emergency GoFundMe last year to raise money to evacuate students, but donations have declined since August.
Even so, AUAF has the funds to evacuate the students; it just doesn’t have anywhere to send them because of visa restrictions. The Taliban has also clamped down on evacuations, announcing in February that no Afghans will be allowed to leave until conditions improve for those already living abroad in countries such as Turkey and Qatar.
Even the U.S. government, which has been a staunch supporter of AUAF, has been reluctant to offer more help. The U.S. Agency for International Development has given the university more than $100 million since it was established in 2006. Last August, Leslie Schweitzer, a member of the AUAF Board of Trustees and president of Friends of the American University of Afghanistan, told Inside Higher Ed that she considered the university a “huge priority” because it is the largest single institution USAID has supported in Afghanistan. But the U.S. is still not willing to give AUAF students the kind of special status that would allow them to enter the U.S. under an accelerated Priority 1 humanitarian parole visa, the AUAF source said.
The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“We are just asking, please take us somewhere safe, where we can feel safe and where we can continue our education,” the male student said. “And they are saying we are working on this. But it’s been nine months that they are still working.”