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61 young Afghan women arrive to begin new life as Sun Devils

Refugee group landed at Phoenix airport after months spent at Wisconsin base; they will receive a range of support from ASU


Two women in headscarves walk into an airport holding up the pitchfork gesture.
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December 16, 2021
Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2021 year in review.

Sixty-one young women from Afghanistan arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Wednesday night after fleeing the chaos of their homeland and waiting months at a military base in Wisconsin to begin their new lives as students at Arizona State University.

It has been a long journey for the women, whose resettlement is being co-sponsored by the International Rescue Committee and ASU in a unique partnership. Through private donors, ASU also is providing scholarships and housing.

The women smiled, waved and called out “Hello! Hello!” as they walked into the airport.

“Hello, ASU!” one of the young women said. “We are so excited.”

A small contingent of students and staff from Global Launch at ASU cheered and clapped and waved maroon and gold signs as the women walked out of the security area at the airport. The women from Afghanistan cheered back.

The young women are eager to resume their lives as students. They had been studying at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the university to close and they had to return to Afghanistan. When the U.S. pulled its troops out of Afghanistan last summer, the Taliban took over the country.

Amid chaos at the airport in August, all 148 Asian University for Women students from Afghanistan managed to fly out of Kabul, traveling to Saudi Arabia, then Spain and Virginia and finally Wisconsin, where they were among 13,000 Afghan refugees being processed for resettlement at Fort McCoy.

An ASU team began working months ago to bring some of the students, all of whom speak English, to Arizona. The 61 who arrived Wednesday joined three other women who came separately, for a total of 64 students.

Their arrival on Wednesday was the result of a massive coordination of effort and donations, led by Pam DeLargy, executive director of Education for Humanity at ASU. She and the team spent weeks managing the details of the women’s travel, including finding suitcases for them.

“It’s been a long time that we’ve been waiting for you to come,” DeLargy told the young women at a reception at the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus after their airport arrival.

“And we got so impatient, we decided just to go and get you.”

After working for months trying to get the women to Arizona, ASU alumnus Justin Firestone stepped in to help ASU secure a charter Delta flight to bring them here. The flight was generously funded by a grant from Intel Corporation of America. On the flight, the women napped, watched “Finding Nemo” and followed their progress to Arizona on the flight map.

“Intel was thrilled to have been asked to help get these inspiring Afghan women here to Arizona,” said Liz Shipley, Intel Arizona public affairs director. “For decades, Intel has invested in strengthening the Arizona community, and we're happy that Arizona State University and the state government of Arizona are helping these talented women continue their education and build their futures here in our state.”

Many people have played a role in the initiative, which has received much community support, including donations in cash and in kind from the Virginia G. Piper Trust, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Honeywell and businesswoman Sharon Harper, among others.

“When I look at all of you, I think you’re so brave and so strong,” Harper told the women at the reception.

“You’ll always have your beautiful history and your country, but you’re now going to have a second place, another home here in Arizona.”

For Faheem Hussain, the arrival of the young women is especially meaningful. He was a founding faculty member of the Asian University for Women and taught there from 2009 to 2014. He went to the reception to greet them.

“It’s like a full circle for me,” said Hussain, now a clinical associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU. “I’ve been following their escape, so it’s very emotional and personal to me.”

Hussain said that they will begin the hard work of transition now.

“These are all very strong young women with a very good education background,” he said.

“What we’d really like to see is how they transition into ASU, but more importantly how they can get the best out of this amazing university.”

At the end of the reception, DeLargy stood on the stage and held her arms out to the young women.

“We know it’s been extraordinarily difficult for you,” she said. “We want to say that you are a treasure to all of us at ASU, and we will keep you safe and will help you succeed and keep you close to all of our hearts.”

Everyone cheered.

What’s next

The women have a busy few weeks ahead. Global Launch, which helps international students with English language instruction and other support, is in charge of the logistics for their transition to life at ASU.

“We work with individual students but also with universities and government partnerships around the world, in particular from the Middle East,” said John Deal, assistant director of program operations for Global Launch.

“We are very familiar with cultural sensitivities, dietary sensitivities and complexities from sensitive regions.”

After the reception Wednesday night, the women were bused to a nearby hotel, where they received gift baskets of snacks, including fruit, tea and American candy such as M&Ms.

“We talked with a lot of Afghani students and asked, ‘What would you want in a basket?’ And we put that together,” Deal said.

The women will receive Dell laptops, donated by Intel through Welcome to America, as well as phones provided by the Mayo Family Foundation.

Global Launch typically schedules programming over term breaks for international students who stay around, and the women will have a lot to do, including orientation and workshops on safety, how to ride the light rail and how to access health care and other services.

Global Launch worked with Aramark to keep a dining hall open over break for the women.

They will be encouraged to work on their English, so Global Launch will set up conversation cafes and karaoke and video game get-togethers. They also might go on field trips to “A” Mountain, an ASU basketball game and the movies. Sun Devil Fitness will set up women-only classes for them.

“Some things they’ll be required to do, but we’re also leaving space in their schedules for optional activities, and we’ll provide entertainment so they don’t feel stuck at the hotel,” Deal said.

Studying at ASU

Academic counseling will be a big part of their transition.

“The decisions of how fast or how slow their academic progress is will be up to each person,” Deal said.

Some might want to start with taking Global Launch’s non-credit English proficiency classes, while others might jump into a full-time degree program this spring.

“Education is a universal component of building a better life and creating self-sufficiency and success,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “Arizona State University is deeply committed to that principle, and it is our responsibility to come together as a community, and with the generous support of partners and donors, to be of service at this moment.”

Through private donors, the women will receive scholarships to study at ASU. Their credits from the Asian University for Women will transfer into their degree programs at ASU, which they’ll decide on in the next few weeks.

Before leaving Afghanistan, they were studying in a variety of subjects — economics, philosophy, politics, business, education and health sciences. At ASU, they’ll decide what to major in based on interest and programs in which they can apply transfer credits. Which ASU campus they’re on will depend on their majors.

They will be able to use all ASU services, including academic counseling, as well as access to trauma counseling.

Resettlement in Arizona

Arizona is expecting to welcome about 1,600 Afghan refugees in total, with about 1,100 coming to Phoenix, but the new ASU students are a unique group, according to Aaron Rippenkroeger, executive director for the International Rescue Committee in Arizona.

“We’ve welcomed Afghans to Arizona for many years, and we have Afghans on staff, but this is a different scale. Most of them are coming as family units — parents with children,” he said.

“This group is very different, coming as university students. They will be thrust right into an education experience.”

Many people who come from Afghanistan already speak English very well because they’ve worked with the U.S. military.

“They’re often quite remarkable, and folks can be pretty highly qualified with work experience. That said, we do observe a significant (difference) in language capacity between men and women,” Rippenkroeger said, adding that the IRC often tailors its services to ensure that female family members have an opportunity to thrive.

“This is a group of female students arriving with a unique skill set.”

The IRC provides many kinds of help to refugees, including support with business startups, home loans, partnerships with school districts and services for survivors of human trafficking or torture.

“I’d love to say that the hardest days are behind them in terms of everything they’ve been through, but there will be hard days to come, whether it’s an exam or their accommodations or paperwork or, one day, their citizenship test,” he said.

“It’s a huge life transition. Our view is that it always works best when you have a communitywide approach to support folks through that process. We feel this group is well situated for that, with such a generous outpouring of support.”

After their arrival Wednesday, the young women met Rangina Hamidi, the former minister of education in Afghanistan who also fled the country in August. She is now a professor of practice in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU.

She told them: “Your education here, your journey here, while it is your own individual journey, at the same time, you are the representation of a country that is broken.

“One day I want you guys with your bachelor’s degrees and hopefully master’s degrees and for some maybe PhDs, to be able to return and build that nation because by then I’ll be old, but you’ll be the future women leaders of Afghanistan.”

Hamidi told the young women that she would be their symbolic mother while they’re here.

“I’m here if you ever miss home, miss your mother, miss your sister, miss your parents. I’m here to guide you, to help you, to make you feel at home.”

HOW TO HELP: For those interested in supporting the women in this story or other Afghan refugees coming to ASU, please visit asufoundation.org/afghanistan.

Top photo: A female Afghan refugee holds up a pitchfork after arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Wednesday. Photo by Samantha Chow/ASU News

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