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Afghan refugees at ASU look ahead to restoring their homeland

Female students transition to life as Sun Devils, decry ban on girls' education in Afghanistan

ASU student Fahima Sultani speaking in a class.
April 21, 2022

Members of the Afghan community at Arizona State University are pleading with the world to support the education of girls and women in Afghanistan, so they can lead that country out of a dark and uncertain time.

“My own experience of getting an education has changed my life,” said Fahima Sultani, one of 61 young Afghan women who came to ASU in December 2021. “I believe that girls and women need to go to school to become independent women who can speak freely and make their own decisions.

“Education is a fundamental human right that, in the past several months, has been taken from millions of Afghan girls.”

Sultani spoke at a panel discussion Monday night titled “Briefing on Women's and Girls' Education: Focus on Afghanistan,” co-sponsored by the Afghan Student Association, ASU Education for Humanity, the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and The Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.

Sultani and her peers from Afghanistan were students at the Asian University for Women last year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were learning remotely from the university, which is based in Bangladesh.

When the U.S. pulled its troops out of Afghanistan last summer, the Taliban took over the country. The Asian University for Women scrambled to get all of its Afghan students out of the country. Amid harrowing chaos at the Kabul airport in August, all 148 AUW students from Afghanistan managed to get on a plane to Saudi Arabia. They then traveled to Spain, Virginia and finally to Wisconsin, where they were among 13,000 Afghan refugees processed for resettlement at Fort McCoy.

An ASU team began working to bring some of the students, all of whom speak English, to Arizona. The arrival on Dec. 15 of the 61 young women was the result of a massive coordination of effort and donations, led by Pamela DeLargy, executive director of Education for Humanity at ASU.

The women’s resettlement is being co-sponsored by the International Rescue Committee and ASU in a unique partnership. ASU also is providing scholarships and housing for the students.

The president of the Asian University for Women, Kamal Ahmad, visited ASU this week and spoke at the panel discussion. His university has more than 1,300 students from 19 countries.

The president of the Asian University for Women, Kamal Ahmad, visited ASU this week and spoke at the panel discussion. His university continues to facilitate the evacuation of hundreds of women from Afghanistan. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Ahmad said that when the Taliban took over Afghanistan last June, it was clear what his university had to do.

“We, as an institution, could not surrender from that responsibility,” he said. “We immediately went to work to try to organize the evacuation.”

He was inspired by the courage of the women, who went through a terrifying ordeal at the Kabul airport before their escape.

“Almost immediately after the 148 students from Afghanistan came to the U.S., we said, ‘Afghanistan may be closing for girls’ education, but we can’t.’

“We moved another 171 students from 17 provinces. Our target is to get 600 women out by August. Every day, we’re trying to move 10 or 12 without garnering anybody’s attention.”

The 61 women are still transitioning to life at ASU, figuring out which degree program to choose and getting support from Global Launch. They’ll be able to transfer their credits from the Asian University for Women. Some are already taking regular ASU classes. 

Sultani and another Afghan student at the panel said that ASU students have been welcoming, and they were happy to see how many are from other countries. Some of the ASU students have expressed surprise at how educated and qualified the young women from Afghanistan are.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Why wouldn’t we be?’” said Mina, who gave only her first name.

Sultani and Mina said they are very grateful for the chance to advance their educations at ASU. But they struggle with the heartache familiar to many refugees.

“I don’t think the feeling will go away from me that I can focus on my personal life and forget my roots, and that I came from Afghanistan and the people there are still suffering,” said Mina.

Rangina Hamidi, who was Afghanistan’s first female minister of education before fleeing as the government fell last year, also spoke at the event. She is now a professor of practice at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

She said she has been in touch with young women in Afghanistan who are struggling to continue their education, surreptitiously meeting in study groups and hidden schools.

“What they need is the international community to give them opportunities, like online education,” she said.

“Don’t recognize the Taliban as the official government. Put pressure on them to reopen schools.”

All of the Afghan speakers were passionate about the fate of their country. Ahmad said that the Asian University for Women is evacuating students to ensure a stable future.

“We’re doing this because there will be a time when Afghanistan will reopen and become a normal country where women will be received as equals,” he said.

“At that time, it will be important to have women who are educated and capable. We are building a brain bank with the hope that it will help Afghanistan become more prosperous.”

Rangina Hamidi, who was Afghanistan’s first female minister of education before fleeing as the government fell last year, also spoke at the event. She is now a professor of practice at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU.

Hamidi faced ferocious backlash while she was minister for her efforts to bring equity to education.

“My ability to manage such an institution was questioned. I started to ask hard questions. It was OK for men to allow injustice to happen, but when a woman comes to question those injustices, she is put on the spot for not being qualified enough,” she said.

Hamidi told the young women at the panel discussion that Afghanistan is not going to be in the dark forever.

“And it will be you who are the future leaders,” she said. “One legacy of the international investment of the past 20 years is a love for education, and you are the embodiment of that love and the desire of the Afghan people.”

Ahmad said that the Asian University for Women has launched a new project to train its displaced students as teachers for other female refugees. And when he arrived at ASU on Monday, Sultani immediately asked him how she could participate.

“I am hopeful,” he told her. “But you have to get the best education; collectively look for that future and create it.”

Top image: ASU student Fahima Sultani fled Afghanistan last year after the Taliban took over the country. She arrived at ASU in December. She spoke about the importance of education for girls and women in Afghanistan at an event on April 18. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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