Afghan College Students Find a New Life, and Safety, in Iraq

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SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — As the Taliban closed in on the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August, what had been a privileged training on the American University of Afghanistan abruptly grew to become a harmful legal responsibility.

Students and workers frantically looked for an escape route from a nation that, with the withdrawal of American forces, would fall to the Taliban — a group that has described the U.S.-funded college as a den of infidels and has shut schools and universities for girls and women.

Iraq, although, was not the primary vacation spot that got here to the scholars’ minds as a refuge.

“OK, now I’m leaving the Taliban behind,” stated Mashall, 24, a grasp’s scholar in info know-how. “And now I’m going to face ISIS,” she stated, describing her concern over the Islamic State when informed her evacuation flight would find yourself in Iraq.

Those fears have proved unfounded for Mashall and her classmates, who’re among the many first Afghan college students to reach on the American University of Iraq in the Kurdish metropolis of Sulaimaniya, a liberal metropolis dotted with parks, full of cafes and eating places, and thought of the most secure main metropolis in Iraq.

The college students stated they realized as a lot once they arrived, welcomed in the midnight by the college’s president and professors with bouquets of flowers to a campus with no excessive partitions or safety patrols.

So far, 109 younger Afghans are finding out in Sulaimaniya, a portion of the 300 American University college students which might be finally anticipated to relocate there.

Many of the relocated college students, traumatized by the lack of their homeland and haunted by fear over the households they left behind, are nonetheless in a state of shock and unsure learn how to navigate life in a unusual land.

On the college campus, a group of relocated college students informed their tales to The New York Times, talking publicly for the primary time since they had been evacuated from Kabul. The Times is utilizing solely their first names and shouldn’t be displaying their faces in images to guard their households nonetheless in Afghanistan.

As the Taliban neared Kabul in August, Neda, a enterprise scholar who labored part-time on the college, frantically fed scholar paperwork into a hearth on the almost empty campus. “We tried to burn all the contracts or documents so they couldn’t find the students’ names and addresses,” she stated.

The college students and workers feared the Taliban would hunt them down together with their households and kill them.

“The Taliban came to an office I was working at,” recalled Murtaza, a regulation scholar who was later evacuated. “They wanted to beat us. They called us infidels and American spies.

That night in August, as Neda burned papers, the foreign staff at the university had already been evacuated to a British-run security compound near the airport. For almost four hours Neda and a handful of other Afghans threw student records into the fire.

And then it was time to leave for the British compound, in what would become a harrowing journey ending in what many of the students initially considered to be the dangerous destination of Iraq.

But the Afghan university’s academic administrator knew better.

Vice President Victoria Fontan had worked in Iraq and during the pandemic had collaborated with her counterpart in Sulaimaniya on an online curriculum. When the Kabul university started searching for a place to relocate students, she thought of Iraq and a network of powerful friends kicked into action.

Iraqi President Barham Salih, the founder of the university in Sulaimaniya and himself a former refugee, pledged to take in up to 300 students and arranged for them to enter without visas or in some cases even passports.

“The Iraqis really took an enormous leap of faith in this,” stated Jared Cohen, the chief government of Jigsaw, a know-how incubator previously referred to as Google Ideas. He grew to become concerned in a private capability after being requested by a buddy, an Afghan-born BBC journalist, to assist evacuate college students.

Mr. Cohen stated he obtained in a single afternoon from American philanthropists pledges of $3 million to evacuate and fund the research of the 109 Afghan college students in Sulaimaniya and relocate one other group of civil society professionals and journalists to a different nation. The Qatari authorities supplied planes to evacuate the scholars.

The president of the Afghan college, Ian Bickford, stated one other 106 college students had been despatched to the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, and about 200 to different nations, together with Pakistan and the United States.

Another 375 American University college students are nonetheless in Afghanistan together with many extra workers and tons of of alumni, Mr. Bickford stated. Many are in hiding.

Students in Afghanistan nonetheless have entry to on-line programs led by academics now dwelling exterior the nation. But lots of these college students not have dependable entry to the web or really feel secure to attach, their former classmates stated.

Some college students, like Neda, are nonetheless traumatized by their escape. The British safety compound the place she was sheltering with the college’s overseas workers was taken over by the Taliban, who demanded cash and autos earlier than they let the occupants depart. Neda was terrified that the Taliban, who later took photographs and movies of everybody on the buses to the airport, would acknowledge they weren’t foreigners however Afghans.

When they lastly arrived on the Kabul airport gate with the overseas workers, she stated, British troopers barred them from getting into.

“They said, ‘No, you guys are Afghans, you cannot go,’” Neda stated. She stated they had been kicked out of the airport and into an space managed by the Taliban. “I was in a very bad situation because I had never seen the Taliban face to face.”

Eventually, she made it onto a Qatari evacuation flight on Aug. 21, leaving in a sandstorm amid the chaos of overseas troopers together with Turks making an attempt to regulate an airport overrun with individuals determined to flee.

“The Turkish army and American army treated us in a very bad way,” she stated, wiping away tears. “I mean, it was my own country, it was my own land. But still they shouted at us.”

Neda didn’t inform her household she was going to Iraq as a result of she knew they might fear. “All you hear about Iraq is the Islamic State and explosions,” she stated.

Murtza, 22, a regulation scholar who was amongst these relocated, stated he missed Kabul, even with its frequent electrical energy cuts. I didn’t feel safe around Kabul,” he stated. “But it was my hometown. It was my country. It was my soul and it was my heart.”

Mujtaba, a regulation scholar, was among a group of students who relocated to Sulaimaniya in October. Before he left, he would lie awake at night time, listening to the fixed roar of planes leaving Kabul.

“We couldn’t sleep because of the sound. And not just the sound, the thought that so many great people are just leaving the country. It was just devastating,” he stated. Now he has change into one in every of them. But he says he’s decided to return to Afghanistan when he can to assist rebuild it.

Mujtaba taught English and ran a ebook membership in Kabul, whereas additionally educating his mom to learn.

In the small room he shares with one other Afghan scholar in Sulaimaniya, Mujtaba writes inspirational notes to himself on sticky notes positioned above his desk.

“Be strong,” stated that day’s be aware, with a smiley face drawn beneath.

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