[EDITOR’S NOTE: To protect their privacy and the safety of their families in Afghanistan, some of the students have not been named or photographed, and certain details have been omitted.]
On a cool, rainy afternoon in late February, Shegofa Alizada and Shamsia Shafie, both 22, are huddled around a dinner table with their four roommates. Steaming platters of meat, rice and eggplant sit before them, and the aroma of bread that’s just left the oven lingers.
At Ariana Kabob House, an Afghan restaurant off the beaten path in Duluth, Ga., they’re joined by Margareta Larsson and John Bunting, faculty in Georgia State University’s Intensive English Program — where the six women are students — as well as Bunting’s wife, Mayira.
When the server approaches with a ladle and a large bowl wrapped in aluminum foil, their eyes light up. It’s doogh, a traditional chilled Afghan drink made of yogurt, cucumber and mint. As Alizada serves portions into their glasses, she and the other women share with Larsson and the Buntings how much they’ve missed this special treat from their home country.
The background music shuffles to a hit from Afghan pop artist Aryana Sayeed, and they nearly come out of their seats.
This is the students’ first real taste of home in more than six months.
Alizada, Shafie and the others fled Afghanistan with nothing but their passports, cellphones and the clothes on their backs just days after the Taliban seized control of the capital city of Kabul. Now they’ve resettled in Atlanta with scholarships to study English at Georgia State through December 2022.
Larsson and Bunting have been working around the clock to help the women secure placement to finish their undergraduate degrees when their scholarships run out.
To say it’s been a long, hard road would be a gross understatement, but the road ahead won’t be easy, either.
I thought I might die. Everyone was running. Everyone was so scared. [It] felt like the end of my life.
— SHAMSIA SHAFIE
Alizada remembers Aug. 15, 2021, as the day everything changed. As she describes it, her hopes and dreams evaporated in an instant. She was in her second semester of online studies at the Asian University for Women (AUW), a first-of-its-kind liberal-arts institution based in Chittagong, Bangladesh, established to serve refugees and those with limited educational opportunities across Asia and the Middle East. She was also in her second year on campus at Kabul University — one of the country’s most elite institutions — pursuing an undergraduate degree in journalism and mass communication.
That day, she was finishing an online exam in her dorm room when the residence hall manager rushed in exclaiming, “What are you still doing here? Don’t be stupid, Shegofa! Everyone is gone! The Taliban will kill you here!”
In the quiet of her room, Alizada had been completely in the dark about what was happening around her, even as her neighbors were bolting.
Her response was automatic. “I’m not leaving!” she shouted, determined she would not close the door on all the progress she’d made or leave behind a college experience she loved. But the reality of the situation quickly shifted into focus.
She stood crying in the middle of the road in front of the dorm, mobs of people running around her in panic, when her phone buzzed. “I’m coming to get you,” her younger brother said on the other end. “There is no more university.”
“OK. OK,” she replied, defeated. “Come. There is nothing more for me.”
In another part of Kabul, Shafie was also in her bedroom studying. A year before, she’d attended the AUW campus in Bangladesh, majoring in public health, but had returned home to continue virtually when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
She was shocked when her little brother stormed into the house shouting that the Taliban were coming, and everyone was evacuating the city.
“I thought I might die,” she says. “Everyone was running. Everyone was so scared.” The realization that she’d have to flee, she adds, “felt like the end of my life.”
Over the next few days, Alizada and Shafie waited for instructions from administrators at AUW who arranged for transportation to the airport, where they’d board a plane out of the country.
Piled into seven buses, 148 AUW students circled Hamid Karzai International Airport for more than 40 hours. Alizada says armed Taliban were right outside their windows. She saw explosions nearby and watched people die.
Under advisement from American military that it was too dangerous to keep pressing on, the buses took the students back home. They’d try again to get through to the airport another day. That time, it worked. After a harrowing experience, having their documents studied meticulously by Taliban officials and almost all their belongings stripped from them, they boarded what turned out to be one of the final flights out of Kabul. They didn’t know where they were headed.
Terrified and tired, they worried for their families back in Afghanistan and for what lay ahead.
After stops in Saudi Arabia, Spain and Washington, D.C., the students finally landed at a military base in Fort McCoy, Wisc. Here they had new identities: Humanitarian Parolees.
At Fort McCoy, a United States Army installation between Sparta and Tomah, Wisc., the students tried to get comfortable in their new surroundings. But even among nearly 13,000 other Afghan refugees, it was a far cry from home, and not just in distance (6,859 miles). In Monroe County, the total population is under 50,000, and less than 1 percent identify as Muslim. In Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest city, it’s just under 4.5 million and approximately 99 percent Muslim.
As the weeks rolled by, a balmy August quickly turned into a biting-cold October. The women had the clothes they’d arrived in and a few secondhand pieces that had been donated to the base, but they lacked coats and closed-toe shoes.
They tried to stay busy, teaching refugee children English, which they’d studied in school back home.
Each day, some of the group would find out that they’d been offered a sponsorship at an American university, like Cornell, Arizona State or DePaul. Alizada had to say goodbye to her best friend, who went to Brown University.
In Atlanta, Bunting, who directs Georgia State’s Intensive English Program, had heard about the students’ situation and got to work immediately, searching for any way to bring some of them to Georgia State.
He realized that scholarships to Georgia State’s Intensive English Program could cover the cost of tuition for at least a few semesters of study for about six students. The students would
be invited to take full course loads of intensive English for three terms, spring, summer and fall 2022, with tuition waived. Bunting made the arrangements.
Then, he and the instructors within the IEP recorded and sent videos to the students announcing their scholarships and welcoming them to Georgia State. Elated, the women replied with their own videos expressing their gratitude and excitement.
In the meantime, Bunting and Larsson kept networking with various Georgia State offices to secure more support.
The Office of Student Accounts reached out with news they could provide meal plans for all six women and absorb any remaining fees, aside from the tuition already taken care of by the IEP, including on-campus housing through December 2022.
University Dining Services added an offer to employ any of the students so they could earn their own money and, if they wished, send funds back home to their families.
Scott Crossley, president of the Georgia State University Veteran Employees’ Team Support (GSUVETS) and a professor of applied linguistics and learning sciences, contacted Bunting with more promising news. With significant support from the GSUVETS — a group that provides networking and career development opportunities for Georgia State employees who are veterans — he had started a GoFundMe fundraising page to help the AUW students with everyday expenses, like MARTA cards, clothing and groceries. The donations, many of which came from Vietnam veterans, began to add up, well past the initial goal of $1,500.
“We can learn a lot from refugees about their lives and their experiences, and they can learn from us,” says Crossley. “That will help build a better social contract and a better world.”
In the first week of December, after three months at Fort McCoy, Shafie, Alizada and their four peers arrived in Atlanta. Although they could move into their on-campus suite — a three-bedroom unit in University Lofts — immediately, Bunting didn’t want them to be alone while the rest of the student body had gone home for winter break. That’s when he reached out to Dr. Hogai Nassery.
A native of Afghanistan who moved to the United States at age 5, Nassery recently co-founded the Afghan American Alliance of Georgia, which assists and advocates for Afghan refugees resettling in the state. Naturally, she felt a deep connection to the women.
“As a group, I think Afghans around the world are in mourning,” she explains. “We’ve been given a taste of what could be, and now it’s gone.”
Nassery had a brilliant idea. She’s part of a book club that includes several of her friends in Decatur’s Winnona Park neighborhood, and most of them are empty nesters. “Why not host the women at their homes for a few days before they made the move into the dorm?” she thought. Bunting loved it.
Five families, including Nassery’s — who welcomed Shafie — opened their homes to the students. From there, over just eight days, bonds blossomed. Nassery’s mother prepared special dinners with homecooked Afghan dishes. Alizada’s host mother, Margaret, offered to give her driving lessons so she could pursue her license. Shafie and Alizada say they felt comfortable enough to share some of their feelings about what was happening back home.
“They were so helpful and kind. I felt like I was at home with my mom,” Shafie says of Nassery and her family. She adds that she’s inspired by Nassery, who pursued her education in America after leaving Afghanistan and became a doctor.
Their relationships are just as strong today, well past Dec. 19, when the women finally moved into University Lofts. When they did, they had a surprise awaiting them. University Housing had merchandised items left over from previous residents, like lamps, bedspreads and decorative knickknacks, to create a “dorm shop.” The students were invited to select any items, free of charge, to help make their suite feel personalized and cozy.
It’s home at least until next December.
As a group, I think Afghans around the world are in mourning. We’ve been given a taste of what could be, and now it’s gone.
— DR. HOGAI NASSERY
The situation back in Afghanistan is ever-changing. As of late February, many universities reopened to women under gender-segregated terms. In the weeks that followed, the Afghan Ministry of Education announced that female students above grade six would be permitted to return to schools starting on March 23. But when the day arrived, the Taliban reversed their decision. As of early April, those schools remained closed.
In Atlanta, Shafie, Alizada and their peers are wrapping up their first semester of intensive English studies at Georgia State. They’ve each been designated an academic counselor, and some of them have taken jobs in Patton Dining Hall.
Between working five days a week and taking full course loads, Larsson says the women display an incredible work ethic. They understand that perseverance is the only way to reach their goals. “They want to be doctors and diplomats,” she notes.
The students have more options for majors at Georgia State than at AUW. Alizada won’t pursue journalism and mass communication here because she feels it requires studying in your native language (Dari, for her). She talks instead about medicine and becoming a doctor, like her older brother. Shafie may major in medicine too, pointing out that there are no female doctors in her home province, but she’s also interested in computer science.
They’re slowly and steadily finding their footing and confidence. They can even tell you places to study in peace in the University Library. But the toll is as emotional as it is mental and physical.
They told Nassery they have trouble sleeping at night and that social media is their only way of knowing if their neighborhoods have been bombed. With all there is to worry about — the safety of their family and friends back home, the future of their country and the uncertainty of what they’ll do when January 2023 arrives — they’re also navigating college life and first jobs in a foreign place.
The opportunity to earn a paycheck has eased some of the financial burden. The money raised through Crossley’s GoFundMe efforts, which totaled more than $8,000 and was divided evenly among the six women, has also helped. Bunting and Larsson have helped the students open their own American bank accounts, giving them agency to manage their own finances.
Alizada is careful to express how grateful she is to be safe in Atlanta, for the opportunity to study at Georgia State and for all the support she’s received from people who didn’t even know
her. But she’s gripped by grief for all she’s lost and for the separation from her family and friends, guilt that she was able to leave Afghanistan when others couldn’t and an intense longing for the life she had before Aug. 15, 2021.
Alizada can connect with her family by phone a fair amount, but she worries constantly about their safety and well-being. Her parents and siblings live in fear, she says, and without access to work amid a crippled economy, they are barely scraping by.
“I may seem to be smiling. I look happy,” Alizada says. “But my soul is in Afghanistan with my family, friends and peers.”
Shafie’s parents and most of her brothers and sisters live in a small province in east-central Afghanistan, where access to the internet has been significantly hindered since August. She’s rarely able to speak to them and knows they’re struggling financially and emotionally. Her parents deeply value education for their children and have worked hard to make it possible for them.
That makes it even harder for Shafie to accept things. “I feel like I lost everything,” she says. “I’m young still, and yet I’ve lost my country, my lessons [at AUW] and my family.”
With an understanding of the trauma they’ve endured and the loads they’re shouldering, Georgia State’s Counseling Center has organized individual and group counseling sessions for the women to join if they’re interested.
Larsson and Bunting are looking for every opportunity to bring a little joy to the students’ lives while allowing them to share their culture. They meet regularly for group activities, like the lunch at Ariana Kabob House, to talk about how things are going. The Winnona Park families have arranged weekend getaways for the women to the mountains and nearby lakes.
Larsson recently organized a picnic for the women in Atlanta’s Freedom Park to celebrate Nowruz, the Afghan New Year (March 20). She even took on the several-day process of preparing Haft Mēwa, a traditional dried fruit salad and a staple of Nowruz, to make the occasion feel extra special and more like home. The Taliban banned any celebration or recognition of Nowruz in Afghanistan this year.
Margareta Larsson, left, and Shegofa Alizada stroll through the campus greenway on the path to Library North. PHOTO BY STEVEN THACKSTON
As the first of the students’ three IEP scholarship terms ends, Larsson and Bunting are exploring every avenue to lock down spots for them in undergraduate programs here at Georgia State.
The AUW is in talks with the New University in Exile Consortium, a collection of universities and colleges committed to supporting scholars around the world whose academic opportunities have been threatened or taken away. Kamal Ahmad, founder of the AUW, plans to visit Georgia State in the coming months to meet with President M. Brian Blake.
But finding funding is only half the battle. Shafie, Alizada and their peers will also have to secure legal permission to remain in the United States. The Humanitarian Parolee permission under which they’ve been able to reside here will expire. Larsson says the women are each applying for asylum status, but the application process is tedious and strict. Fortunately, Ahmad and AUW have arranged pro-bono legal counsel for the six students.
In addition, while she and her team are not providing legal representation for the women, Emily Torstveit Ngara, assistant clinical professor and director of the Immigration Clinic in Georgia State’s College of Law, and her clinic students have offered to compile what she calls “country conditions evidence” to help them each make their cases for asylum. That evidence will include a breakdown of the current situation in Afghanistan and the dangers facing similarly situated women there.
Bunting and Larsson are committed to seeing these students through it all. They believe Georgia State and Atlanta will gain as much from this experience as Alizada, Shafie and the other four.
“One of the things I’ve learned from our students is they are not self-centered; they’re sort of other-centered,” says Bunting. “They have, I think, a deep conviction that, even though things have been very, very hard for them, they want to do good things in the world.”
As they find their way in a new home away from home and make their own contributions to Atlanta, the women keep Afghanistan close to their hearts.
“I wish for lasting peace and security in my country, and that none of my compatriots like us should experience the pain of emigration and leaving their homeland,” Shafie says.
If you’d like to help students like Shegofa and Shamsia and support the work of Georgia State’s Intensive English Program, you can make a tax-deductible gift at giving.gsu.edu/iep