‘I Felt Like the Luckiest Girl in the World’: Afghan Students Restart College in the U.S.

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About 10 college students, all girls—some dressed in shorts, others in ripped denims or exercise garments—sit in a circle on comfy couches, peppering three Arizona State College (ASU) professors with questions. 

One younger lady desires to know what majors she ought to take into account to get a good-paying job after commencement. One other classmate quips that she’ll examine something so long as it doesn’t contain math. The dialog shifts to plans for a style present, dance efficiency and artwork show they’re organizing for a Persian New 12 months celebration.

“We nonetheless have to get excessive heels,” says one of many college students, who’s wanting ahead to the style present.

These girls could look and sound like peculiar school college students, however their lives inform a unique story.

Oranous Koofi, 25, escaped the Afghan capital, Kabul, and her residence nation with solely her cellphone.

Masooma Ebrahimi, 25, is a refugee for the second time in her life—each because of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Oranous Koofi research for a journalism class in her condo in Tempe, Ariz., on Sept. 18, 2022. Koofi moved into college lodging in Might after a five-month keep at a resort close to campus. (Lisa Patel)

There are 146 different Afghan women like them in america, all of whom had taken up research on the Asian College for Ladies in Bangladesh. This made them exceptions in a rustic the place a era of girls was largely banned from pursuing greater schooling.

All of them returned residence as soon as the pandemic shut down their faculty, solely to flee Afghanistan within the turmoil that adopted the Taliban’s return to energy final August.

The scholars’ unbelievable escape was chronicled by journalists worldwide at a time when each escape from Afghanistan appeared miraculous. Tales informed of girls crammed into buses for 3 days, attempting to get previous the chaos on the airport gates in Kabul. College students watched a bullet pierce one in all their buses, flames from explosives detonated by a suicide bomber that killed a whole bunch, and one in all their classmates beg the Taliban to let their bus via one of many checkpoints.

In all, 148 Afghan girls who had been school college students in Bangladesh landed within the U.S.—in a position to flee due to a unprecedented effort from their college, non-public companies and authorities officers internationally. Nearly all of the ladies traveled to Saudi Arabia and Spain earlier than arriving in Virginia, then Wisconsin. From there, they transitioned to greater than half a dozen U.S. college campuses.

Sixty-four of them arrived at ASU last December, together with Koofi and Ebrahimi. Since then, they’ve been adjusting into a brand new life, one surrounded by a way of freedom that may be directly liberating and in addition unsettling. Theirs is a life that appears as totally different as potential from the one they’d left behind.

All That They Knew

Whereas the Taliban dominated most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, most women couldn’t go to high school. Solely about 9 % of the nation’s girls ages 15 to 49 have accomplished secondary or greater schooling and solely about 15 % are literate, in accordance with the final obtainable nationally representative data from 2015.

After U.S. troops ousted the Taliban in 2001, the worldwide group spent years investing in Afghan schooling. These efforts yielded record-breaking successes: A 20-year UNESCO evaluation of education-related progress in Afghanistan discovered major faculty enrollment elevated from round 1 million in 2001, with virtually no women at school, to round 10 million in 2018—when about 40 % of all college students had been women.

In the identical interval, the variety of feminine college students enrolled in faculties grew from about 5,000 to 90,000. Organizations just like the Feminist Majority Foundation, a sister group to Ms. journal, additionally helped younger girls from Afghanistan pursue college educations in the U.S., a lot of whom returned to Afghanistan to work in numerous fields.

However the Taliban’s return to energy after the U.S. troops’ withdrawal final yr threatens to undo that progress. Women in sixth grade and above are largely unable to return to school, regardless of guarantees the Taliban made to the worldwide group and regardless of public opinion in Afghanistan.

That predicament goes in opposition to public opinion within the nation. A 2019 survey carried out yearly by The Asia Basis discovered that most Afghans supported equal access to education for girls and boys. The survey additionally discovered that 75 % of Afghans authorised of girls having equal entry to a college schooling in their very own province, however solely 36 % supported girls learning overseas. Latest experiences recommend the hypocrisy of some members of the Taliban who’re secretly enrolling their daughters in faculties.

For a number of years earlier than the Taliban’s return to energy, the Afghan girls who at the moment are within the U.S. left their nation to enroll on the Asian College for Ladies in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Most are members of the Hazara ethnic group, which has been targeted by the Taliban and others due to cultural, linguistic and spiritual variations.

The ladies had full scholarships to check alongside a whole bunch of different girls from greater than a dozen international locations throughout Asia, taking programs in biology, economics, psychology, public well being and extra. Koofi and Ebrahimi are from a era in Afghanistan who’ve seen girls of their nation work as medical doctors, academics, authorities officers and journalists. Due to that, they may dare to dream related desires of their very own.

Asian College for Ladies was based in 2008 via non-public funding and preliminary grant assist from the Invoice and Melinda Gates Basis, amongst others. Based on the college’s website, it recruits college students from deprived backgrounds, with desire given to those that are the primary of their household to attend school.

Each Koofi and Ebrahimi come from households that worth schooling and have excessive expectations for each their little kids, regardless of—or due to—their very own lack of alternatives. They stated their dad and mom had been prepared to ship them overseas though they feared not solely the separation it will imply for his or her households, however the dangers that their daughters may face touring to, and residing alone in, a overseas nation.

“They had been pondering I’ll have a brilliant future they usually had been very completely satisfied,” Ebrahimi stated, describing how her dad and mom felt as she left for greater research in Bangladesh.

A Transient Respite

Ebrahimi and Koofi had settled into school life in Chittagong, Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim metropolis in a predominantly Muslim nation. They celebrated holidays they knew, like Eid, listened to the adhan, the Islamic name to prayer, from a mosque close by like again residence, and noticed acquainted customs, like overlaying their heads with scarves when out in public.

Given the range of the coed physique, they had been uncovered to many new cultures as nicely. There all the time gave the impression to be a brand new vacation or competition to find out about and have a good time on campus, from the Chinese language New 12 months to Holi, Diwali and extra. Their days revolved round comfy routines—going to lessons and taking part in golf equipment like debate, pictures and artwork.

“As soon as per week we had dance class for 2 hours. A Bangladeshi trainer taught us kathak,” Ebrahimi stated, describing a classical dance kind she was first launched to on the Asian College for Ladies.

Then got here COVID-19. In June 2020, the ladies had been informed the campus was closing down they usually needed to return to Afghanistan.

Resuming their former lives after many months of relative freedom in Chittagong was arduous. They tried to proceed their research on-line, however the web was unreliable. Frequent energy outages meant it was even a problem to recharge their cell telephones.

None of that in comparison with what occurred when American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in the summertime of 2021 and the Taliban resumed energy.

The ladies spent a number of weeks that summer time anxious this may mark the finish of the life they’d all the time recognized. Beneath Taliban management, they feared their desires of acquiring a school schooling could be over. On prime of that, they knew they’d face the prospect of severe restrictions of their every day lives, like limits over the garments they may put on to whether or not they may go to the physician, get a job, and even transfer about on their very own.

So that they escaped.

Ebrahimi and Koofi

Upheaval will not be new to Ebrahimi. Neither is uncertainty about her future.

When the Taliban first got here to energy in Afghanistan within the late ’90s, Ebrahimi was a toddler residing within the largely Hazara-populated province of Ghazni. Members of their ethnic group had been harassed by the Taliban for years, however when her father was straight threatened, the household determined to flee their residence nation in 2009 in search of security in neighboring Pakistan.

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Masooma Ebrahimi on the Arizona State College campus in Tempe, on Sept. 18, 2022.  She is majoring in international well being and hopes to assist higher the lives of youngsters and ladies sooner or later. (Lisa Patel)

Ebrahimi was 13 after they settled within the outskirts of Quetta, Pakistan. She continued her research and lived there together with her dad and mom as a refugee, till she left for Afghanistan round age 19 for greater research.

As a toddler, Ebrahimi spent plenty of time studying, and her dad and mom inspired her academic pursuits. Her father remained constant in his assist—from the every day journeys to drop her off to her elementary faculty in a neighboring village on his bike, to when he accompanied her from Pakistan to Kabul to assist her settle in for her first yr of college research regardless of his issues about her security.

Ebrahimi’s face lights up as she relives the reminiscence of the inauguration of a brand new faculty in her village when she was in fourth grade. “We youngsters had been so completely satisfied that it was close to and that we may go by ourselves,” she stated.

As a teen, Ebrahimi was decided to attend college in the future. She couldn’t pursue the next schooling in Pakistan, she stated, as a result of she didn’t have any form of official identification within the nation. She knew the one place she may get official papers and attend college was Afghanistan.

So, regardless of robust hesitation from her dad and mom who lived with reminiscences of feeling unsafe of their residence nation and never wanting their daughter to expertise the identical, after many months of “battle to persuade them” Ebrahimi’s tenacity paid off and she or he joined Kabul College in 2017.

Whereas in Kabul, Ebrahimi realized about, utilized for and was provided a scholarship to check on the Asian College for Ladies in Bangladesh. The journey appealed to her: She would take her first-ever worldwide airplane journey and be capable of examine with girls from many various international locations for the primary time. After her two years in Kabul, her household additionally was relieved she was shifting to a safer surroundings for her schooling.

She switched from learning chemistry to specializing in bettering her English language and math abilities with the hope of selecting a significant that may permit her to have a profession in public service the place she may assist others.

Regardless of all of the disruptions in her life, the one fixed Ebrahimi has held onto is specializing in acquiring an schooling.

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Oranous Koofi in entrance of her campus condo constructing in Tempe, on Sept. 18, 2022. She is majoring in journalism and hopes to enter broadcasting. (Lisa Patel)

Koofi enrolled on the college in 2019, the identical yr as Ebrahimi. Koofi additionally realized from her household that nothing was extra necessary than getting an schooling. She remembers her mom bribing one in all her brothers with every day pocket cash to get him to go to high school.

Koofi comes from a politically lively household: Her grandfather and aunt each served as members of the Afghan parliament. Most of her siblings and cousins, each the boys and the ladies, have college levels and work exterior the house. She was raised to imagine in the potential for a brilliant future via schooling.

When the Taliban first took over Afghanistan within the ’90s, women had been now not allowed to attend faculty. Koofi was a toddler on the time, however it meant that her eldest sister, Mary Koofi, needed to drop out. She was in a position to end highschool within the early 2000s after the Taliban had been ousted. By then, Mary was married with 4 youngsters.

At 25, Koofi is single—an anomaly in her household and in a rustic the place girls are usually married at a a lot youthful age. Her oldest sister married at 17. Her two different sisters married at 21 and 23. Koofi stated in her tradition, if a girl isn’t married by the age of 20, individuals surprise “what’s incorrect with you?”

However Koofi stated that she was way more fascinated with going to high school and having a profession than in beginning a household. And in contrast to her brother, her mom by no means needed to push her to check.

She all the time dreamed of attending school overseas, so when she noticed a Fb put up for the chance for an schooling on the Asian College for Ladies, she stated she jumped on the likelihood. Solely her mom and one in all her older sisters knew she had utilized, and it was solely when she was accepted that she informed the remainder of her household.

“I felt just like the luckiest lady on this planet,” she stated.

At first, she struggled together with her lessons, which had been all taught in English, not like again in Afghanistan. Quickly, although, she got here to contemplate Bangladesh her second residence. She realized to love spicy meals and even grew used to the humid and scorching climate.

She loved going to a close-by park and recording TikToks of herself narrating Persian poetry. When her roommates had been out and she or he had her room to herself, she would play music and report herself dancing, though she didn’t share the movies with anybody.

Koofi stated she felt grateful to be out of Afghanistan and attending college overseas. She was disillusioned when she needed to return to Afghanistan due to the pandemic, however tried to make one of the best of it, residing together with her sister in Kabul and attending lessons on-line.

Then her world turned fully the other way up.

After the Taliban gained management of the federal government, the Asian College for Ladies determined to attempt to convey the scholars again to Bangladesh, arranging constitution buses to choose the scholars up round Kabul and take them to the airport, the place they’d board a constitution flight to Chittagong.

It took the scholars three days to efficiently make their means via a number of checkpoints and lower via the chaos that preceded the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. After they lastly acquired to the airport, Koofi stated, they realized that no non-public planes had been being allowed to take off, so they’d be put onto a army airplane as an alternative.

Solely after they acquired on the airplane did they notice they’d be heading to not Bangladesh, however to the U.S.

At first, Koofi was disoriented. As an alternative of heading to a rustic that had began to really feel like a second residence, she was going to a rustic she had solely seen on tv. The U.S., in her thoughts, was all city like New York Metropolis.

Trying again, Koofi views what occurred as a superb factor. If she and her associates had returned to Bangladesh and graduated from school there, what would they do after that? The Taliban is unlikely to allow them to work, she stated. A U.S. schooling would open up new doorways.

The Different Facet of the World

Ebrahimi is a refugee as soon as once more—this time within the U.S., the place she is beginning her third try to finish a bachelor’s diploma. Her dad and mom and one in all her sisters proceed to stay in Pakistan. She additionally has a brother in France, a brother in Australia, and a youthful sister learning in Iran. 

Most of Koofi’s family members left Afghanistan two weeks after her—now scattered all through Europe. Each really feel freer to speak about their lives in and escape from Afghanistan than do a lot of her classmates, who concern sharing their tales may have an effect on the lives of households left behind.

Since December, Koofi and Ebrahimi have been attempting to regulate to a completely new life learning at ASU within the school metropolis of Tempe.

Generally they and their classmates from Afghanistan succeed, like after they take an examination for English placement and notice they know extra of the language than they thought they did. And typically they battle, like attempting to quick for Ramadan with out the assist of a group the place doing so is the norm.

After their arrival, Ebrahimi, Koofi and many of the different scholar refugees in Arizona had been residing in a resort near campus till extra dormitory areas opened up. Ebrahimi was a part of the primary batch to maneuver into the dorms. 

Her first night time there, her three roommates welcomed her of their widespread space. They confirmed her the best way to use the washer and dryer and entry Netflix. “They had been very good,” she stated.

Ebrahimi’s tiny room has floor-to-ceiling home windows, a full-sized mattress, a small desk and chair—each merchandise as a substitute. On the ground is a small quilt with a decidedly American sample of colourful interlocking squares making a floating pinwheel sample that she picked up throughout her three month keep on the Fort McCoy U.S. Military base when she first arrived within the U.S. It at present serves as her prayer rug. 

Koofi reminds herself that if she tailored to Bangladesh, she will be able to do the identical right here.

She has realized that having male classmates doesn’t change how she feels within the classroom. She’s not afraid to compete with them or converse up. She’s nonetheless puzzled, although, by her classmates within the U.S.—they spend their breaks on their telephones as an alternative of speaking to 1 one other. She typically misses the pleasant chatter of the scholars and college in Bangladesh.

The very first thing you discover once you stroll into Koofi’s resort room are the garments. They cling from hooks and hangers alongside one wall, the place Western-style pants, shirts and clothes compete with colourful scarves, shalwars (loose-fitting trousers) and kameezes (lengthy tops) worn by many ladies in South Asia. Sandals and footwear are neatly lined up in opposition to one other wall, and her resort room desk has been changed into an arrogance, with rows of multi-colored nail polish bottles and make-up.

The juxtaposition represents the battle Koofi lives each day as a girl from a standard Muslim nation who’s now in an surroundings the place she will be able to make her personal selections and be whoever she desires to be.

Ebrahimi stated she feels impartial for the primary time in a very long time. Her 4 Afghan associates whom she relied on most in Bangladesh are scattered at different universities within the U.S.

“I used to be very afraid of going alone, like I couldn’t take my meal alone,” she says describing her first few days in Tempe.  “However now, freely at any time when I need to go someplace I simply resolve and go.”

Ebrahimi took benefit of a comparatively empty school campus over the summer time to do one thing she had by no means completed earlier than—discover ways to experience a bicycle. Each night for 3 days straight, she and a fellow Afghan classmate walked their bikes, donated by an area nonprofit, Welcome to America Undertaking, to part of campus with vast pathways.

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Masooma Ebrahimi rides her bicycle on the Arizona State College campus on Sept. 18, 2022. She realized the best way to experience a motorbike simply this previous summer time training on campus pathways. (Lisa Patel)

There they held one another up, and practiced. They fell and acquired again on once more till every felt assured biking on her personal.

Ebrahimi’s bicycle is a lavender cruiser painted with brilliant white flowers like one sees in spring.

A New Day

Nowruz, which implies “a brand new day” in Persian, is a spring competition that celebrates rebirth and new beginnings. It’s noticed in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and plenty of different international locations.

This yr, the town of Phoenix celebrated its first-ever Nowruz at Metropolis Corridor, a chance to welcome the hundreds of Afghan refugees who’ve arrived within the space and assist with their transition. The mayor, Kate Gallego, proclaimed March 21, 2022, Nowruz Day in Phoenix.

Koofi and a few dozen of their classmates from Afghanistan volunteered to be a part of the festivities. Ebrahimi was within the viewers supporting them.

Unsurprisingly, Koofi was drawn to take part within the style present. She wearing an extended flowing conventional free becoming, brilliant orange Afghan outfit accented with a silver headpiece. She smiled broadly as she walked onto stage after which stepped into the middle of the cheering crowd. After the present was over, she went and became a brief purple gown with an identical purple purse. She seemed as if she may have taken one other activate stage.

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Oranous Koofi poses in a standard Afghan gown after taking part in a style present on the Nowruz celebration at Phoenix Metropolis Corridor in Arizona on March 18, 2022. The Persian New 12 months, Nowruz, marks the start of spring. (Lisa Patel)

The gown, she confided, got here from Goodwill. Thrift procuring is one thing she has just lately found.

Will she be sending pictures of her style present debut to her household?

Koofi laughed on the query. Possibly, she stated, however her mom will instantly ask why she isn’t sporting a scarf.

As they prepare for the autumn semester, Koofi taking lessons to main in journalism, a dream area her household had steered her away from again residence, and Ebrahimi international well being, the ladies are keenly conscious of the approaching one yr anniversary of their arrival in america.

Ebrahmi recalled befriending a 10-year-old lady at Fort McCoy final September. The little lady’s father was again in Afghanistan and requested what she ought to do as she missed him and her associates again residence. After listening to this, “I used to be about to cry,” stated Ebrahimi. All she may say to the little lady was, “Time will move and we’ll return to Afghanistan collectively.”

Does she actually assume this as she reads information about her nation from right here?

Ebrahimi smiled with some disappointment in her eyes. “All the pieces is dangerous for women proper now within the nation,” she stated. However “after all”  it’s her dream to in the future be capable of return.

Up subsequent:

U.S. democracy is at a harmful inflection level—from the demise of abortion rights, to a scarcity of pay fairness and parental depart, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and assaults on trans well being. Left unchecked, these crises will result in wider gaps in political participation and illustration. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Modification, and centering the tales of these most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we’re redoubling our dedication for the subsequent 50 years. In flip, we’d like your assist, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll obtain the print journal together with our e-newsletters, motion alerts, and invites to Ms. Studios occasions and podcasts. We’re grateful in your loyalty and ferocity.



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