When the Afghan capital Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021, more swiftly than anyone had anticipated, it unleashed chaos in the lives of Afghan people, including students at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) who felt particularly vulnerable due to the institution’s association with the United States.
AUAF scrambled to evacuate staff as part of the US-led withdrawal and within three months announced it was relocating to Qatar with some staff and as many AUAF students as could get visas – around 1,000 students were enrolled at the Kabul campus, almost half of them women – leaving behind its deserted campus in Kabul.
The shift to Doha allowed the AUAF to carry on face-to-face teaching and enabled students, particularly its women students, to continue their education without fear and the total insecurity and uncertainty that had enveloped Kabul after the Taliban takeover.
Restrictions on women and girls and a ban on female education were quickly implemented by the Taliban regime.
A decision not lightly taken
AUAF’s decision to leave Afghanistan was not taken lightly but was considered the best prospect for students if they were to continue their education, amid a massive and highly uncoordinated evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans from Afghanistan, AUAF President Ian Bickford told University World News in a wide-ranging interview at the Qatar campus.
“Extensive and strenuous” contingency planning had already begun well before the Taliban takeover “including the almost unthinkable – moving AUAF out of Afghanistan”, he said. “Early in 2021, it was difficult to know what the future would hold. However, we were painfully aware that Afghanistan was likely to change, and probably in ways that were not favourable to the kind of education that we had been offering for, at that point, 15 years.”
“The reality came upon us quite quickly. And it was a difficult and painful matter to close the doors of our campuses in Afghanistan for operations outside of the country.”
“Nearly every US government, NGO partner and implementing partner left Afghanistan at that time. It would have been very difficult to buck the trend,” said Bickford.
“For our faculty and staff, our Afghan colleagues, there was a great deal of uncertainty about what the future would hold for them in Afghanistan. It became important, in conversation with their families, [for them] to leave Afghanistan, though they were well aware they were contributing to the prevailing brain drain.”
Bickford insists the move “was the right thing to do at the time”, particularly after the Qatar Foundation offered buildings and facilities for teaching in Education City in Doha, as well as student accommodation and, crucially, visa assistance for students. The Qatar Foundation also undertook to provide full scholarships for around 200 students who could make it out of Afghanistan.
Talks with Qatar
This was due to groundwork laid earlier. “We had already begun working with the State of Qatar, potentially for AUAF to be hosted here … That meant we were able to activate that plan quickly,” Bickford said. The agreement with Qatar “made sure at least a subset of our students were able to come here”.
Several nations were hosting Afghan refugees, including students, but Bickford said the university wanted to make sure their students could continue their degrees. “It was important to us that we did so safely, with minimal disruption to their lives and education.”
Nonetheless, “it did take time to bring students here [to Qatar] safely”, he acknowledged.
Reports emerged of students unable to get visas, or getting visas but being turned away from the airport in Kabul, or even being taken off aircraft waiting on the tarmac. Many were unable to leave Afghanistan at all. They continued with the online classes offered for free by AUAF.
“Online learning is a permanent part of what we’re able to offer, because in whatever situation, we’re able to reach more students in more places and in more ways,” Bickford explained.
“With faculty all over the world, it helps to support the small academic team here [in Qatar] in offering a wider array of courses, in a hybrid mode, for students both in situ and online working together.”
“We’ve also benefited from OSUN [Open Society University Network]-connected courses, which have put our students in a community with their peers around the world, [and which] have provided them a window to the world at a time when they feel that their lives have closed in,” said Bickford, who is strongly involved with OSUN.
“It has added to the strength of our own academic offerings.”
Victoria Fontan-Medinger, AUAF provost and vice-president for academic affairs, told University World News that online classes had already been in place for some time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We adapted very quickly because the majority of the faculty was already outside [Afghanistan] and the only tangible thing that we had left were our online courses,” she said.
“We were ready to start the semester on time, minus a couple of weeks, adapting some of our beginning of semester activities to [set up] study groups [and] for students and faculty to process what had happened [in Afghanistan]. And then to move on to regular classes.”
Just a few weeks after the Taliban took over the capital, “we started with almost a full student cohort,” she said, noting that over 80% of around 1,000 AUAF students were able to resume their studies on time online from different countries, including Afghanistan.
But with the chaos and pull-out of many diplomatic missions from Kabul, it was some months before the first students arrived in Qatar and face-to-face classes could resume.
“Without being assured of a durable student visa arrangement, we felt it was irresponsible to bring students out of Afghanistan on a temporary basis, knowing that they may well be stranded and that we might not be able to support them in that place,” Fontan-Medinger said pointing to major issues with the evacuation, when “many, many people were stranded in strange lands and without [a means of] livelihood”.
In the rush to leave Afghanistan, some cohorts of students had relocated to the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani which hosted more than 100 AUAF students, and the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which hosted a similar number. Bard College in the United States pledged to take 100 students free of charge.
The State of Qatar’s 100% funding for 200 AUAF students covered housing, meals and stipends for the students.
“For the third year in a row, we’ve been able to support every enrolled student with 100% financial aid support from USAID, the US Department of State, private donors, corporate donors and the State of Qatar. “We’ve been able to do it,” said Bickford proudly.
Hope for the future
Several Afghan women students who managed to make the perilous journey out of Afghanistan by various routes told University World News that relocating with AUAF to Qatar had given them renewed hope, despite leaving everything behind.
Hadiya (not her real name), in her third year of a computer science degree at AUAF in Qatar, said she missed her family. “Aside from that, being here gives me a feeling of hope, which I did not have in Afghanistan, not being able to go out or have education. It felt like we were not part of the community; we were not existing.
“But I have improved a lot since coming to Qatar – at least there is no one to stop us getting an education.”
Sheela (name changed), who is in the first year of a computer science degree at AUAF in Qatar, was in her final year of an economics and computer science degree at Kabul University, the country’s top public institution, but was unable to continue after the Taliban barred women and girls from education.
On fleeing to Qatar, she had to start her degree from scratch.
After the Taliban took over, “I tried to get my transcript from Kabul University, but they didn’t allow girls to take their transcripts. They said, ‘taking your transcript means you want to go to other country to study’. So I had to start again.”
Joining AUAF was “better than I imagined”, she said, noting that the quality of learning was better than the education offered at Kabul University after the Taliban. “The professors and teachers at Kabul University that were high quality all left the country, and the quality of teaching became very low,” she explained.
“Before, I was really sad because I had to leave everything behind. It is very hard if you study six semesters and then have to start again from the first semester. But coming to AUAF opened my mind, my vision, even changed my goals from the ones I had when I was at Kabul University.”
She now looks beyond her own community and country, she explained. By the time she finishes a masters degree, “I hope the situation in Afghanistan will have changed. I did not have this goal to live in a foreign country, but when I finish my studies I want to go back and serve people in my country and do something for them.”
Her family back in Afghanistan is very supportive. “They say to me: ‘you should study hard; you are the voice of those who are remaining in Afghanistan. Improve yourself so that you can do something for other women’.”
The pain of leaving
Ahmadi (name changed), a second-year business studies student at AUAF, left behind two sisters in Afghanistan who had already started university but could no longer continue under Taliban rule. “They have lost hope”, she said, “but at least I can continue my education in Qatar, and the dreams that I have.”
She vividly remembers the day the Taliban took over. It was her second day at the AUAF campus in Kabul. “It was 11.30 am and my sister called me saying don’t go to the university because the Taliban had taken over. I did not believe her and said, ‘No way, the Taliban can never come and take Kabul!’.”
She said she cried when she learned it was true. “I thought, what will happen now? What will be my future? It was a black day in my life and I became depressed thinking how to adapt to the situation, to wear the hijab and cover my face, not go to the market, to parks, and just stay at home,” she said.
In 2021, aged 20, she was able to get to the Afghan border with friends, but leaving the country was emotionally difficult. “I felt like I had lost everything. I felt really bad. I’d lost my family, my education, everything I had. When I came here [to Qatar] “it was very hard for me to adapt, as I lived with my family in Kabul so I was missing them.”
Although the facilities at Doha’s Education City are not as extensive as those of AUAF in Kabul, they are good and the community in Qatar is supportive, she added.
A life-changing opportunity
Mina (not her real name), a first-year computer science student at AUAF Qatar, was enrolled at AUAF in Kabul on a three-year scholarship when the Taliban took over. She was also working in art in Afghanistan, which she noted was seen as “unacceptable” among the Hazara community she comes from, and in Afghanistan generally, particularly under the Taliban.
She was not able to go to university for six months but got a visa to leave Afghanistan in August 2022. “I still remember the day. It was my birthday, and we were all sitting together,” and it seemed that her family would not allow her to go.
“We are a Pashtun family. It is very hard to let a girl go out of the country. We cannot go out alone, even if the situation is normal.”
But she knew that if she stayed, “I’d be nothing. My whole existence, my personality, the dreams that I have, I’ll not achieve any of them. So, starting from my dad and every family decision-maker, I sat with them and talked to them for hours and hours until they were convinced.
“It took two weeks to convince them to let me go,” she said. “But my mum supported me and just because of her, I was able to come here.
“My whole family supports me now that I’m here and can continue my education. They say they are really proud of me, because in my province I was the only girl working in art.”
She describes joining AUAF as a “life-changing opportunity”. Even when classes were online “it gave me a vision for a better future”.
The move to Qatar and a wider group of professors was enriching. “We had new professors of different nationalities, who had different experiences and were seeing the world in a different way. They teach us more than what we could learn in Afghanistan,” she said.
“It is my goal to do something better for myself, as well as for my family, for my own people in my country,” she said. “My dad told me: ‘The day you return back to your country you will be someone that Afghanistan needs. I’m very proud of you.’ And I remember his words.”
An improved institution
Bickford believes the experience of the past three years, including the contingency planning, has made the university stronger and more resilient. “The extreme experience has improved us. It has invited us to improve upon our already very strong academic programmes, and has improved us as an academic community.
“When we see our students succeeding against the odds and against the grain, it produces a great level of trust, respect and admiration for each other,” he said.
This article is part of a series on Academic Freedom and Resilience published by University World News in partnership with the Open Society University Network (OSUN). University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.