Published May 26, 2022
Rutgers is intensifying its efforts to welcome scholars and students from Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover
In the dog days of August 2021, as Fatima Farid watched the last remaining American plane leave Afghanistan, she gave up hope that her family would ever flee the Taliban. She described her fear and desperation to Rutgers Today.
“We were at the airport. It was 6 a.m. and we weren’t on that plane,” says Fatima Farid. She believed her mother, a human rights activist, would be killed after the United States pulled its troops from the country, and that she and her sisters would be forced into hiding. “We thought we would never be safe.”
Today, after a fraught journey that claimed her father’s life, Farid, 25, her mother, Shahla, 62, and two sisters, Zainab, 22, and Mahboba, 17, are living in Middlesex County and starting new lives. They are among a small group of students and scholars who have come to Rutgers after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
“A lot of people are helping us, supporting us, and making sure we have what we need,” Fatima Farid says. “It makes us happy, but we feel guilty. My mom cries when she sees news from Afghanistan. So many years she worked as an advocate for women, and her work was destroyed in one day.”
While there’s nothing new about the U.S. offering safe harbor to foreign refugees facing danger from political upheaval in their native lands, Rutgers is taking that promise one step further by providing students and scholars who have been studying in Afghanistan with new academic homes in the United States.
For instance, Farid family matriarch Shahla, a lawyer and human rights advocate, works at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership collaborating with feminist scholars, lawyers, and activists from around the world to enhance work on peace beyond the absence of war. Fatima is pursuing her master’s degree at the School of Social Work and Zainab is an undergraduate in the School of Arts and Sciences, both at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
The Afghan situation is life or possible death for tens of thousands of people. Beyond fearing for their lives, Afghan university students face starting their academic careers in an environment that can disrupt their studies without warning. Girls and women face additional challenges. Currently, there is no schooling available to girls and women, and women are only permitted to leave their homes when covered head to toe and accompanied by a male companion.
“Think back on your academic career, challenges you faced, moments of confusion you may have felt, the experience of discovering independence,” says Eric Garfunkel, head of Rutgers Global, which oversees global education and engagement at Rutgers and provided financial support to Shahla Farid. “Now imagine navigating that time after having hidden for months, only escaping after multiple, dangerous attempts. Imagine navigating an academic journey that means something profound to your future and your family’s future with no resources, no home, and after having lost friends and loved ones. These students have suffered enormously, and we are eager to connect them with resources, funding, and other services that allow them to continue their education.”
Through a new initiative, Rutgers Global and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, which provides fellowships and support for scholars whose lives and work are threatened in their home countries, are partnering with Rutgers University Foundation to secure philanthropic funds to enable at least ten refugee students who have been studying in Afghanistan to study at Rutgers and earn their degrees.
“I think we should want them here because these are bright, talented, hard-working kids,” says Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), who is working with international human rights organizations and foundations to help evacuate and support women’s rights advocates, human rights leaders, journalists, students and faculty. “They will either go back to a better Afghanistan or become better Americans in our country. Either way, it’s a win.”
This fall, Rutgers is committed to waiving tuition for the refugee students in various stages of their college journey and helping to provide essentials such as housing, meal plans, mental health counseling, transportation, and textbooks. In round numbers, the goal is to secure enough private dollars to provide an average of $20,000 for at least ten students each year for 2.5 years, for a $500,000 total fundraising effort.
“This is an evolving story. We have been supporting scholars and students who had been at serious risk—including receiving death threats—to leave Afghanistan and move forward in their academic careers and lives,” Garfunkel says. “Rutgers is committed to finding talented students everywhere. Talent is not limited by borders, and every student committed to pursuing higher learning deserves a chance to excel.”
A fraught journey
Though talent has no borders, nations do. For many students in Afghanistan, the situation is dire.
“Last summer, I was informed by an Amnesty International human rights defender that Shahla Farid’s life was at risk, as were the lives of her three daughters who were still living at home,” says Krishanti Dharmaraj, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers. “The Taliban connected with Shahla and warned her that she needed to work with them. That’s when the family knew they had to get out of Kabul.”
Dharmaraj followed Shahla Farid’s career as a well-known human rights advocate who served on the High Peace Council in Afghanistan, taught law in Kabul, and had written papers and advocated for women. Originally from Sri Lanka—a country that shares a history of domestic upheaval that created waves of refugees—Dharmaraj knew the dangerous situation the family was in.
It took five months for the four women to complete the 7,000-mile trip from Afghanistan to Rutgers, during which they had to hide out with relatives and friends in safe houses or stay in hotels because they didn’t want to put other lives in danger. “We were happy that we were safe when we got out,” says Fatima Farid. “We had hope of a new life. We had letters to study in a new university, and my mother had a job.”
But tragically, their 69-year-old father, Mohammad, died in a temporary refugee shelter in Albania only a couple of days after the family escaped Afghanistan. He left behind seven daughters total—with all but one leaving Afghanistan. Each daughter knew they made the right decision because their father wanted a better future for his family. “He was always telling us to ‘go study and make my name,’” says Fatima Farid. “‘If I don’t have sons—my daughters will keep my name alive.’”
Ousseina Alidou, faculty director at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, said she hopes the story the Farid women are sharing and the stories of other students and scholars coming from Afghanistan to Rutgers, will help people understand what is happening to threatened and displaced scholars around the world.
“We need to look at this as a teaching opportunity for the United States and all of us as global citizens,” says Alidou. “What happens in Afghanistan are repeat experiences in other parts of the world, which as citizens we need to know to understand the global impact.”