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U.S. Airmen prepare to help qualified evacuees board a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021. The C-17 is based at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

UD welcomes Afghan refugees

Photos courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense and Air Force Senior Airman Taylor Crul, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla and Marine Corps Sgt. Isaiah Campbell

15 Afghan women will start at the University by studying at UD’s English Language Institute

In August, the world watched in horror as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Every day since, Afghan citizens and particularly Afghan women have endured this horror — their freedom, their bodies and their lives no longer their own.

But, thanks to a University of Delaware effort, 56 of these women are finding a new beginning — and new hope — on American soil. Many have begun arriving at UD this week.

“As a long-time pioneer in international education, UD is deeply committed to gender equity and the enduring power of higher learning to advance the cause of social justice here in Delaware and around the world,” UD President Dennis Assanis said. “We are so grateful to be able to help this group of Afghan women continue their education and start new lives here in the United States, and on behalf of the whole University of Delaware, I want to warmly welcome them to the Blue Hen community.”

While a strategy to relocate the women came together quickly, you could say the mission began taking shape in 1979. As a college student studying abroad that year, Scott Stevens, now the director of UD’s world-class English Language Institute (ELI), found himself on the east bank of the Nile River, standing amid the spectacular ruins of Karnak, a city of temples worthy of Egyptian gods. When a disheveled little girl holding a baby goat yanked on his camera case, he knew what she was trying to communicate: In exchange for money, she would allow him to take her picture. Stevens did not have much — he’d spent all his savings on this trip — but he handed over the last few dollars in his pocket. The girl’s expression, he recalled, had relayed one thing: You owe me.

“Being a 21-year-old kid, I didn’t think much of it at the time, but this interaction has haunted me since, because — the truth is — I did owe her,” Stevens said. “I knew that this girl, in that part of Egypt in the 1970s, would grow up with no more than a sixth-grade education and no opportunity beyond that. The photo I took has been on my desk ever since, reminding me of the debt we owe half the world’s population, to ensure that girls and women have an opportunity for education… opportunity for a future.” 

A U.S. Marine holds a baby while a family is processed at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 28, 2021. U.S. service members were assisting the State Department with the non-combatant evacuation operation in Afghanistan.

With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Stevens recognized one potential pathway for making good on this debt. He emailed UD leadership with a request: Let’s think about what we can do to help. Senior administrators were immediately on board. The Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, Matt Kinservik, shared an article he found about the harrowing escape from Afghanistan of 148 young women — college students in dire need now living at Fort McCoy, a U.S. Army installation in Wisconsin.

In short order, the UD community mobilized to find new homes for the evacuees — academic and otherwise. Much work went into recruiting other colleges to the cause and, because of these efforts, 56 of the most vulnerable women, those with the least amount of English language ability, are set to matriculate at universities around the country.

The largest cohort, 15, is preparing for five years of sponsored study at UD, the alma mater of President Joe Biden. Former Delaware governor Jack Markell, the son of a respected accounting professor at UD, serves as point person on the federal initiative to resettle Afghan refugees. Among these new Blue Hens, passions range from nature photography to kickboxing to live theater. There are aspiring biologists, businesswomen and public health officials within the group. Some describe themselves as sociable and cheerful, others as diligent or competitive. And they all believe, despite everything they’ve been through, in the possibility of a better future.

“There is so much bad in the world right now,” Kinservik said. “On so many levels, this is a tough time. And a story like this — women fleeing their country, leaving their families behind — it’s a terrible situation in this terrible historic moment. But then something comes into focus, and you think: Maybe we can actually help these people. Maybe what these women need is all around us, at this University.” 

Soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division help to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug.15, 2021.

At one point, the refugees had been studying at Bangladesh’s Asian University for Women (AUW), a school dedicated to the education and empowerment of female leaders — part of the curriculum is training in martial arts. But, when COVID-19 struck, the students had to suspend classes and return to Afghanistan. With the rise in power of the Taliban — a fundamentalist group which in some areas forbids women to so much as leave home without a male relative as escort, on penalty of death — the students saw their dreams of higher education, of making an impact in the world, crumble. 

Coordinating with the president of AUW in Bangladesh via the WhatsApp messaging platform, the women, aged 18 to 25, planned their escape. With nothing but cell phones and the clothes on their backs, they boarded seven chartered buses at various locations around the country and headed for the Kabul airport. At one point, the women told the Chronicle of Higher Education, bullets pierced one of the vehicles. At another, fellow Afghans attempted to break down the doors of a bus, hoping for their own shot at a flight out. The women also witnessed on Aug. 26 the flames of a suicide bombing that claimed the lives of 60 Afghans and 13 members of the U.S. military. 

“They endured some very scary checkpoints, pulling up to guards with machine guns and hand grenades, not knowing if they were going to be yanked off the bus and forced to marry a member of the Taliban or if they were going to be let through,” Stevens said. “And they had no one to help them, so they engineered their own escape relying on their ingenuity and undaunted courage.” 

The first attempt to get out of the country failed — the situation grew too dangerous, and the women were forced to turn around. But the students tried again, this time making it all the way to the airport and onto a spartan military transport. They landed first in Saudi Arabia, then Wisconsin, where they have received seed money for clothing and other supplies from the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group, until they are able to matriculate. 

“We felt a responsibility to lead in this,” said Kinservik. “A lot of universities will bring in international students, send them to class and that’s where the relationship ends. But at UD, acculturation matters, and we have the resources and programming to do it in a really thoughtful and personal way.”

The students coming to UD will spend a foundational year at the ELI, an internationally recognized institute offering intensive English language education. While the women will, indeed, hone their language skills here, they will also take part in the unit’s Academic Transitions program, which seeks to fill in any academic gaps that might exist before matriculation as undergraduate students in four-year degree programs. In preparation, faculty and staff have received training on how to work with evacuees who have undergone trauma. The ELI has also carefully vetted from their network the families, based in Newark, who will host the refugee women. But it is the entire University community — or, as Stevens called it, the “whole village of UD” — that is supporting this effort. The Center for Counseling and Student Development is working to tailor their mental health services for the women, while various colleges and units within UD are developing ideas for fundraising and outreach programming.  

Beyond having the necessary infrastructure and resources, it is the institutional culture of the campus that will make this transition possible. UD is a University that champions inclusivity while celebrating intellectual curiosity, resilience, grit — all qualities possessed by the Afghan women. 

“We have a community that embraces other cultures, that embraces diversity, so the values of this University we thought really fit,” Stevens said, adding that UD has also, separate from this initiative, designated housing for 15 Afghans being resettled by Jewish Family Services of Delaware. “The sense of responsibility in this situation comes bottom up, it’s organic. But these are the kinds of values embraced by our senior leadership, and that gets cultivated across every level of the campus.” 

Of course, faculty and staff attest, educating these refugees will be a two-way street — the entire campus community is set to benefit from the presence of these inspiring women. 

“I think many people only know Afghanistan in terms of reporting on the war but, of course, it is a very culturally diverse, linguistically diverse, religiously diverse country with a really rich history, so we would very much like that story told while these students are here,” Stevens said.  “We strive to bring the world to the doorstep of UD — we want students in classes rubbing elbows with people of difference and learning and challenging their own values and views and stereotypes in the process.” 

In other words, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis is an opportunity for building empathy, for increasing educational equity and for meeting the high standards UD sets for itself as an institution.

“If ever there was a moment to learn whether you will walk the talk,” Kinservik said, “this is it.”

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