Afghan refugees start a new journey at UWM

As they waited in their bus at the airport in Kabul last August, Samira and her friends kept watch out the windows in case someone might be approaching the bus with a bomb.

That was just one moment in a long, harrowing journey from Afghanistan to Milwaukee for a group of young women now enrolled in UW-Milwaukee’s Intensive English Program. (Because of the risk of retribution against family members who remain in Afghanistan, this story is using only their first names and photos that don’t show their faces.)

The young women, mostly ages 18-23, are part of a group of 147 students from the Asian University for Women (AUW) who fled Afghanistan together. Following a stay at Fort McCoy, a group of eight started class at UWM in January.

Samira, the ninth young woman, is the sister of one of the UWM students. She is taking classes remotely at Arizona State University, but is thinking of doing graduate work at UWM. The younger students hope to stay and continue their undergraduate work at the university in the fall.

Questioned by the Taliban

It took the group several tries to get into the airport as explosions rocked the area. Then they were questioned by the Taliban: “Why don’t you stay? Why don’t you go to your houses,” recalled Samira, who was one of four leaders of the group of 147 AUW women.

They were tired and frightened, but determined. “All we wanted to do at that time was to leave our country,” Samira said.

UWM became involved in helping the young women through the University and College Intensive English Programs, a national consortium, which put out a request for members who would be willing to work with newly arriving students.

“We responded that we were ready to help,” said Brooke Haley, acting director of UWM’s English Language Academy and its Intensive English Program, which focuses on helping students who want to improve their English before starting academic studies.

However, although the university agreed to accept the students, the program leaders knew they would need financial support.

Finding help

The university connected with Eastbrook Church, which is supportive of immigrants, through Mari Chevako, a senior lecturer in the English Language Academy. She is a member of the church. When Haley shared her concerns about the financial challenges, Chevako contacted the Eastbrook.

“Within five minutes, we had an email from the pastor,” said Haley, “saying let’s do this.”

The church agreed to pay for the young women’s intensive English studies and find homes for them within walking or easy driving distance to the university. A local resettlement agency is also working with them.

The university agreed to allow the Intensive English Program to reduce its costs and waive some fees.

Host families are church members, many of whom have had previous experience welcoming international visitors into their homes.

The Asian University for Women in Bangladesh had offered the Afghan women the opportunity to continue their studies and become future leaders in their country. However, when COVID-19 hit two years ago, they were forced to return to Afghanistan and study remotely. The Taliban takeover in August eliminated higher education and most job opportunities for women.

Taking risks to continue education

UWM is one of 10 partner universities across the U.S. welcoming the women from the AUW who fled Afghanistan.

“They wanted to serve their community in their new professions, but now with the Taliban rule, that’s just not going to be an option for them,” said Haley.

The young women have left family and friends and most belongings behind and taken great risks to continue their education.

“For me, the reason I left my country is because of the belief and the hope and the idealism I have,” said Samira. “I know that it was not possible to live with this kind of idealism and hope under the Taliban.”

“They all have mentioned how difficult it is to be a woman in Afghanistan,” said Haley. “One of the young women said something about dogs having more respect than girls under the Taliban. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Tahera, another of the refugees, agreed.

“When the Taliban came, they said the women won’t have the rights they had before,” Tahera said. “That’s why I left.” The combination of Taliban rule and the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a shortage of teachers, according to the young women, meaning their sisters and female cousins can’t continue their education.

Feeling welcomed

The students say they’ve adjusted to the cold Wisconsin weather and feel welcomed at UWM and in Milwaukee.

“They are very nice people,” Farzana said. “The people around me are very kind and very supportive. They help us.”

The families they are staying with and their fellow students let the young women take the lead in talking about their experiences. “They wait until we’re comfortable,” Tahera said. “I think they will let us… if we want to talk about it, they will listen.”

Eastbrook Church held a gathering in March to help the students raise money for their families back in Afghanistan. The young women, who hope eventually to get part-time jobs to send money to their families, prepared a meal in return for donations.

“That event helped us feel good,” said Samira. “I am so very far from my family right now. “It kind of scares me that we don’t know what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. Things are so unsettled. That’s really very difficult.”

Spreading the word

As the students settle in at UWM and in Milwaukee, some are becoming more active in telling others about what is happening in Afghanistan. They’ve met with Chia Vang, UWM vice chancellor of diversity, equity and inclusion, who shared with them her own experiences as a refugee and an immigrant.

The students are eager to get the word out about the circumstances for women and girls in Afghanistan and finding ways to empower them. One of the young women had the opportunity to meet with fellow Afghan and women’s rights advocate Maryam Durani, who has settled in Milwaukee.

Those students interviewed said they hope to complete their education and return to Afghanistan someday to help their country.

“We don’t know when we are going to be able to go back, but we want to help,” Tahera said. “We know there is work for us to do.”

‘I want to help my people’

Farzana lamented the loss of her dreams, at least for now. “I had my dreams. If I would have stayed there, I would not be able to follow them. I want to help my people. I have a dream to help my people.”

“We want to make things different so that the women are empowered, and the men also,” Samira said. “By building up and empowering the women, we are supporting the whole community.”

Once the young women complete the intensive UWM English program, the goal is to have them enroll in undergraduate programs at UWM, Haley said. Both the church and the university are looking at ways to raise funds to make that happen.

Anyone interested in learning more and contributing to help fund their education can do so online.

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