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Afghan women scholars who escaped Taliban find refuge at Cornell University

Nine Afghan scholars who escaped Afghanistan as the Taliban took control of the country in the summer of 2021, are now studying at Cornell University (Photo: CNY Central)
Nine Afghan scholars who escaped Afghanistan as the Taliban took control of the country in the summer of 2021, are now studying at Cornell University (Photo: CNY Central)
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When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, women scholars feared for their educational opportunities and their lives.

This semester Cornell University is hosting nine Afghan scholars seeking safe haven at the university. Three of them spoke to CNY Central about their journey from Kabul, Afghanistan to Ithaca, New York.

“I was a girl who has been fighting for her single right which is education for my entire life," said Khadija Monis.

A fight that became life or death last summer in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over Kabul. The day they took control of the city, everything closed down and people ran scared to their homes.

RELATED | From Afghanistan to Syracuse: one man's harrowing journey to escape the Taliban

At the time Khurshid Hussainy, Tamana Ghaznawi, and Monis were all students at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. Due to COVID-19, all students studied remotely from their homes over the last academic year. That meant Monis, Ghaznawi and Hussainy all continued their studies from Afghanistan.

“The place that I live (in Afghanistan) there was no electricity, internet so it was difficult for me to find electricity for myself to continue my classes," Hussainy said.

But yet she found a way to continue her studies. That was until the Taliban took over.

“I went to the street so I saw the whole city was dead and it was like nobody was on the street," said Monis. "The shops were closed and I couldn’t see a single woman on the street. I got terrified and I came back home.”

Women in Afghanistan feared for their safety, and educated women like Hussainy, Monis and Ghaznawi were in danger. They knew they had to leave.

“ I’d rather die here, but I won’t go back home because I just want to leave this country. This isn’t my country anymore," Ghaznawi said went through her mind when the Taliban took control.

The Asian University for Women president helped them coordinate an escape and got them onto a bus headed toward the airport. The group circled the Kabul airport for 48 hours with only their phones, a charger, and their passport.

“I could see so many desperate people and I wanted to cry.," Ghaznawi said, "What has happened to my country? Why are these people trying to leave? These all were the people, those educated people, who were the future of my county.”

At one point, men tried to force their way on their bus, but Monis held the door closed blocking them from entering while they threatened her.

"If they were able to enter none of us would have survived," she said.

“Every breath was a blessing for us inside those buses,” according to Monis.

The scholars tried to get into the airport and onto the charter flight that AUW coordinated to take them to Bangladesh.

Due to explosions near the airport, the charter flight left without any of the students on board. Their only hope was to get on one of the outgoing American flights, though they didn't know they were heading to America.

The group finally found their way to that plane.

"I just look back to the airport, to my country. Is this the end? Is this what I have planned for? Is this my life and my country? Where am I going? What I will do? Because we did not know at that moment that we would come to America," Monis said.

After boarding the flight, they were told they would be going to Qatar but landed in Saudi Arabia. After a short time there, the group was taken to Spain and finally made their way to America.

Through campus partnerships and an international effort, these women are three of nine Afghan scholars now continuing their education at Cornell.

Since they arrived over the holidays there were few people on campus. As the spring semester has gotten underway, Ghaznawi said she is looking forward to making friends and meeting new people once more students are on campus. In the meantime, the scholars are working on their essays and completing the admissions process to become regular students at the university.

“Now I‘m in America and also in Cornell I think everything just going to be better and just everything will rebuild," Hussainy said,

Monis added, “This is a kind of relief to be here at Cornell University and to be able to continue our education and to be safe, having housing and supportive groups around, this is a good feeling.”

While they’re safe now, the women are still dealing with the trauma of what they witnessed.

“I am physically in America, but my soul is still on those streets. I have still the nightmares that the Taliban are shooting me and my family and raping the girls in front of my eyes,” Monis shared.

And they admit they have survivor’s guilt. The women hope that now that they are safe, they can provide for their family back in Afghanistan in some way.

“I feel guilty about myself that now I am ok but what about my family who are left in Afghanistan," Hussainy said.

Their families are front of mind as they continue their education in Ithaca.

Monis doesn't want people to look away from the current situation in Afghanistan, “People are terrified of the economic crisis and the joblessness, the hard behavior of Taliban.”

The scholars want to continue to pursue their education for all those who don’t have that option back in their home country.

“Please not let our stories to be just a story and just read it," Monis said, "Do not turn your back to the girls of my age and the girls with the same ambitions, hopes, deprived of their very basic right of getting an education, living isolated in their homes in Afghanistan."

This kind of winter in Central New York is a first for them, but certainly nothing they can’t handle after all they’ve been through.

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“Despite all the difficulties I’ve been through I now feel like a very bright future is waiting for me," Ghaznawi said.

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