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Afghan Refugees Begin New Journey at UW-Milwaukee

Afghan students Tahera and Farzana (center, in blue top and gray sweatshirt) listen during a writing class given by Mark Sondrol, a lecturer at UWM’s English Language Academy. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)

As they waited in their bus at Kabul airport last August, Samira and her friends watched out of the windows in case someone approached the bus with a bomb.

It was just a moment in a long and arduous journey from Afghanistan to Milwaukee for a group of young women now enrolled in UW-Milwaukee’s Intensive English Program. (Due to the risk of retaliation against family members who remain in Afghanistan, this story uses only their first names and photos that do not show their faces.)

The young women, mostly between the ages of 18 and 23, are part of a group of 147 Asian University for Women (AUW) students who fled Afghanistan together. After a stay at Fort McCoy, a group of eight began classes at UWM in January.

Samira, the ninth young woman, is the sister of one of the UWM students. She is taking distance learning courses at Arizona State University, but plans to pursue graduate studies at UWM. The younger ones hope to stay and continue their undergraduate studies at the university in the fall.

Interrogated by the Taliban

It took several attempts for the group to enter the airport as explosions rocked the area. Then they were interrogated by the Taliban: “Why don’t you stay? Why don’t you go home,” recalls Samira, who was one of the four leaders of the 147-woman AUW group.

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

UWM has become involved in supporting young women through the University and College Intensive English Programs, a national consortium, which has launched a call for members willing to work with newly arrived 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 aims to help students who want to improve their English before starting their university studies.

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

Find help

The university has partnered with the Eastbrook Church, which supports immigrants, through Mari Chevako, a lecturer at the English Language Academy. She is a member of the church. When Haley raised concerns about financial challenges, Chevako contacted the Eastbrook.

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

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

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

Host families are church members, many of whom have hosted international visitors in their homes.

The Asian University for Women in Bangladesh offered Afghan women the opportunity to further their education 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.

Take risks to further your education

UWM is one of 10 partner universities across the United States hosting AUW women who have fled Afghanistan.

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

The young women left family, friends and most of their possessions behind and took great risks to pursue their education.

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

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

Tahera, another of the refugees, agreed.

“When the Taliban came, they said women won’t have the rights they had before,” Tahera said. “That’s why I left.” The combination of the Taliban regime and the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a shortage of teachers, according to the young women, which means their sisters and cousins ​​cannot continue their education.

feel welcomed

Students say they have adapted to the cold Wisconsin climate and feel welcome at UWM and Milwaukee.

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

The families they stay with and their classmates let the young women take the initiative to talk about their experiences. “They expect us to be comfortable,” Tahera said. “I think they’ll let us…if we want to talk about it, they’ll listen.”

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

“This event made us feel good,” Samira said. “I’m so far away from my family right now. “It scares me a bit that we don’t know what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. Things are so unstable. It is really very difficult.

spread the word

As students settle into UWM and Milwaukee, some become more active in telling others about what is happening in Afghanistan. They caught up with Chia Vang, UWM Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, who shared with them her own experiences as a refugee and immigrant.

The students are eager to raise awareness of the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan and find ways to empower them. One of the young women had the opportunity to meet fellow Afghan and women’s rights advocate, Maryam Durani, who has moved to Milwaukee.

The students interviewed said they hoped to complete their studies and one day return to Afghanistan to help their country.

“We don’t know when we will be able to return, but we want to help,” Tahera said. “We know we have work 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 had stayed there, I couldn’t have followed them. I want to help my people. I have a dream to help my people.

“We want to do things differently so that women are empowered, and men too,” Samira said. “By empowering and empowering women, we support the whole community.”

Once the young women complete UWM’s Intensive English Program, the goal is to get them enrolled in undergraduate programs at UWM, Haley said. The church and the university are looking for ways to raise funds to make this happen.

Anyone interested in learning more and contributing to the financing of their studies can do so online.

Written by Kathy Quirk

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