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‘Still waiting for what is to come for us’: American University of Afghanistan students face fear and uncertainty

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

They had enrolled at the American University of Afghanistan because they saw it as an opportunity, a pathway to a better future.

But now, in the words of one student, “I do not dream and hope for my future. My future is not safe in Afghanistan, and it looks very dark here in Afghanistan.”

Student A, whose name CNN is not using for their safety, is one of hundreds of AUAF students who were left behind during US military evacuation efforts, despite an effort to get them to the airport before all US forces left.

One month after the US military evacuation ended, AUAF students are afraid, guarding their movements out of concern about Taliban reprisal. Although Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that AUAF partners would be among the priority groups for evacuation moving forward, the students CNN spoke to are still awaiting clear answers on if and when they will be able to leave Afghanistan.

“More and more people run out of their savings account day by day,” said a student who CNN is calling B, who described an atmosphere of “hunger,” “fear” and “uncertainty” in Afghanistan.

“The situation is getting worse day by day and we are losing hope,” said another student, C.

A fourth student, D, told CNN, “I sometimes check Twitter and I see some tweets made by the Taliban in which they talk about our university. To be honest it really terrifies me.”

“All the crimes the Taliban have committed against education through the years make me and my fellow students a prime candidate for prosecution under their rules,” they said.

“We are still waiting for what is to come for us,” D added.

‘An enormous obligation’

Leslie Schweitzer, the chair of the Friends of American University of Afghanistan, said there are more than 3,000 students, staff and family members remaining in the country, with whom they’ve been communicating “all the time.”

“If we have a safe form of movement, we will get in touch with them. We have a constant flow of questions from people who are being threatened in their homes, who are unable to leave their homes,” she told CNN. “We’ve also had reports from some of the students who’ve been evacuated that Taliban has entered their empty homes, searching for documents, etc. It’s really important for us to stay in touch with them.”

“We have an enormous obligation to all of AUAF because each of these people involved with us, the Afghans, it was a risk from day one, just because of who we are, just because it’s the American University of Afghanistan, we teach in English, it’s an American form of education and is co-ed,” she told CNN.

AUAF opened in 2006 — its creation was announced by then-first lady Laura Bush during a trip to Kabul the year prior. Over more than a decade, the US government invested more than $150 million in the university, which became known as one of the country’s best and attracted top students. It had survived a deadly terror attack in 2016 by suspected Taliban militants, reopening the next year.

The Taliban seized the AUAF campus almost immediately after the US military completed its withdrawal in August.

“They had their flag on the campus’ watchtowers the very first day of the fall of Kabul,” student D said.

Student A told CNN that “hundreds” of Taliban are now on the campus that AUAF students once considered a second home.

Schweitzer said the Taliban have shared photos of themselves standing “on the stairway inside the Women’s Center, which is a 70,000-square-foot building dedicated to women’s economic empowerment,” she said. “The irony of that is quite extraordinary.”

Student D told CNN that even though they are “physically fine, I can’t deny the fact that the situation has affected me and my fellow students mentally at a different level.”

“AUAF was the only place where we, Afghans, had access to world-class education. I had many goals, and studying at AUAF made me feel a step closer to my goals every day,” they said.

“The thought of not being able to study there anymore and not being able to see the campus even once again really hurts me,” D said.

Schweitzer underscored that AUAF is not closing, telling CNN that “there was an overwhelming response from the students that said, ‘We need to keep going. We need to continue our education’.'”

Classes are continuing online, but some students told CNN this is not a tenable option long-term for them due to connectivity issues, electricity shortages and the cost of internet access.

Schweitzer said that the university’s funds in Afghanistan are frozen and they are “making some very serious and hard decisions as to how we can cut some costs in order to be able to manage with far less funds.”

‘Very hard for anyone to bear’

Natalie Gonnella-Platts, the director of the Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, told CNN that the US and the international community have a responsibility to support Afghan students “whether they’re in Afghanistan or whether they’re outside of Afghanistan.”

She pointed out that nearly half of the student body is women and that educational institutions like AUAF were a “direct contributor” to the gains made by women in Afghanistan over the past decade.

“Education has such an influence on development, prosperity, peace, stability, equity,” she said.

Schweitzer noted that “part of the value of this university was the gathering of not just males and females, but it was the gathering of ethnic minorities and people from different provinces.”

“That’s a terribly important part of all of this, learning to live together, learning transparency, critical thinking,” she said.

Approximately 150 students were able to get out during the US military evacuations, Schweitzer told CNN, and in the final days before the end of the US presence on the ground in Afghanistan, a group of AUAF students attempted to access the airport in Kabul to evacuate. However, the situation became too unsafe, and they had to turn back.

During a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Blinken said “yes” when asked by Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware if the State Department was prioritizing partners from AUAF for evacuation. In early September, Reps. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, and Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican, called on Blinken to “grant presumptive eligibility to the students and staff of AUAF for P-2 designation and do everything in your power to assist in their safe departure from Afghanistan.”

However, the State Department has said it will continue to first prioritize American citizens who wish to leave Afghanistan, and it is unclear when any large-scale relocation efforts for at-risk Afghans might resume.

Student C told CNN that many AUAF students and staff do not carry valid passports and the Taliban are not issuing passports, so they are looking to the State Department for help obtaining proper documentation. The US government does not currently have any presence on the ground in Afghanistan.

A State Department spokesperson told CNN “some AUAF students have departed Afghanistan” but “for security reasons, we cannot offer additional details about those departures or how many students remain.”

“We have been in regular communication with the American University of Afghanistan administrators about their efforts to evacuate the remaining students and staff still in Afghanistan,” they said.

However, the uncertainty about what is next “is very hard for anyone to bear,” in the words of student B.

“It’s very hard because we don’t know anything about the future,” they said.

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