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WSU staff remain committed to assisting Afghans

Afghan homes sitting on a hillside with a view of the rest of the city of Kabul.
Kabul, Afghanistan - Photo by Scott Avery

Scott Avery arrived in Afghanistan in 2009 to monitor and evaluate a federally funded effort, implemented by WSU, to help rebuild the country’s higher education system.

Thirty years of war and instability had devastated the country’s colleges and universities. Most faculty had fled in the years prior, and there were virtually no women at institutions of higher learning under Taliban reign. With little but the bare buildings as a starting point, the WSU Afghan eQuality Alliances (AeQA) got to work.

“The project started from virtually nothing,” Avery, now WSU’s director of Graduate Assessment, said. “It began with getting the lights back on and other basic efforts.”

A decade later, conditions are dire in Afghanistan for those who worked on the AeQA and other WSU-involved projects, as well as U.S.-backed efforts in general. While universities across the U.S. have worked to help get Afghan partners to safety as the Taliban reclaimed control of the country, most remain there and in need of assistance. Even those who have gotten out face an uncertain future.

From keeping the lights on to awarding degrees

Early on in the rebuilding project, the resolve to get higher education systems functioning again was notable on many levels. In the winter months, electricity had to be used either to heat buildings or run computer labs. What Afghan academics and students lacked in resources they made up for in optimism.

“We met with older faculty who worked with American universities 30 to 40 years ago who acted like it was just yesterday,” Avery recalled.

A logo of the United States Agency for International Development came to epitomize the persistent relationship between U.S. and Afghan universities. Though the books inside Kabul University’s library had been burned or removed by the Taliban, the logo, worn with the passage of time, remained.

The combined efforts of U.S. and Afghan universities bore fruit.

Avery saw classrooms full of young men and women eagerly pursuing their educational ambitions across the country. The quality of education being offered improved significantly, and women became a fixture of the faculty and student populations. More than 100 Afghan civil servants earned master’s degrees as part of a new Public Policy and Administration program at Kabul University. The first paper diplomas in decades were handed out during the time of the Afghan eQuality Alliances project, with dignitaries such as Hamid Karzai in attendance to witness the proceedings.

Once funding for AeQA ended, Avery returned to the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul picked up a portion of the project for one year, focusing on English language training, which Avery monitored from abroad. In the years that followed, he kept in touch with around two dozen Afghans whom he worked alongside as part of U.S. efforts.

“These relationships between universities in the United States and Afghanistan have endured despite overwhelming challenges at times, and I know when things change again, those memories and relationships will provide the foundation for the future,” he said.

Responding to calls for help

For now, Afghanistan remains in turmoil. Earlier this year, the world watched as desperate Afghans amassed at the airport in Kabul in hopes of boarding one of the few flights out of the country.

In just 11 days, the county’s government collapsed, a descent so rapid it caught U.S. officials and military experts completely off guard. During that time, Avery heard from more than two dozen Afghan colleagues who had worked with WSU on the AeQA project. He received nearly constant calls, emails, texts, and social media messages from Afghans during the collapse, desperate for a way out.

Afghans on the ground recounted being harassed, threatened, spit on, and beaten alongside their families as they attempted to make it to the airport checkpoints. As he collected personal information necessary for visa consideration, Avery saw the faces of his colleagues for the first time in 10 years. What made the situation even more visceral was seeing the faces of their children. It made the question of whether to recommend they go to the airport at a time of violence even more difficult.

“Do you tell them to go to the airport with young kids, knowing that there are Taliban at checkpoints looking for people who worked with the United States,” Avery asked. “We didn’t know what was going to happen during this dangerous and chaotic situation.”

The names of more than 120 Afghans who assisted on WSU projects and their families were passed along to U.S. authorities for evacuation consideration. Another 200 Afghan scholars who studied under WSU programs may be eligible for refugee status. Only about a dozen have managed to flee Afghanistan so far.

Scott Avery and Erin-Kae Rice work closely with WSU faculty, the State Department and other federal agencies to assist with visa processing information for qualified Afghan refugees who were previously on the WSU projects.

“There is a long wait for our colleagues in the visa process and we are committed to assist where we can as they navigate through the various systems,” Rice, director of Global Partnerships and Research Services at WSU, said.

Getting out of Afghanistan remains the chief hurdle for the majority seeking refugee status. While the state of Washington expects to welcome 1,700 Afghan refugees in the short term, communities face a significant shortage of temporary housing and supportive funding.

Finding help for students and scholars in crisis

As during previous crises, WSU remains committed to assisting Afghans who previously helped its efforts in the country.

“For students and scholars on campus with their families, we have provided wraparound services for those in crisis, including Syrian students and scholars, for years as crises arise worldwide,” Rice said. “We have worked with the university and local community to care for them and their families as we could.”

The university is working to become part of the Every Campus is a Refuge movement as well as the Scholars at Risk Network. WSU staff meet weekly with leaders from other universities to discuss ongoing efforts to address the crisis. And while International Programs’ emergency assistance fund has been under intense demand lately, Paul Whitney, associate vice president for international programs said efforts are underway to add more funding and build additional financial capacity for visiting students and scholars.

Organizations assisting refugees need financial support to continue their vital work, Whitney said. Within WSU communities, a warm reception also goes a long way.

“Americans are good at helping their neighbors and their communities, and especially here in Pullman and Moscow, we have strong communities that welcome people wherever they are coming from,” Avery said.

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