SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — Because the Taliban closed in on the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August, what had been a privileged training on the American College of Afghanistan immediately turned a harmful legal responsibility.
College students and workers frantically looked for an escape route from a rustic that, with the withdrawal of American forces, would fall to the Taliban — a gaggle that has described the U.S.-funded college as a den of infidels and has shut schools and universities for girls and women.
Iraq, although, was not the primary vacation spot that got here to the scholars’ minds as a refuge.
“OK, now I’m leaving the Taliban behind,” mentioned Mashall, 24, a grasp’s pupil in info expertise. “And now I’m going to face ISIS,” she mentioned, describing her concern over the Islamic State when instructed her evacuation flight would find yourself in Iraq.
These fears have proved unfounded for Mashall and her classmates, who’re among the many first Afghan college students to reach on the American University of Iraq within the Kurdish metropolis of Sulaimaniya, a liberal metropolis dotted with parks, crammed with cafes and eating places, and regarded the most secure main metropolis in Iraq.
The scholars mentioned they realized as a lot once they arrived, welcomed in the course of the night time by the college’s president and professors with bouquets of flowers to a campus with no excessive partitions or safety patrols.
Up to now, 109 younger Afghans are learning in Sulaimaniya, a portion of the 300 American College college students which are finally anticipated to relocate there.
Most of the relocated college students, traumatized by the lack of their homeland and haunted by fear over the households they left behind, are nonetheless in a state of shock and unsure tips on how to navigate life in an odd land.
On the college campus, a gaggle of relocated college students instructed their tales to The New York Occasions, talking publicly for the primary time since they have been evacuated from Kabul. The Occasions is utilizing solely their first names and isn’t exhibiting their faces in pictures to guard their households nonetheless in Afghanistan.
Because the Taliban neared Kabul in August, Neda, a enterprise pupil who labored part-time on the college, frantically fed pupil paperwork into a hearth on the almost empty campus. “We tried to burn all of the contracts or paperwork in order that they couldn’t discover the scholars’ names and addresses,” she mentioned.
The scholars and workers feared the Taliban would hunt them down together with their households and kill them.
“The Taliban got here to an workplace I used to be working at,” recalled Murtaza, a legislation pupil who was later evacuated. “They wished to beat us. They referred to as us infidels and American spies.”
That night time in August, as Neda burned papers, the international workers on the college had already been evacuated to a British-run safety compound close to the airport. For nearly 4 hours Neda and a handful of different Afghans threw pupil information into the hearth.
After which it was time to depart for the British compound, in what would turn out to be a harrowing journey ending in what lots of the college students initially thought of to be the harmful vacation spot of Iraq.
However the Afghan college’s tutorial administrator knew higher.
Vice President Victoria Fontan had labored in Iraq and through the pandemic had collaborated together with her counterpart in Sulaimaniya on an internet curriculum. When the Kabul college began looking for a spot to relocate college students, she considered Iraq and a community of highly effective mates kicked into motion.
President Barham Salih of Iraq, the founding father of the college in Sulaimaniya and himself a former refugee, pledged to soak up as much as 300 college students and organized for them to enter with out visas or in some circumstances even passports.
“The Iraqis actually took an infinite leap of religion on this,” mentioned Jared Cohen, the chief government of Jigsaw, a expertise incubator previously often known as Google Concepts. He turned concerned in a private capability after being requested by a good friend, an Afghan-born BBC journalist, to assist evacuate college students.
Mr. Cohen mentioned he obtained in a single afternoon from American philanthropists pledges of $3 million to evacuate and fund the research of the 109 Afghan college students in Sulaimaniya and relocate one other group of civil society professionals and journalists to a different nation. The Qatari authorities supplied planes to evacuate the scholars.
The president of the Afghan college, Ian Bickford, mentioned one other 106 college students had been despatched to the American College of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan, and about 200 to different international locations, together with Pakistan and the USA.
One other 375 American College college students are nonetheless in Afghanistan together with many extra workers and a whole bunch of alumni, Mr. Bickford mentioned. Many are in hiding.
College students in Afghanistan nonetheless have entry to on-line programs led by academics now residing outdoors the nation. However a lot of these college students now not have dependable entry to the web or really feel secure to attach, their former classmates mentioned.
Some college students, like Neda, are nonetheless traumatized by their escape. The British safety compound the place she was sheltering with the college’s international workers was taken over by the Taliban, who demanded cash and automobiles earlier than they let the occupants depart. Neda was terrified that the Taliban, who later took images and movies of everybody on the buses to the airport, would acknowledge they weren’t foreigners however Afghans.
Once they lastly arrived on the Kabul airport gate with the international workers, she mentioned, British troopers barred them from getting into.
Perceive the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who’re the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that got here after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, together with floggings, amputations and mass executions, to implement their guidelines. Right here’s extra on their origin story and their record as rulers.
“They mentioned, ‘No, you guys are Afghans, you can’t go,’” Neda mentioned. She mentioned they have been kicked out of the airport and into an space managed by the Taliban. “I used to be in a really unhealthy scenario as a result of I had by no means seen the Taliban nose to nose.”
Finally, she made it onto a Qatari evacuation flight on Aug. 21, leaving in a sandstorm amid the chaos of international troopers together with Turks making an attempt to regulate an airport overrun with individuals determined to flee.
“The Turkish military and American military handled us in a really unhealthy manner,” she mentioned, wiping away tears. “I imply, it was my very own nation, it was my very own land. However nonetheless they shouted at us.”
Neda didn’t inform her household she was going to Iraq as a result of she knew they’d fear. “All you hear about Iraq is the Islamic State and explosions,” she mentioned.
Murtza, 22, a legislation pupil who was amongst these relocated, mentioned he missed Kabul, even with its frequent electrical energy cuts. “I didn’t really feel secure round Kabul,” he mentioned. “However it was my hometown. It was my nation. It was my soul and it was my coronary heart.”
Mujtaba, a legislation pupil, was among a group of students who relocated to Sulaimaniya in October. Earlier than he left, he would lie awake at night time, listening to the fixed roar of planes leaving Kabul.
“We couldn’t sleep due to the sound. And never simply the sound, the thought that so many nice persons are simply leaving the nation. It was simply devastating,” he mentioned. Now he has turn out to be considered one of them. However he says he’s decided to return to Afghanistan when he can to assist rebuild it.
Mujtaba taught English and ran a e-book membership in Kabul, whereas additionally educating his mom to learn.
Within the small room he shares with one other Afghan pupil in Sulaimaniya, Mujtaba writes inspirational notes to himself on sticky notes positioned above his desk.
“Be robust,” mentioned that day’s observe, with a smiley face drawn beneath.