They’ve already uprooted their lives once, fleeing Kabul – where they were studying at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) – when Afghanistan fell back under Taliban rule and the university was shuttered two years ago.
They were among the 110 AUAF students who were able to evacuate to Iraqi Kurdistan to continue studies at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani with the help of both universities, former Iraqi President Barham Salih, and a group called the Afghan Future Fund.
Now, the 23 students are awaiting approval to come to the United States, where they have been accepted into universities and received scholarships through the Qatar Scholarship for Afghans Project to finish their undergraduate degrees or pursue graduate ones.
“It’s been a year since my graduation. I’m still here, waiting,” one student in Iraq told CNN.
“I am left with uncertainty now,” a second student said, telling CNN that they fear they will be left “in limbo.”
CNN is not using the names of the students to protect their safety.
More than 100 displaced Afghan students – 80 of whom were in Iraq – have already come to the US, where they are studying at more than 45 universities, according to sources familiar with the situation.
The sources told CNN that most of the students are coming to the US as Priority 1 (P-1) refugees – a program they qualify for because of their affiliation with AUAF. The university received significant funding from the US government over the course of a decade and was targeted by suspected Taliban militants in a deadly 2016 attack. Its campus was seized by the Taliban almost immediately after the US military completed its withdrawal in August 2021.
The 23 students who remain in Iraq have not received P-1 approval yet. Sources say this is likely due to a security review process.
The students told CNN they don’t have any clear sense of when they will get approval to come to the US, and they are worried about what the continued delay means for their future.
Those who spoke to CNN have already had to defer their enrollment once, and likely will have to do so again as the start of fall semester looms. The second student said they had lost admission at their first university in the US because they were unable to travel there and enroll.
“This is basically my last hope,” this student said, noting they do not want to lose admission again.
“I do not want to lose another year of my life,” the first student said.
“I really want to study. I have worked really hard when I was in Afghanistan to get the chance of going to AUAF,” they said.
“I’m never going to give up on education,” they added.
“We Afghans lost almost everything, and this scholarship in the US is a very big opportunity for us,” a third student told CNN.
Going back to Afghanistan is not an option for these students, particularly those who are female. This is why they have sought the P-1 refugee status, which would give them a pathway to settle in the US after university.
The Taliban has enacted harsh restrictions against women and girls since coming back into power in two years ago. Girls and women have been barred from higher education and numerous work sectors; have been refused access to public spaces; have been ordered to cover themselves in public; and have had their travel abroad restricted.
“Anything that women do in Afghanistan is banned right now. You cannot exist as a woman,” the first student said.
For now, there are substantial efforts underway to try to get the students cleared to come to the US as soon as possible, with students reaching out to their prospective future members of Congress and advocates engaging with various agencies of the US government.
A US State Department spokesperson said they are “aware of the Afghan students at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani,” but could not comment on individual cases.
“Case processing in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program can be lengthy, however, we continue to prioritize processing cases of our Afghan allies and are working hard to speed up case processing across the USRAP,” the spokesperson said.
Vance Serchuk, an Afghan Futures Fund board member, said that his organization and others like Education Above All, Qatar Fund For Development, and the Institute of International Education “are committed to helping displaced Afghan students from the American University complete their education and realize their potential in safety.”
“These young people made the choice to attend the American university in Afghanistan at great risk to themselves; Americans now cannot be indifferent to their fate,” he said.