SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – When the Taliban closed in on the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August, what had been a privileged education at the US University of Afghanistan suddenly became a dangerous responsibility.
Students and staff were frantically looking for an escape route from a country that would fall to the Taliban with the withdrawal of US forces – a group that has described the US-funded university as a cave of infidels and closed schools and universities to girls and women.
However, Iraq was not the first destination that came to the students’ minds as a refuge.
“OK, now I’m leaving the Taliban,” said Mashall, 24, a master’s student in information technology. “And now I want to face ISIS,” she said, describing her concern about Islamic State as she said her evacuation flight would end in Iraq.
This fear has proved unfounded for Mashall and her classmates, who are among the first Afghan students to arrive at the American university in Iraq, Sulaimani. It is located in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya, a liberal metropolis filled with parks, filled with cafes and restaurants, and is considered the safest city in Iraq.
The students said they were aware of it when they arrived, welcomed in the middle of the night by the university president and professors with bouquets of flowers to a campus without high walls or security patrols.
So far, 109 young Afghans are studying in Sulaimaniya, part of the 300 American university students who are eventually expected to move there.
Many of the relocated students, traumatized by the loss of their homeland and haunted by worries about the families they left behind, are still in a state of shock and unsure of how to navigate life in a foreign country.
On the university campus, a group of emigrants told their stories to The New York Times, where they spoke in public for the first time since being evacuated from Kabul. The Times only uses their first names and does not show their faces in photographs to protect their families who are still in Afghanistan.
As the Taliban approached Kabul in August, Neda, a business student working part-time at the university, feverishly fed student documents into a fire on the nearly empty campus. “We tried to burn all contracts or documents so they could not find the students’ names and addresses,” she said.
The students and staff feared that the Taliban would chase them along with their families and kill them.
“The Taliban came to an office I was working in,” recalled Murtaza, a law student who was later evacuated. “They wanted to beat us. They called us infidels and American spies.”
That night in August, when Neda was burning papers, the foreign staff at the university had already been evacuated to a British-run security complex near the airport. For nearly four hours, Neda and a handful of other Afghans threw student plates into the fire.
And then it was time to set off for the British complex, in what would become a shocking journey that ended in what many of the students initially considered to be the dangerous destination in Iraq.
But the academic administrator of the Afghan university knew better.
Vice President Victoria Fontan had worked in Iraq and during the pandemic had collaborated with her colleague in Sulaimaniya on an online curriculum. When Kabul University began looking for a place to relocate students, she thought of Iraq, and a network of powerful friends set in motion.
President Barham Salih of Iraq, the founder of the University of Sulaimaniya and himself a former refugee, promised to accommodate up to 300 students and made sure they could enter without visas or in some cases even passports.
“The Iraqis really took a huge leap of faith in this,” said Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw, a technology incubator formerly known as Google Ideas. He became involved in a personal trait after being asked by a friend, an Afghan-born BBC journalist, to help evacuate students.
Mr. Cohen said that in a single afternoon, he received commitments from US philanthropists of $ 3 million to evacuate and fund the studies of the 109 Afghan students in Sulaimaniya and relocate another group of civil society professionals and journalists to another country. The Qatari government provided planes to evacuate the students.
The president of the Afghan university, Ian Bickford, said 106 other students had been sent to the US university in Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan and about 200 to other countries, including Pakistan and the United States.
Another 375 U.S. college students are still in Afghanistan, along with many more staff and hundreds of alumni, Mr. Bickford. Many are hiding.
Students in Afghanistan still have access to online courses led by teachers now living outside the country. But many of these students no longer have reliable Internet access or feel secure connecting, their former classmates said.
Some students, like Neda, are still traumatized by their escape. The British security complex, where she housed with the university’s foreign staff, was taken over by the Taliban, who demanded money and vehicles before letting the residents go. Neda was afraid that the Taliban, who later took pictures and videos of everyone on the buses to the airport, would admit that they were not foreigners but Afghans.
When they finally arrived at Kabul airport gate with the foreign staff, she said, British soldiers prevented them from entering.
Understand the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan
Who is the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including whipping, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origins and their record as rulers.
“They said, ‘No, you’re Afghan, you can not go,'” Neda said. She said they were thrown out of the airport and into an area controlled by the Taliban. “I was in a very bad situation because I had never seen the Taliban face to face.”
She eventually reached an evacuation plane from Qatar on August 21, where she left in a sandstorm amid the chaos of foreign soldiers, including Turks, trying to control an airport flooded with people desperate to escape.
“The Turkish army and American army treated us in a very bad way,” she said, wiping away the tears. “I mean, it was my own country, it was my own country. But still, they shouted at us.”
Neda did not tell her family that she was going to Iraq because she knew they would worry. “Everything you hear about Iraq is Islamic State and explosions,” she said.
One of the other students, a major in political science named Fatima, who plans to become a diplomat, had only lived in Kabul for four years. For years, she and her family were refugees in neighboring Pakistan, but she had persuaded them to return to Afghanistan so she could continue her education.
“When I came to Kabul, I thought I belonged to this country and it belongs to me,” she said. “It was such a beautiful feeling.”
Now Fatima is in yet another country – wondering what the future holds.
Murtza, 22, a law student who was among those moved, said he missed Kabul, even with its frequent power outages. ““I did not feel safe around Kabul,” he said. ‘But it was my hometown. It was my country. It was my soul and it was my heart. ”
Mujtaba, a law student, was among a group of students who moved to Sulaimaniya in October. Before leaving, he would lie awake at night listening to the constant roar of planes leaving Kabul.
“We could not sleep because of the sound. And not just the sound, the thought of so many amazing people just leaving the country. It was just devastating,” he said. Now he has become one of them. But he says he is determined to return to Afghanistan whenever he can, to help rebuild it.
Mujtaba taught English and ran a book club in Kabul, while also teaching his mother to read.
He showed videos of his brother and sister reading by the flashlight during a power outage in Kabul. While his brother is still in school, Mujtaba said, his sister, a ninth grader, was forced to quit after the Taliban closed high schools to girls.
In the small room he shares with another Afghan student in Sulaimaniya, Mujtaba writes inspirational notes to himself on sticky notes placed over his desk.
“Be strong,” said the note of the day, with a smiley face drawn below.