‘I Felt Like the Luckiest Girl in the World’: Afghan Students Restart College in the U.S.

About 10 students, all women—some dressed in shorts, others in ripped jeans or workout clothes—sit in a circle on comfortable couches, peppering three Arizona State University (ASU) professors with questions. 

One young woman wants to know what majors she should consider to get a good-paying job after graduation. Another classmate quips that she’ll study anything as long as it doesn’t involve math. The conversation shifts to plans for a fashion show, dance performance and art display they’re organizing for a Persian New Year celebration.

“We still need to get high heels,” says one of the students, who’s looking forward to the fashion show.

These women may look and sound like ordinary college students, but their lives tell a different story.

Oranous Koofi, 25, escaped the Afghan capital, Kabul, and her home country with only her cell phone.

Masooma Ebrahimi, 25, is a refugee for the second time in her life—both due to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Oranous Koofi studies for a journalism class in her apartment in Tempe, Ariz., on Sept. 18, 2022. Koofi moved into university accommodations in May after a five-month stay at a hotel near campus. (Lisa Patel)

There are 146 other Afghan women like them in the United States, all of whom had taken up studies at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. This made them exceptions in a country where a generation of women was largely banned from pursuing higher education.

They all returned home once the pandemic shut down their school, only to flee Afghanistan in the turmoil that followed the Taliban’s return to power last August.

The students’ improbable escape was chronicled by journalists worldwide at a time when every escape from Afghanistan seemed miraculous. Stories told of women crammed into buses for three days, trying to get past the chaos at the airport gates in Kabul. Students watched a bullet pierce one of their buses, flames from explosives detonated by a suicide bomber that killed hundreds, and one of their classmates beg the Taliban to let their bus through one of the checkpoints.

In all, 148 Afghan women who had been college students in Bangladesh landed in the U.S.—able to flee thanks to an extraordinary effort from their university, private businesses and government officials across the world. The majority of the women traveled to Saudi Arabia and Spain before arriving in Virginia, then Wisconsin. From there, they transitioned to more than half a dozen U.S. university campuses.

Sixty-four of them arrived at ASU last December, including Koofi and Ebrahimi. Since then, they’ve been adjusting into a new life, one surrounded by a sense of freedom that can be at once liberating and also unsettling. Theirs is a life that looks as different as possible from the one they had left behind.

All That They Knew

While the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, most girls could not go to school. Only about 9 percent of the country’s women ages 15 to 49 have completed secondary or higher education and only about 15 percent are literate, according to the last available nationally representative data from 2015.

After U.S. troops ousted the Taliban in 2001, the international community spent years investing in Afghan education. These efforts yielded record-breaking successes: A 20-year UNESCO review of education-related progress in Afghanistan found primary school enrollment increased from around 1 million in 2001, with almost no girls in school, to around 10 million in 2018—when about 40 percent of all students were girls.

In the same period, the number of female students enrolled in colleges grew from about 5,000 to 90,000. Organizations like the Feminist Majority Foundation, a sister organization to Ms. magazine, also helped young women from Afghanistan pursue university educations in the U.S., many of whom returned to Afghanistan to work in different fields.

But the Taliban’s return to power after the U.S. troops’ withdrawal last year threatens to undo that progress. Girls in sixth grade and above are largely unable to return to school, despite promises the Taliban made to the international community and despite public opinion in Afghanistan.

That predicament goes against public opinion in the country. A 2019 survey conducted annually by The Asia Foundation found that most Afghans supported equal access to education for boys and girls. The survey also found that 75 percent of Afghans approved of women having equal access to a university education in their own province, but only 36 percent supported women studying abroad. Recent reports suggest the hypocrisy of some members of the Taliban who are secretly enrolling their daughters in schools.

For several years before the Taliban’s return to power, the Afghan women who are now in the U.S. left their country to enroll at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Most are members of the Hazara ethnic group, which has been targeted by the Taliban and others because of cultural, linguistic and religious differences.

The women had full scholarships to study alongside hundreds of other women from more than a dozen countries across Asia, taking courses in biology, economics, psychology, public health and more. Koofi and Ebrahimi are from a generation in Afghanistan who have seen women in their country work as doctors, teachers, government officials and journalists. Because of that, they could dare to dream similar dreams of their own.

Asian University for Women was founded in 2008 through private funding and initial grant support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. According to the university’s website, it recruits students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with preference given to those who are the first in their family to attend college.

Both Koofi and Ebrahimi come from families that value education and have high expectations for both their sons and daughters, despite—or because of—their own lack of opportunities. They said their parents were willing to send them abroad even though they feared not only the separation it would mean for their families, but the risks that their daughters might face traveling to, and living alone in, a foreign country.

“They were thinking I may have a bright future and they were very happy,” Ebrahimi said, describing how her parents felt as she left for higher studies in Bangladesh.

A Brief Respite

Ebrahimi and Koofi had settled into college life in Chittagong, Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim city in a predominantly Muslim country. They celebrated holidays they knew, like Eid, listened to the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, from a mosque nearby like back home, and observed familiar customs, like covering their heads with scarves when out in public.

Given the diversity of the student body, they were exposed to many new cultures as well. There always seemed to be a new holiday or festival to learn about and celebrate on campus, from the Chinese New Year to Holi, Diwali and more. Their days revolved around comfortable routines—going to classes and participating in clubs like debate, photography and art.

“Once a week we had dance class for two hours. A Bangladeshi teacher taught us kathak,” Ebrahimi said, describing a classical dance form she was first introduced to at the Asian University for Women.

Then came COVID-19. In June 2020, the women were told the campus was closing down and they had to return to Afghanistan.

Resuming their former lives after many months of relative freedom in Chittagong was hard. They tried to continue their studies online, but the internet was unreliable. Frequent power outages meant it was even a challenge to recharge their cell phones.

None of that compared to what happened when American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and the Taliban resumed power.

The women spent several weeks that summer worried this would mark the end of the life they had always known. Under Taliban control, they feared their dreams of obtaining a college education would be over. On top of that, they knew they would face the prospect of severe restrictions in their daily lives, like limits over the clothes they could wear to whether they could go to the doctor, get a job, or even move about on their own.

So they escaped.

Ebrahimi and Koofi

Upheaval is not new to Ebrahimi. Nor is uncertainty about her future.

When the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan in the late ’90s, Ebrahimi was a toddler living in the largely Hazara-populated province of Ghazni. Members of their ethnic group had been harassed by the Taliban for years, but when her father was directly threatened, the family decided to flee their home country in 2009 seeking safety in neighboring Pakistan.

Masooma Ebrahimi on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe, on Sept. 18, 2022.  She is majoring in global health and hopes to help better the lives of children and women in the future. (Lisa Patel)

Ebrahimi was 13 when they settled in the outskirts of Quetta, Pakistan. She continued her studies and lived there with her parents as a refugee, until she left for Afghanistan around age 19 for higher studies.

As a child, Ebrahimi spent lots of time reading, and her parents encouraged her educational pursuits. Her father remained consistent in his support—from the daily trips to drop her off to her elementary school in a neighboring village on his motorbike, to when he accompanied her from Pakistan to Kabul to help her settle in for her first year of university studies despite his concerns about her safety.

Ebrahimi’s face lights up as she relives the memory of the inauguration of a new school in her village when she was in fourth grade. “We kids were so happy that it was near and that we could go by ourselves,” she said.

As a teenager, Ebrahimi was determined to attend university one day. She couldn’t pursue a higher education in Pakistan, she said, because she didn’t have any kind of official identification in the country. She knew the only place she could get official papers and attend university was Afghanistan.

So, despite strong hesitation from her parents who lived with memories of feeling unsafe in their home country and not wanting their daughter to experience the same, after many months of “struggle to convince them” Ebrahimi’s tenacity paid off and she joined Kabul University in 2017.

While in Kabul, Ebrahimi learned about, applied for and was offered a scholarship to study at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. The adventure appealed to her: She would take her first-ever international plane trip and be able to study with women from many different countries for the first time. After her two years in Kabul, her family also was relieved she was moving to a safer environment for her education.

She switched from studying chemistry to focusing on bettering her English language and math skills with the hope of picking a major that would allow her to have a career in public service where she could help others.

Despite all the disruptions in her life, the one constant Ebrahimi has held onto is focusing on obtaining an education.

Oranous Koofi in front of her campus apartment building in Tempe, on Sept. 18, 2022. She is majoring in journalism and hopes to go into broadcasting. (Lisa Patel)

Koofi enrolled at the university in 2019, the same year as Ebrahimi. Koofi also learned from her family that nothing was more important than getting an education. She remembers her mother bribing one of her brothers with daily pocket money to get him to go to school.

Koofi comes from a politically active family: Her grandfather and aunt both served as members of the Afghan parliament. Most of her siblings and cousins, both the men and the women, have university degrees and work outside the home. She was raised to believe in the possibility of a bright future through education.

When the Taliban first took over Afghanistan in the ’90s, girls were no longer allowed to attend school. Koofi was a toddler at the time, but it meant that her eldest sister, Mary Koofi, had to drop out. She was able to finish high school in the early 2000s after the Taliban had been ousted. By then, Mary was married with four children.

At 25, Koofi is unmarried—an anomaly in her family and in a country where women are typically married at a much younger age. Her oldest sister married at 17. Her two other sisters married at 21 and 23. Koofi said in her culture, if a woman isn’t married by the age of 20, people wonder “what is wrong with you?”

But Koofi said that she was far more interested in going to school and having a career than in starting a family. And unlike her brother, her mother never had to push her to study.

She always dreamed of attending college abroad, so when she saw a Facebook post for the opportunity for an education at the Asian University for Women, she said she jumped at the chance. Only her mother and one of her older sisters knew she had applied, and it was only when she was accepted that she told the rest of her family.

“I felt like the luckiest girl in the world,” she said.

At first, she struggled with her classes, which were all taught in English, unlike back in Afghanistan. Soon, though, she came to consider Bangladesh her second home. She learned to like spicy food and even grew used to the humid and hot weather.

She enjoyed going to a nearby park and recording TikToks of herself narrating Persian poetry. When her roommates were out and she had her room to herself, she would play music and record herself dancing, although she didn’t share the videos with anyone.

Koofi said she felt grateful to be out of Afghanistan and attending university abroad. She was disappointed when she had to return to Afghanistan because of the pandemic, but tried to make the best of it, living with her sister in Kabul and attending classes online.

Then her world turned completely upside down.

After the Taliban gained control of the government, the Asian University for Women decided to try to bring the students back to Bangladesh, arranging charter buses to pick the students up around Kabul and take them to the airport, where they would board a charter flight to Chittagong.

It took the students three days to successfully make their way through multiple checkpoints and cut through the chaos that preceded the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. When they finally got to the airport, Koofi said, they learned that no private planes were being allowed to take off, so they would be put onto a military plane instead.

Only after they got on the plane did they realize they would be heading not to Bangladesh, but to the U.S.

At first, Koofi was disoriented. Instead of heading to a country that had started to feel like a second home, she was going to a country she had only seen on television. The U.S., in her mind, was all urban like New York City.

Looking back, Koofi views what happened as a good thing. If she and her friends had returned to Bangladesh and graduated from college there, what would they do after that? The Taliban is unlikely to let them work, she said. A U.S. education would open up new doors.

The Other Side of the World

Ebrahimi is a refugee once again—this time in the U.S., where she is starting her third attempt to complete a bachelor’s degree. Her parents and one of her sisters continue to live in Pakistan. She also has a brother in France, a brother in Australia, and a younger sister studying in Iran. 

Most of Koofi’s relatives left Afghanistan two weeks after her—now scattered throughout Europe. Both feel freer to talk about their lives in and escape from Afghanistan than do many of her classmates, who fear sharing their stories could affect the lives of families left behind.

Since December, Koofi and Ebrahimi have been trying to adjust to an entirely new life studying at ASU in the college city of Tempe.

Sometimes they and their classmates from Afghanistan succeed, like when they take an exam for English placement and realize they know more of the language than they thought they did. And sometimes they struggle, like trying to fast for Ramadan without the support of a community where doing so is the norm.

After their arrival, Ebrahimi, Koofi and most of the other student refugees in Arizona were living in a hotel close to campus until more dormitory spaces opened up. Ebrahimi was part of the first batch to move into the dorms. 

Her first night there, her three roommates welcomed her in their common area. They showed her how to use the washer and dryer and access Netflix. “They were very nice,” she said.

Ebrahimi’s tiny room has floor-to-ceiling windows, a full-sized bed, a small desk and chair—every item in its place. On the floor is a small quilt with a decidedly American pattern of colorful interlocking squares making a floating pinwheel pattern that she picked up during her three month stay at the Fort McCoy U.S. Army base when she first arrived in the U.S. It currently serves as her prayer rug. 

Koofi reminds herself that if she adapted to Bangladesh, she can do the same here.

She has realized that having male classmates doesn’t change how she feels in the classroom. She’s not afraid to compete with them or speak up. She’s still puzzled, though, by her classmates in the U.S.—they spend their breaks on their phones instead of talking to one another. She sometimes misses the friendly chatter of the students and faculty in Bangladesh.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Koofi’s hotel room are the clothes. They hang from hooks and hangers along one wall, where Western-style pants, shirts and dresses compete with colorful scarves, shalwars (loose-fitting trousers) and kameezes (long tops) worn by many women in South Asia. Sandals and shoes are neatly lined up against another wall, and her hotel room desk has been turned into a vanity, with rows of multi-colored nail polish bottles and makeup.

The juxtaposition represents the conflict Koofi lives every day as a woman from a traditional Muslim country who is now in an environment where she can make her own decisions and be whoever she wants to be.

Ebrahimi said she feels independent for the first time in a long time. Her four Afghan friends whom she relied on most in Bangladesh are scattered at other universities in the U.S.

“I was very afraid of going alone, like I could not take my meal alone,” she says describing her first few days in Tempe.  “But now, freely whenever I want to go somewhere I just decide and go.”

Ebrahimi took advantage of a relatively empty college campus over the summer to do something she had never done before—learn how to ride a bicycle. Every evening for three days straight, she and a fellow Afghan classmate walked their bikes, donated by a local nonprofit, Welcome to America Project, to a part of campus with wide pathways.

Masooma Ebrahimi rides her bicycle on the Arizona State University campus on Sept. 18, 2022. She learned how to ride a bike just this past summer practicing on campus pathways. (Lisa Patel)

There they held each other up, and practiced. They fell and got back on again until each felt confident cycling on her own.

Ebrahimi’s bicycle is a lavender cruiser painted with bright white flowers like one sees in spring.

A New Day

Nowruz, which means “a new day” in Persian, is a spring festival that celebrates rebirth and new beginnings. It’s observed in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and many other countries.

This year, the city of Phoenix celebrated its first-ever Nowruz at City Hall, an opportunity to welcome the thousands of Afghan refugees who have arrived in the area and help with their transition. The mayor, Kate Gallego, proclaimed March 21, 2022, Nowruz Day in Phoenix.

Koofi and about a dozen of their classmates from Afghanistan volunteered to be part of the festivities. Ebrahimi was in the audience supporting them.

Unsurprisingly, Koofi was drawn to participate in the fashion show. She dressed in a long flowing traditional loose fitting, bright orange Afghan outfit accented with a silver headpiece. She smiled broadly as she walked onto stage and then stepped into the center of the cheering crowd. After the show was over, she went and changed into a short red dress with a matching red purse. She looked as if she could have taken another turn on stage.

Oranous Koofi poses in a traditional Afghan dress after participating in a fashion show at the Nowruz celebration at Phoenix City Hall in Arizona on March 18, 2022. The Persian New Year, Nowruz, marks the beginning of spring. (Lisa Patel)

The dress, she confided, came from Goodwill. Thrift shopping is something she has recently discovered.

Will she be sending photos of her fashion show debut to her family?

Koofi laughed at the question. Maybe, she said, but her mother will immediately ask why she isn’t wearing a headscarf.

As they get ready for the fall semester, Koofi taking classes to major in journalism, a dream field her family had steered her away from back home, and Ebrahimi global health, the women are keenly aware of the approaching one year anniversary of their arrival in the United States.

Ebrahmi recalled befriending a 10-year-old girl at Fort McCoy last September. The little girl’s father was back in Afghanistan and asked what she should do as she missed him and her friends back home. After hearing this, “I was about to cry,” said Ebrahimi. All she could say to the little girl was, “Time will pass and we will go back to Afghanistan together.”

Does she really think this as she reads news about her country from here?

Ebrahimi smiled with some sadness in her eyes. “Everything is bad for girls right now in the country,” she said. But “of course”  it is her dream to one day be able to go back.

Up next:

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Dr. Lisa Patel is a Howard fellow at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is a former U.S. diplomat and an international development expert well-versed in foreign policy and global health issues, especially in South Asia. She has a Ph.D. in maternal and child health.