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Female Afghan Students Decry US Visa Denial

FILE — Afghans protest the ban on university education for women, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2022. Four female students say their visa applications to the U.S. and Canadian embassies in Islamabad were denied, despite each presenting fully funded scholarship awards. 
FILE — Afghans protest the ban on university education for women, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2022. Four female students say their visa applications to the U.S. and Canadian embassies in Islamabad were denied, despite each presenting fully funded scholarship awards. 

Nineteen-year-old Dewa — not her real name — had an admission letter to an undergraduate college program in the United States and a scholarship covering all her expenses. But the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, rejected her student visa application, saying they believed she was intending to immigrate.

Following the initial refusal in August, Dewa made a second attempt in October, bolstering her application with a support letter from a U.S. congressman urging the embassy to give "full and fair consideration" to her case.

That didn't work either.

In recounting her experience with VOA over the phone, Dewa said, "The visa officer only said that I did not prove that I will return to my home country."

The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan did not respond to emailed inquiries and phone calls.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State confirmed to VOA that all visa applications, including student visas, are adjudicated in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act. That includes the requirement to overcome the presumption of immigration intent.

"Consular officers assess the circumstances of each student visa applicant and our guidance instructs consular officers to adjudicate student visa applications based on the applicant's present intent rather than to speculate about what might happen in the future," the spokesperson wrote.

Now facing the prospect of deportation from Pakistan as her short-term visa expires in two weeks, Dewa is confronted with the grim reality of her future in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have imposed restrictions on education for girls, closure of secondary schools and universities, and serious limitations on women's work.

In support of Dewa's dream of an education in the United States, her father borrowed $4,000 from relatives to pay for their trip to Pakistan, accommodation, and visa application fees.

"I feel terrified every time I remember that my family has wasted everything we had in my journey for education," Dewa says.

Dewa's plight is further compounded by the trauma of a deadly earthquake in October that destroyed her family's home in Herat province.

'Condemned in Afghanistan'

Three other female students, who did not want their real names to be used in this article, shared similar accounts, revealing that their visa applications to the U.S. and Canadian embassies in Islamabad were denied, despite each presenting fully funded scholarship awards.

"My visa application was rejected summarily on the ground that I did not prove strong ties to my country," said Fahima Amini, who has been admitted to a postgraduate program at Niagara University in the United States.

Shukria Ahmadzai, another student, faced delays and an eventual rejection by the Canadian Embassy without an explanation.

Describing the decisions as "callous" and "illogical," these Afghan female students voiced how their dreams for education and a better future have been shattered.

"We are condemned in Afghanistan just because of our gender, and we are rejected by the rest of the world," said Amini, whose visa applications to both the U.S. and Canada were denied last year.

Human rights groups are urging the United Nations to officially recognize what they term "gender apartheid" in Afghanistan and hold Taliban officials accountable for misogynistic policies.

Some also point to stringent visa requirements as a hurdle for Afghan women seeking education abroad.

"If the Taliban's policy is monstrous, inhumane, and illegal, so too is the U.S. government's apparent policy of excluding women from Afghanistan from entering the United States," said Kevin Hinkley, a professor of political science and co-director of the Justice House Program at Niagara University.

Hinkley highlighted the challenges faced by two of the four Afghan women admitted for the 2024 cohort at Niagara University, who have been attempting to obtain U.S. visas since 2021.

Despite repeated declarations of support for Afghan women by U.S. officials, Hinkley criticized the lack of tangible action.

"The Biden administration's policy — as enforced by the U.S. State Department's Consular Affairs Bureau at the embassy in Islamabad — appears to be one of systematic discrimination and exclusion, denying Afghan women and girls access to educational opportunities in the U.S. on the same terms as international students from any other country in the world."

Hundreds granted visas

In the wake of the Taliban's takeover in 2021, the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has left Afghan citizens seeking U.S. consular services with limited options, often requiring them to travel to a third country, predominantly neighboring Pakistan.

However, for many, especially women without a male chaperone, the journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan is fraught with difficulties and steep costs.

In contrast to the stringent no-immigration intent requirement for U.S. student visas, several European countries have stepped up to offer refugee status to Afghan women due to the Taliban's pervasive gender discrimination and persecution within Afghanistan.

"Being a woman from Afghanistan is in itself considered to be a sufficient basis for obtaining protection in Sweden," Carl Bexelius, an official at the Swedish Migration Agency, said last year.

"From now on, women and girls from Afghanistan will be covered by section 7, subsection 1 of the Aliens Act. 1, (asylum) solely because of their gender," the Danish Refugee Board said in a statement in January.

The United States has admitted tens of thousands of Afghans over the past two years, mostly individuals who worked for the U.S. military in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2001.

The number of Afghans awarded student visa has also gone up significantly. From September 2021 to September 2023, at least 700 student visas were issued to Afghan applicants compared to about 180 student visas awarded in the two preceding years, according to the Department of State.

However, the Department of State refrained from disclosing the number of rejected student visa applications, stating that publicly available data does not include a breakdown of student visa refusals or total applications by applicant country.

Those denied a visa, like Dewa, question the apparent disparity between the U.S.'s official policy of supporting Afghan women and the hurdles faced by individuals seeking education in America.

"How can the U.S. embrace Afghan men through a special immigration program, individuals with a history of violence, corruption, and failure, while rejecting girls who come to America for education?" she asked.