Afghan semifinalists for next year's Fulbright scholars' program are asking the U.S. government about the status of their candidacies, following the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August.
"After the fall of Kabul on August 15, we did not hear back from the U.S. State Department on the Fulbright program regarding the status of our applications," said Maryam Jami, a law school graduate and applicant from Herat, referring to the Taliban takeover of the Afghan capital on that date.
The Fulbright Foreign Student Program "enables graduate students, young professionals and artists from abroad to study and conduct research in the United States," according to the program's website, which says about 4,000 foreign students are awarded a scholarship each year.
The prestigious awards offer educational opportunities at little cost, through the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in conjunction with the Institute of International Education, which is headquartered in New York. The scholars teach or do research for one year or longer.
Jami, who said she wants to study for her master's degree in law in the U.S. through the Fulbright program, said applicants have reached out to the program to no avail. The last week of August, "they sent us an official email stating that they are going to inform us in the coming weeks," she said.
VOA this week reached out to a State Department official who responded that the agency is aware of the applicants' worries.
"We are tracking events in Afghanistan closely and are reviewing the future of the Fulbright program. We are committed to the aspirations of Afghan students and scholars," the statement said.
"This fall, we have welcomed onto U.S. campuses the largest cohort ever of Fulbright students from Afghanistan. We appreciate the continued interest of next year's semi-finalists in study in the United States. We know that this is a challenging time for these Afghan students and their families. Interviews were postponed from June to September due to staffing and logistical constraints presented by the COVID pandemic."
With the U.S. Embassy in Kabul closed, the official web page for the diplomatic mission shows an error message.
The State Department has canceled its Fulbright program in the past for safety reasons, such as when a country has experienced turmoil, after the candidates are selected. At such times, the scholarships were rescinded, and the finalists had to reapply if they wanted to pursue the Fulbright again.
The program has also been cut short because of COVID-19. U.S. Fulbright students had the option of returning to the U.S. or remaining in their host countries during the 2020 pandemic.
Applicants said their hopes to leave Afghanistan to participate in the Fulbright program feel shaken.
"If the Department of State and the Fulbright program do not reply to my request and don't hold an interview, I do not have any future," said Farhad Ehsani from Kabul. Ehsani said this is his second time applying for the program.
"I will migrate to Pakistan, Iran or some other country because if I stay in Afghanistan, I will not have a good future," he said.
Esmatullah Muslim from Kandahar applied for an environmental management program in the U.S.
"The Fulbright scholarship program is an educational program, and it should not be politicized, or it should not be political. We demand that it should continue as normal, as well as for the following year," he said.
"The situation is really heartbreaking, especially for women, because we are denied education now in Afghanistan," Jami said. "Girls do not have access to even secondary education after elementary school. They cannot continue. They must stay home. We thought the international community will help us. … We all have plans for Afghanistan, and we want to pursue those plans through education."
Niamatullah Sayed received a bachelor's degree in law and wants to pursue a master's in banking and finance. He said the semifinalists are awaiting word from the State Department.
"We have given our high efforts and waited a long time. We deserve to be interviewed," he said. "We know that as of now, we do not have official governmental relations with the U.S., but this is an academic and cultural exchange program that shall not be affected by political relations.
"We are potential future leaders of our country in our respective fields. We will be guiding our homeland towards prosperity and development considering international standards," Sayed told VOA. "Therefore, the State Department should not cancel the program, because it isn't the solution."
The Afghan Fulbright semifinalists for 2022 have also launched a hashtag on Twitter to call attention to the issue. #supportafgfulbrightsemifinalists2022