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American University in Kyrgyzstan Is Offering Afghan Women a Haven. Will the Taliban Let Them Go?

Kyrgyzstan, a Muslim country on the eastern edge of Central Asia, has made available up to 500 visas for Afghan students in peril to attend the American University of Central Asia, above, in Bishkek, the capital. So far, about 86 students with recently approved Kyrgyz visas, 64 of them women, were still waiting to leave Kabul as the US evacuation flights ended.

Fears are running high among the vulnerable women of Afghanistan — scholars, writers and other intellectuals — that they may be prime targets for retribution and abuse by the Taliban’s ideologically driven tribal misogyny.

In remote Kyrgyzstan, a Muslim nation landlocked and mountainous like Afghanistan but different in many ways, the democratically elected government agreed to welcome Afghan students in peril, women and men. Officials approved 500 Kyrgyz visas for use by the American University of Central Asia, in Bishkek, the country’s capital, near the border with Kazakhstan, and other universities in the country that might adopt similar projects.

As of this writing, scores of Afghan students from a sister institution, the American University of Afghanistan, are trapped in Kabul with their Kyrgyz visas, along with Afghan students from the Kyrgyzstan campus who were at home for a summer break. Other countries in the wider Central Asian region and the Middle East have also offered help to the students.

“Qatar has agreed to take some students from the American University of Afghanistan,” David Lakhdhir, chairman of the board of the American University of Central Asia, or AUCA, told PassBlue in interviews by phone and email. “So has Iraq, through the American University of Sulaimani.”

Lakhdhir, a well-known international lawyer, negotiator and human-rights advocate, is a London-based partner in the New York City firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. He has been a lead organizer of the Kyrgyz agreement, which he called “unusual but not unique.”

“I think AUCA is the only institution that has a significant number of current Afghan students that simply want to return to their university, and has also arranged to take additional students from AUAf [the American University of Afghanistan],” he added. Teaching in both universities is in English.

On Aug. 27, Lakhdhir updated PassBlue with news that 86 students with Kyrgyz visas, 64 of them women, are among the first ready to leave Kabul. He anticipated that the gender proportions will remain the same.

“AUCA has been educating what we hoped would be the future women leaders in Afghanistan,” Lakhdhir said in an earlier message. “We still hope that.”

“Our problem right now is that the USG [US government] is so (understandably) traumatized by yesterday’s terror attack that they have said they won’t allow our students access through the gate,” Lakhdhir said on Aug. 27, in a message from Connecticut, where he has been spending time during the Covid pandemic.

“We won’t send them to the airport without an explicit green light. We have a plane willing to take them. That still seems to us to be less risky than a bus to Pakistan.”

Overland by bus to Pakistan remains an option now that borders are opening to commercial traffic, but reports from the scene say that Afghan nationals who reach the frontier are being refused permission to leave the country.

In an email on Aug. 31, Lakhdhir, the chairman of the board of the Bishkek university, told PassBlue that the evacuation plans of the American University in Afghanistan and the American University of Central Asia were handled separately. Some students with Kyrgyz visas who headed to Bishkek may have tried to board the buses arranged for the Kabul-based students, which were turned back at Kabul’s international airport.

“We believe there were some AUCA students on the buses but the effort on the final night to try to get students to the airport was primarily an AUAf initiative,” he said.

“We have not given up,” he added. “We are exploring alternative paths to Bishkek. Our primary objective must be the safety of the students, but I spoke with many on a call this morning, and they are eager to continue their higher education, so we are highly motivated to find a safe way for them to do so.”

In a telephone interview on Aug. 24, Lakhdhir described how he and his colleagues began months ago to focus on the rising dangers to students in Afghanistan as the Taliban were gaining power.

In June 2020, Fatima Khalil, a 2019 graduate of the Bishkek university and whom Lakhdhir called “a fierce advocate for women’s and human rights,” returned to Afghanistan and worked for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, was murdered. “Fatima was only 24 when she was assassinated in a bomb attack,” he added. One of her friends at the university, Zarlasht Sarmast, made a documentary of her life and is helping to organize the ongoing evacuation.

“The reason why Kyrgyzstan was selected as the place for the university was not because it was a leading hub of the culture of the region,” Lakhdhir said. “It was because it was the place most likely to host a university which promoted open discussion on political and social issues without being shut down.”

“There are more women than men as students,” he added, “and a significant portion of our faculty is female.”

“It looks like an American university,” he said. “The way men and women interact. There are many of the extracurricular activities that are promoted in terms of social action. And you get a Bard degree.” The American University of Central Asia has a joint program with Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. The acting president of the university in Kyrgyzstan is Jonathan Becker, who is the vice president for academic affairs and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard.

On a broader scale, Ellen Chesler, a research scholar at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, described in an email how she and other leading advocates for women, working with prominent women’s civil society organizations and educational institutions in Afghanistan, identified more than 80 Afghan women’s rights leaders at risk and seeking asylum for themselves and their families.

Chesler, Chloe Breyer of the Interfaith Center in New York and Betty Reardon of Teachers College at Columbia University have been working with the White House to provide visas for these women.

Chesler wrote in her message to PassBlue that American advocates “are now hoping to also find fellowships or employment for them at AUCA in Bishkek or on other campuses in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. that are also affiliated with the Open Society University Network, a federation of universities dedicated to the teaching in the liberal arts and humanities, with a special emphasis on public health and human rights.”

This article was updated on Aug. 31. 

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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