GSEHD Conference Provides Afghan Students a Platform to Share Their Stories

A GW panel of recently resettled Afghan students with scholars, practitioners and policy makers discussed students’ experiences.

April 19, 2023

GW panel with Afghan students

GW hosted a discussion among Afghan students displaced from their homes in the summer of 2021 with scholars and policymakers. (Photo: Jihae Cha)

Afghan students who were displaced from their homes in the summer of 2021 when Kabul fell to the Taliban spoke about the hardship they’ve faced and their determination to still receive an education during a conference held at the George Washington University.

Jihae Cha, an assistant professor of international education at GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD), said the conference was designed to give the students a platform to share their stories and recommendations for strengthening support for other Afghans in the diaspora and back at home.

“Everyone acknowledges that people with lived experiences of forced displacement as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations need to be heard,” Cha said. “We all agree. We know that their perspectives should be at the center of the discussions in formulating, designing, implementing and evaluating policy practice and research.

“In reality, however, we know when dealing with issues related to refugees, internally displaced populations, asylum seekers as well as immigrant populations across the globe, their perspectives are seldom reflected or prioritized.”

The “Afghanistan Policy, Programs and Research: Centering Student Voices” full-day event was a collaboration among the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, Friends of the American University of Afghanistan, GW UNESCO Chair in International Education for Development housed within GW’s International Education Program, and GW’s Refugee Education Advancement Lab (REAL).

The event’s organizers noted that Afghanistan, during the past year, has been a popular conference topic on American university campuses and at think tanks, but those events rarely prioritize the voices of Afghan students or promote student dialogue with practitioners, policymakers and scholars. This conference, according to organizers, aimed to center and amplify student voices before uniting them with those who regularly inform practice and policy. 

Some of the information shared during the conference stemmed from a research program led by Kyle Long, the senior director of Organizational Strategy and Change at Northwestern University and former adjunct assistant professor of international education at GW.

For over a year now, Long has been leading a research project involving Afghans displaced in Iraq, where more than 100 American University of Afghanistan students wound up after the fall of Kabul.

When he first went to visit the students about one year ago in Iraq, he was worried they would be reluctant to speak with him since he planned to ask questions about traumatic situations they’ve faced.  But the students shared their gut-wrenching stories of heartbreak, loss, being torn away from their families and seeing their homes plundered.

“What I also found in equal measure was a beleaguered sense of optimism,” Long said. “Their sense of duty and patriotism. The rapid maturation that they were going through over these past couple of years. Their suppressed anger, their patience and their confusion.”

Long partnered with other organizations, including the Hollings Center, to develop a way to get Afghan students’ voices front and center among key decision-makers in government, the nonprofit sector and universities.

Laura Engel, an associate professor of international education and international affairs in GSEHD and the co-chair of the GW UNESCO Chair in International Education for Development, said the event would lead to a greater understanding of the complex international education challenge facing the global community.

“My anticipation and my expectation are we'll be able to generate important insights and new knowledge into the educational search and policy interventions that are needed,” Engel said.

The conference featured a panel of recently resettled Afghan university students. Describing the chaos that followed the fall of Kabul, one student spoke about the uncertainty everyone felt.

“The first thing was to get into a safe environment, which we did. But at the same time, there was this uncertainty,” the student said. “Besides our education, we had other responsibilities as well. We had families to feed. We have friends to take care of. And you don't know what's going to happen to you, that was a major concern for everybody.”

The students also spoke about the difficulty of adjusting to Iraq and then the United States after being displaced from their homes in Afghanistan. Even though they had faced so much trauma, they were still determined to finish their education and get a college degree.

One student said connecting with other Afghans once she arrived in the United States made the transition easier.

“Some Afghan families here, you know, when we are we are saying support, it doesn't mean financially, or it doesn't mean they bought us stuff. Sometimes what we really need is someone to talk with us because we have been through a lot,” the student said.

While the students are focused on pursuing their studies, they said it is always on their minds that they have responsibilities to support their families who are still back in Afghanistan. 

The panel ended with Long asking the students what they would like the world to understand about Afghanistan.

One student answered he is concerned that Afghanistan is being portrayed as a country filled with people who don’t support education, especially for women and girls.

“No, that's not the fact. We believe everyone should have the right to education,” the student said. “We are all for education, every single person. We're just trying to learn more and more, as much as possible.”