Afghan students studying at universities in the U.S. through scholarship programs face a more uncertain future since the Taliban took over and many say they cannot return to their home country because of concerns for their safety.
More than 100 Afghan students came to the United States through the Fulbright program last academic year, some of them only days before the Taliban took power in Afghanistan and the U.S. embassy in Kabul was abruptly shut.
Under the terms of the Fulbright scholarship program, recipients are required to return to their home countries at the end of their academic programs.
Several Afghan students interviewed by VOA said their status as students studying abroad in America endangers their lives under a Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
"I have come to terms with the reality that is going back to my beloved Afghanistan and working there is no longer possible," said Maryam Rayed who left Afghanistan last August to pursue a master's degree in democracy and governance at Georgetown University in Washington.
The U.S. government has evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked for or had affiliation with the U.S. in Afghanistan out of fear that the Taliban will target them.
Immediately after seizing power on Aug. 15 last year, the Taliban announced a general amnesty for all Afghans who worked for the previous Afghan government and for the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan.
Human rights groups, however, accuse the Taliban of targeting and killing Afghans who had ties to the U.S. and to the former Afghan government.
Afghan women chant and hold signs of protest, in Kabul, Dec. 27, 2021. Around 20 members of Afghanistan Women's Political Participation Network protested in a closed area in Kabul while holding signs asking the Taliban for equality.
Before coming to the U.S. to study international affairs at the State University of New York in Albany, Ahmad Raheb Radfar worked as a foreign service officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of what was until August 2021 the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
"My plan was to return to Afghanistan and resume my work at the ministry upon the completion of my program. But now, given the current situation of Afghanistan, I cannot do that," Radfar told VOA.
Since 2003, more than 950 Afghans have received Fulbright scholarships, mostly 2-year master's degree programs. Many others earned sponsored educational opportunities at undergraduate and graduate levels at various U.S. academic institutions. The expectation was that these highly educated Afghans would contribute to the building of a stable democratic system in Afghanistan.
"The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan has fundamentally altered my personal and professional trajectory and took all my hopes and plans and aspirations for the future," said Rayed, adding that she wanted to serve as a governance specialist in Afghanistan after her U.S. education.
Under the Taliban, Afghan women have been effectively fired from all government jobs except those working in the health and education sectors.
The Taliban have institutionalized large-scale and systematic discriminatory policies which "constitute a collective punishment of women and girls," a group of three dozen U.N.-appointed experts warned last week.
"Taliban deprive women of livelihoods and identity," Human Rights Watch said in a joint report with the Human Rights Institute at San Jose State University on Jan. 17.
One former Fulbright scholar, who did not want to be named out of fear of Taliban reprisal, said she was fired from a prominent job at the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock because of her gender.
"My education, work experiences, skills and dedication to my country don't matter for the Taliban. They're only obsessed with my gender," she said.
Respect for women's rights, including the right to education and work, is a major condition set forth by the U.S. and many other countries for a possible recognition of the Taliban's self-declared Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Taliban officials have said the regime is working to facilitate an "Islamic environment" for Afghan girls and women to return to schools and universities but have not committed to giving any representation to women in the government. The Taliban's leadership, cabinet and senior government posts are entirely occupied by men.
Students in limbo
The U.S. government has offered special immigration and entry procedures to help Afghans settle in the U.S., including a humanitarian parole program which allows individuals to enter the U.S. without travel documents.
Spokespeople at the Department of State and the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright program, could not confirm to VOA whether there was a plan to waive the Fulbright requirement for the Afghan students to return to their home country after their studies are completed.
"We have been in touch with the [Fulbright] program administrators and have shared our concerns with them, but so far, they have not offered any assurance about our future," said Radfar.
Two other students echoed similar concerns and added they were looking for an extension to their studies, primarily through PhD scholarships, in order to remain in the U.S.
"This ambiguity has affected our academic performance negatively and has taken any motivation from us," said Rayed.
"We desperately need some clarity on what our future will be. This limbo status is hurting us," said another student who did not want her name to be mentioned.
While the Afghan Fulbright scholars who made it to the U.S. in the past two years complain about their uncertain future, those selected for the 2022 scholarships are stuck in Afghanistan with no guarantees they will start their classes in the U.S. in the coming fall.
There is no U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan to process visas, and travel from the country is extremely restricted and complicated.
'We are reviewing the significant safety, logistical, and programmatic constraints which must be overcome to successfully implement the 2022-23 Fulbright Program. We are committed to remaining in communication with the semi-finalist group about the status of the program, understanding they must pursue the choices that make the most sense for themselves and their families," a State Department of official told VOA.
It's also unclear whether the Fulbright program will continue for Afghan students in the future because of the broken relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan's de-facto Taliban rulers.
Until the U.S. and Taliban figure out what kind of relations, if any, they will have in the future, everything remains shrouded in uncertainty for Afghans who have studied or aspire to study in the U.S.
"I cannot foresee anything right now and like most Afghans, I am facing an uncertain future," said 28-year-old Radfar.
Nike Ching contributed to this story.