Student’s family stuck in Afghanistan, looks at Kansas for refuge

Kansas State student, Fatima, shares her story as she works to get her family out of Afghanistan. Aug. 31, 2021. (Dylan Connell | Collegian Media Group)

Just over a month ago, members of Fatima’s family, a Kansas State student, in Afghanistan worked as construction contractors, translators and schoolteachers with the United States military. Now, they are trying to escape the country they have worked to build up over the past 20 years.

“America has been embedded into us and our family since … the dawn of time because our family used to have an English teaching school in Pakistan, and it was to help [people] get an education,” Fatima said. “They brought that to Afghanistan, too. So that’s obviously in danger. Anyone who’s speaking English is in danger.”

Fatima, her mother and her siblings first fled to Pakistan when she was two years old after the Taliban killed her father. The group then came to America when she was 10 years old. She said her mother is especially worried because of the family’s close ties with the U.S., as well as her own service of eight years in the U.S. Army.

She also said she does not believe what the Taliban has been propagating about itself over the past several weeks.

“The Taliban wants to talk about, ‘Oh, we’re a nicer people. We’re doing different things,'” Fatima said.

However, video footage from this past Friday showing a person being gunned down indicates otherwise, she said.

Fatima said many in her family fear they will share the same fate if they cannot leave Afghanistan.

“We want the best out of the world,” women in her family told her. “It’s just now we’re … going to have to go back into hiding.”

Fatima said she is heartbroken to see the elimination of women’s advancements in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.

“Girls were excited to go to school,” Fatima said. “They were genuinely planning a life. They didn’t have to leave out of the country to go have a life. They were like, ‘No, I can go get educated, and I can come back to my country.’ And then the moment this happens, they were like, ‘I have to leave.'”

The family has had difficulty getting the required Specialty Immigrant Visas processed and is experiencing issues with a family member whose paperwork was lost in a recently bombed building. Yet, Fatima said she remains hopeful her family will arrive in Kansas to start their new lives.

Fatima is working with as many outlets as possible to bring her family to safety. The Flint Hills Veterans Coalition and those in the Office of Kansas Senator Jerry Moran have been instrumental in her fight.

Fellow veterans have also rallied to aid her in this endeavor, albeit gravely.

“The veteran community’s coming together in a heartbreaking way,” Fatima said. “Because I think the majority of them are trying to avoid survivor’s guilt, and the majority of them have voiced that outright. Like, ‘Yo, I cannot go on with the rest of my life feeling like this, like, just abandoning people.’ Which shows the amazing, good-hearted people that they are, and it also shows when you connect with other people that … you understand the humanity of another person.”

The state has long advertised itself as a haven for displaced people, from the Exodusters in the aftermath of the Reconstruction era to the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian immigrants following the Fall of Saigon, to Governor Laura Kelly’s recent announcement that the state would welcome Afghan refugees and families who supported U.S. military operations.

“I think that’s a history that a lot of people cherish about Kansas,” Laila Ballout, assistant professor of history at Wichita State, said. “And the idea that it didn’t end … with the very early days of Kansas history I think is meaningful to a lot of people, and that there are continual opportunities to lean into … not only the symbolism of someone like John Brown but also narratives about Kansas as a Free State, and really embracing that refuge understanding.”

Harleigh Schneider, junior in electrical engineering, said she agrees with Ballout.

“We could probably start preparing places, … making sure that there are resources for them to use as well,” Schneider said.

Kansans can also think outside of the box to welcome people from Afghanistan, said Jay Price, Chair of the Department of History at Wichita State and the director of the local and community history program.

“If we could kind of be more conscious about what foodways are … and get people kind of more familiar with that … that’s a nice bridge,” Price said.

Price also said it is important to understand the different people groups that could be arriving from Afghanistan.

“I think there’s a tendency to assume that all Afghans are just one lump group, and they most certainly are not … so to be mindful of those subsets is something we could take away from the conversation,” Price said.

On top of learning about the culture, Debra Bolton, director of intercultural learning and academic success at K-State, said empathy is needed towards those who might come to the state.

“Most humans move to improve their lives … When your community has been bombed or threatened in any way, then you have to move for safety,” Bolton said.

Bolton cautioned not to divulge information about Afghan refugees when they arrive.

“If you meet or encounter anyone from Afghanistan, understand what they’re going through, and don’t reveal them to other sources,” Bolton said. “We don’t want them to be in danger … If you meet someone from there, that’s between you and that person.”

In the meantime, Kansas lawmakers, non-profit organizations and citizens are preparing for the possibility of Afghan refugees in the state in the hope those allies can be brought to safety.

K-State is also doing its part to prepare by supporting students and veterans.

Fatima said K-State’s Veteran Center will host monthly support group meetings for veterans and others impacted by the events in Afghanistan.

Students interested in the program should contact the Student Veterans Association for more information.