Starting senior year at the end of America’s longest war

From heartbreaking calls with family to exploring evacuation options, Afghan students are experiencing the start of a semester like no other.

A graphic featuring protestors demonstrating in Downtown Los Angeles.

Sumaya Hussaini had a busy schedule last week, full of work meetings, resident assistant training and reconnecting with friends. But while Hussaini adjusted to the flurry of in-person courses after over a year of virtual instruction, ongoing developments in Afghanistan overshadowed the start of her final year at USC.

“I go to class, and we talk about Afghanistan from a Western lens and [I’m] lectured about it, and then go back to my room and call my family that lives in Kabul,” said Hussaini, a senior studying political science and pursuing a progressive master’s degree in public diplomacy. “I ask them if they’re OK and if they’re alive.”

At midnight on Monday, the last American military flight left the airport in Kabul, marking the end of the longest war in United States history. The occupation of Afghanistan, which began after the U.S. invasion of the country following the events of 9/11, was a two-decade effort that seemed to unravel in just a few weeks. Though U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, have touted American heroism during the evacuations, hundreds of Americans remain in the country and thousands of Afghans are left behind to face their fate at the hands of the Taliban.

For 38 million Afghans, a new reality is emerging. With the final Western flights departing the country this week, those unable to be evacuated and secure a seat out of the country must now reckon with changing social and political dynamics under the rule of the Taliban.

And for Afghan students at USC and elsewhere, the most challenging part of the last few weeks is sitting in classes, hearing of these events and feeling alone.

Helping from Afar

Hussaini’s parents are refugees from Afghanistan who fled the country during the U.S.-backed proxy war with the Soviet Union. They first traveled to Pakistan and Iran, before arriving and settling in Kansas, where she was raised. Hussaini has some family in the United States, but much of her family still lives in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. In 2016, she traveled to Afghanistan, where she met many of her relatives for the first time.

But being in Los Angeles, far removed from the events unfolding in Afghanistan, has been difficult for Hussaini. Though her family has been trying to evacuate, they have been unable to qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIVs. These visas have mostly been reserved for Afghans who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government.

“I check in with my family almost every single day [and] they’re really worried [because] the Taliban … go and check people’s houses every day to see their belongings and count women and children,” she said. “But none of my family have documentation in terms of passports and visas, and they all live in a village so none of them have jobs like translators — none of them qualify.”

In July, the White House authorized 8,000 SIVs for Afghan applicants. The government is currently housing nearly 20,000 Afghan refugees in military facilities across five states, while another 40,000 are being processed in bases overseas.

“I’m not sure what will happen to [my family],” Hussaini said.

While some are arriving with SIVs and others are being granted refugee status through humanitarian parole, there are thousands of stories similar to Hussaini’s family — of Afghans unable to leave the country and flee to safety.

Nadira Noor’s parents left their families to emigrate from Afghanistan to the U.S. in 1989. On Aug. 14, Noor, a senior studying business administration and data science, had a flight scheduled to Kabul to celebrate her sister’s wedding. What was supposed to be a few weeks of celebration became the hardest few weeks of her life — Noor’s flight was cancelled, and that day, the Taliban captured Kabul airport.

“To see everything going on, it feels really personal, and it’s very heartbreaking and I think anybody would feel the same way about their home being ripped apart,” Noor said. “And from so far away, it sometimes does feel helpless — I want to do so much but I can’t.”

Noor and Hussaini did not expect to spend their first weeks of senior year coordinating ways to keep their relatives safe or facilitate their evacuation from Afghanistan, but in a matter of days, this became their reality.

In the mornings, evenings and free time between classes, Noor and Hussaini have been exploring all of their options, attempting to assist their families, even in the face of communication challenges and roadblocks.

Noor’s family spent a week going to the airport in Kabul each day, attempting to fly out. Noor said the effort was especially difficult for her elderly relatives. Waiting for hours in hot conditions, among crowds of people, was not safe or hygienic, especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Footage from PBS NewsHour and NBC News has shown thousands of Afghans waiting in sewage-filled canals outside of the airport, begging Western forces to let them fly out and even some clinging onto airplanes as they take off.

“I’m trying to gather vital information like passports, ID numbers and anything, but it’s hard to communicate with them because even just getting service, getting WiFi, electricity, has been really hard,” Noor said. “It’s been hard to track people down.”

These conditions make leaving Afghanistan through traditional means nearly impossible. The other option, migration to neighboring countries like Pakistan, Iran and others in Central Asia, also poses unique dangers. Some of Noor’s family is currently in Tajikistan, but she is unsure of how safe the migration and living conditions in the country are — especially in light of regional instability.

“These past couple of weeks have been the hardest couple weeks of college — if not my life,” Noor said. “It’s been really hard to balance my schoolwork, my job and everything that’s going on… It’s been stressful and I don’t go a single day without crying about it.”

Chaos on the Ground

The last time the Taliban took control of Afghanistan was in 1996. During the five-year reign, NPR reports that the Taliban, “established a reputation for harsh rule and brutal tactics,” including public executions, diminished freedoms for women and children and violence against ethnoreligious groups.

“I think right now the Taliban is putting on a good face, because they don’t want foreign powers to intervene,” Hussaini said. “They’re trying to act like they’re peaceful and that they won’t hurt people, but I think the past two decades of them doing the opposite proves that this is not likely.”

Many Afghans will face displacement, economic turmoil, violence, imprisonment and even death, but for certain ethnic and religious groups, the situation on the ground is more grim. Reports already paint a violent picture of Taliban rule. The Associated Press reported on Taliban militants violently cracking down on protests in Kabul and Voice of America already reported new fears of Taliban restrictions on women and journalists.

“People just don’t really know what’s going on and part of the problem is that people’s voices on the ground are being silenced,” Hussaini said. “Western media think all Afghans are being treated the same way and that it’s just the Taliban indiscriminately causing violence. But in reality, there are minority groups that are really at risk.”

Hussaini’s family is Hazara, an ethnoreligious Shia minority in Afghanistan, a Sunni majority country. Hussaini said that Hazara are easily differentiated from other Afghans because of their distinct features and Dari language. When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan over 20 years ago, Hazara were among the most persecuted groups, facing violence, torture and mass executions.

“I don’t think people know how ethnic and religious minorities are impacted — that’s something western media is not capturing,” Hussaini said. “Hazara are not being evacuated — they’re not being recognized in [evacuation] evaluations and foreign policy.”

For Hussaini, and many others, the threat of violence Afghan minorities now face from the Taliban underscores the chaos and pain of the U.S. withdrawal. Ahead of the Sept. 11 goal, provincial capitals fell to the Taliban and Kabul was officially recaptured on Aug. 15.

Biden has come under sharp criticism for his administration’s execution of the withdrawal. While many agree that the U.S. should not have stayed in Afghanistan, a lot of the backlash is targeted to the timing and abandonment of Afghan forces.

“I don’t like [Biden’s rhetoric] that Afghan soldiers don’t have the will to fight because it pinpoints the blame on Afghan people, when they are the bravest and courageous people I know,” Hussaini said. “Maybe I’m biased, but it makes it sound like something’s wrong with them — as if they are not strong enough or capable enough to hold their ground. But they don’t have the resources to do that because of decades of occupation.”

Earlier this week, the United Nations Refugee Agency said that up to half a million Afghans could flee their homeland by the end of the year.

Seeking Community

“This all happened the week I left Kansas — when I left my family,” Hussaini said. “I’ll call my family and feel really alone right now. Thankfully, I found an Afghan community at USC.”

Hussaini, far from family in Kansas and even further from family in Afghanistan, has relied on the Afghan Student Association for support during these times. AFGSA is small — comprising just over 10 students — but students in the organization have come together as a community to raise awareness, attend solidarity rallies and share resources. In August, AFGSA launched a partnership with Mothers of Afghanistan to raise money and awareness of internally displaced people in Kabul.

Through AFGSA, Hussaini and Noor were able to connect with other Afghan students at USC.

“I definitely go to them for support,” Noor said. “We have a group chat and that’s how we stay in contact. And this past weekend was the protest to allow a higher refugee allowance and to extend the evacuation deadlines, which didn’t happen, but it was really nice to be in a community of Afghans in L.A.”

Together, Hussaini and Noor attended the protest in Downtown L.A. and throughout the last few weeks, the two have leaned on each other to feel a little less alone so far from home.

“I didn’t even know that there were other Afghan students at USC,” Hussaini said. “Up until this point I hadn’t met any of them.”

AFGSA hopes to raise awareness of the challenges ongoing in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on the humanitarian crisis. But more than anything, the group hopes to provide a community for its members, each with their own personal stories and connections to the country.

The University says it proactively reached out to USC’s Afghan student community since news of the events broke and that Campus Support and Intervention has reached out to students who listed being born in Afghanistan. According to a University spokesperson, USC’s Washington D.C. and Strategic and Global Initiatives offices are also assisting with providing the names of potential evacuees who are alumni, families of students or faculty for congressional delegation assistance.

Noor says that while she has utilized Student Health’s resources to an extent, she has mainly relied on AFGSA and her Afghan friends. She said that attending the protest this week has reinvigorated her, despite being exhausted.

“To be in that environment, it really reminded me that this is what I’m working for and this is what I cry for every single day,” Noor said. “This is what I’m losing sleep over, and it’s not just me alone in it.”

Now, the path forward is uncertain. For AFGSA’s members, maintaining contact with family and assessing the situation in the country is precarious — a day-by-day affair. The changing environment in Afghanistan and the quick media cycle means news can break at any moment, changing the reality for thousands of people in the country.

In the meantime, Noor hopes that as Afghan refugees come to the U.S. and settle in communities like L.A., people practice kindness.

“You have to imagine: [Afghans] are coming from a place so different than America — they’re leaving their loved ones, their communities, their whole lives and being dropped in what is foreign to them,” Noor said. “Be kind. I anticipate there will be a lot of stigma around arriving refugees and that pains me… Afghans have been failed by humanity and by the U.S. government and it’s not fair.”