Maryam Jami opens her computer every morning to restart her daily grind of writing emails to U.S. senators, the State Department and the Fulbright scholarship program, a prestigious scholarship program funded by the U.S. government, for which she is a semifinalist.
Then she goes on social media to check how the hashtag she created, #SupportAfgFulbrightSemiFinalists2022, is trending. Last week, it was in the top five hashtags among Afghan-related topics on Twitter, she said.
Despite her tireless efforts, Jami and more than 100 other Afghan semifinalists in the program have been stuck in a nightmarish limbo since Aug. 31, the day U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan to end America’s 20-year war there.
“Thank you for your continued interest in participating in the Fulbright Program with Afghanistan,” started an email dated Aug. 31 from the Institute of International Education, which oversees the administration of the Fulbright program. The email was shared with Spectrum News 1.
“We are following events in Afghanistan closely and understand this is a very difficult time for you and your families. We will be in contact with an update on the status of the application process for the Fulbright Program in the coming weeks,” the email said.
It was the last time Jami, 23, or any of the more than 100 semifinalists, heard from the program.
“They have completely abandoned us,” she said in a WhatsApp call from her home in Herat, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city, along its western border with Iran.
The chaotic withdrawal of America’s troops from the Kabul airport left behind hundreds of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghan allies in the country now controlled by the Taliban. Among those left behind are a group of young and hopeful Afghans who had made it through to the last stages of the United States' coveted flagship educational exchange program.
Congress established the Fulbright program in 1946 with the goal of using the educational exchange program as an “element of the U.S.’ bilateral relationships” with countries around the world. The program offers grants to U.S. citizens to do research, studies or to teach abroad and to non-U.S. citizens to come to the U.S. to study and conduct research.
The program has funded more than 400,000 students from 160 countries since its beginnings, thanks largely to Congressional funding each year to the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which administers the program. Alumni include 40 heads of state and 60 Nobel Prize Laureates.
Afghan Fulbright participants receive grants to do Masters-level studies in the U.S.
“Each year we typically award 60-70 Fulbright awards to Afghan students. This year the number is slightly higher due to students not being able to arrive last year due to COVID,” an official with the State Department said in an emailed statement. “Unlike most Fulbrighters, we do not publish the names of Afghan awardees for safety and privacy reasons, so we cannot provide names and locations.”
The Fulbright Program for Afghan applicants is extremely competitive and recipients are seen as some of that country’s best and brightest young minds. Decades of war in Afghanistan have left the country with a very young population, with nearly 64% under the age of 25.
To ensure that the benefits of the Fulbright program return to help rebuild Afghanistan, participants are required to go back to work in their home country for at least two years after completing their studies in the U.S.
The promise to return to their home country “is why I wanted to do the Fulbright program in the first place,” Jami said. “Because its aim is to nurture leaders who will serve their own countries.”
Jami graduated from Herat University with a degree in law in 2019. For several years, she has been working with international non-governmental organizations on the legal and humanitarian needs of refugees and internally displaced populations, of which there are estimated to be more than 4 million in Afghanistan.
Had she been accepted as a Fulbright finalist, Jami had planned to study international and comparative law in the U.S. and to return to Afghanistan to help her country build better legal systems to help vulnerable populations, such as refugees.
Jami submitted her application to the program with high hopes in time for the first deadline of Feb. 15, 2021. At that time, American troops were still in the country and most Afghans did not believe the Taliban, an extremist group, would ever be back in power in the country.
In April, Jami received news that she had been shortlisted as a semifinalist. The program informed the semifinalists that they would schedule interviews between June 13 and 30.
That same month, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would begin withdrawing the final troops in May with a deadline of Sept. 11, 2021.
In late May, Fulbright sent an email to say that, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, final interviews would be delayed until August.
Timing was not on the side of the semifinalists. By August, the Taliban was already slowly taking over parts of Afghanistan, including Herat, on Aug. 12. Kabul fell to the group on Aug. 15.
Jami’s hopes and dreams of contributing to the development of her war-torn country slowly turned to panic.
Already as semifinalists, she and her group of Fulbright hopefuls had made it further than hundreds of applicants. In Facebook and WhatsApp groups, other Fulbright semifinalists from around the world were posting about their experiences in interviews. Those waiting for their interviews asked for advice.
In neighboring Pakistan, the semifinalists were already finishing their final interviews, and the finalists would be announced soon, according to posts in the social media groups. Jami and her fellow Afghan semifinalists read the posts with growing alarm that the U.S. program might have forgotten about them.
“What would happen to us?” Jami said about the Afghan semifinalists. “We are watching as everywhere else they are being selected and going through the process. At this point, it is obvious we will not meet the deadlines for entering a U.S. university.”
Meanwhile, the Taliban’s takeover of the county has chipped away at most of the progress made on women’s rights during the period of the American-led war.
At home, Jami’s two sisters have had to leave school after the Taliban ruled that girls and women could not study with boys.
“She is really, really hopeless,” Jami said about her younger sister, who was forced to leave her studies at a local university in Herat. “The situation is really tough for all women in Afghanistan. They are really shattered, hopeless, broken. “
After weeks of silence from the U.S. State Department and the Fulbright program, Jami and 12 other semifinalists started their social media and emailing campaign to draw attention to their situation.
Still, as of Oct. 5, the program has not sent any updates to the semifinalists.
Emails from Spectrum News 1 seeking comment from the State Department about the status of the Afghan Fulbright semifinalists went unanswered.
Jami believes many of the 100 or so semifinalists may have fled Afghanistan by now. She has been advised by friends that she should try to do the same. Former colleagues from Europe and elsewhere have offered assistance.
“The reason I'm still here is that for my love for my Afghanistan. I cannot leave no matter how bad it gets,” she said.
Until then, Jami will continue her campaign of emails and wait with the hope that one day in the near future, she will receive word from the Fulbright program that it is her time for an interview to become a finalist in the 2022-23 cohort group.