Thoughts of Afghanistan

The news of Afghanistan has consumed my thoughts and emotions lately.  From sun-up to sun-down, I am reading, messaging with colleagues through social media, and discussing with friends how to help those in-country and those on their way to being resettled. All of this comes from a connection I feel with the people of Afghanistan from a very short 3-day trip to Kabul during a complicated time in April 2012.

A small group of us traveled through several South Asian countries: starting in Sri Lanka and ending in Kabul, Afghanistan, as part of an EducationUSA South Asia student recruitment and research trip.  I thought this trip would give myself and ECE a chance to be able to assist more Afghan people wanting to work and study in the U.S.

I had been evaluating credentials from Afghanistan for a couple of years and knew we lacked reliable contacts for verifying credentials and needed more information about the quality assurance process for private higher education institutions. At the time, the plan was to stay a few days past the EducationUSA group visit to conduct additional research through ministerial and university visits.

Arriving in Kabul

The first day of the visit was a pleasant one. We arrived early in the morning at the Kabul Airport, where the sunshine and cool mountain air were a welcome surprise, after the heat and humidity we had been experiencing in Pakistan the week prior. We had delicious traditional food with private university staff at the newly built Kabul Star Hotel and received a warm welcome from the people of Kabul. Students were so excited that we had come to visit them and talk about educational opportunities in the U.S.—particularly the girls and women.   

The following day—Sunday, April 15—while having a student fair in a high school’s outdoor space, we noticed a handful of helicopters scanning the city, and suddenly everything felt tense. We noticed hushed talking among the support staff, then we were told it was not safe for us to return to the hotel for lunch. Instead, we would be going directly to the next university on our agenda.  

Some of that time was a blur. We had had already grown accustomed to traveling in bulletproof vehicles and going through dozens of security checkpoints just to visit schools and hotels, but our drive from the student fair to the university was different. We were told to keep our heads down; from the glimpses of what we could see out the window, there was a panic. People were rushing, cars were swerving and moving quickly, shots ringing out, and we were all trying to figure out what was going on.  

Upon arrival at our next university visit, we were frantically ushered from the car to an inner conference room with very few windows. We exchanged pleasantries…then we heard the explosions further away. That was followed by shots, commotion, and more explosions. Although the staff was worried along with us visitors, there was a sense this was something they had experienced before—possibly frequently. We later learned these episodes happened every spring when insurgents would come out of mountainous hiding to begin their ongoing season of terror.

University Lockdown

We stayed in that room, under lockdown for several hours, while our caretakers tried to get information on when we could be transported back to the hotel. I called my parents back in Wisconsin to inform them of what was happening and that I was safe (and then my mom prayed one of many rosaries that week). The staff was so gracious during those hours. They offered tea, nuts, and dried fruits—making us feel at home and as secure as one can be during an uncertain time.

Eventually, we were able to leave the university and prepare for our trip back to our hotel, the Kabul Serena Hotel compound. As we began our rushed commute, we stayed low in the vehicle to be clear of the windows; there were shots from all sides, and our talented driver swerved between barricades to take us to safety. I remained in my hotel room the entire evening. Due to the room’s overactive furnace, I had to leave my window open and hear gunfire around the city.

Our recruitment and research trip came to an abrupt halt. We heard from staff and then saw on the news that our previous night’s dinner location, the Kabul Star Hotel, had been attacked by suicide bombers. The U.S., German, British, and Iranian embassies had been attacked as well. The Taliban claimed responsibility for those planned attacks, and we were thankful that the Afghan and Norwegian security forces had fought diligently to bring an end to a very violent day.   

Returning to the United States

While I had made many contacts and learned more about the education system of Afghanistan, I was disappointed that it was now unsafe for the visits and research to continue. My flights were rearranged to depart for home the next day. Understandably, I was upset with not accomplishing all that I set out to do; more than anything, I was angry and sad for the people of Afghanistan. They had to live every day, going to school or work, unsure if they would make it back home. I was angry and sad that many of the students we met had to fight so hard to see their hopes, plans, and dreams come to fruition in such a violent and unpredictable place.  

Those feelings of mine have carried on over the years: during an attack and mass shooting at the Kabul Serena Hotel two years after my stay; when the American University of Afghanistan was attacked in 2016; after the then-President of the United States met with the Taliban last year to come to an “agreement.” All these feelings have built up. Now as we watch and read about the everyday chaos in Afghanistan, it is hard to find the right words to say. It is hard to know how to help…how to keep from breaking down, from feeling helpless.

For those of us in the field of higher education and credential evaluation, we can help by listening and being flexible. We can listen to the situations our students are facing; we can hear their stories; we can act in our work to be flexible, accommodating those with credentials outside “the norm.” 

What can you do?

  • Work with colleagues to compare document formats, signatures, and contact information
  • Use ECE’s Connection Advantage to view various authenticated documents from Afghanistan 
  • Be open to conditional admissions based on photocopies of documents and other flexible enrollment options 
  • Contact ECE Aid to help your Afghani students afford evaluation reports 
  • Join The Association for International Credential Evaluation Professionals (TAICEP) to share information between credential evaluators around the world looking to support those in Afghanistan and those on their way to a new life and country
  • Sign the Scholars at Risk urgent appeal for Afghanistan’s scholars, students, practitioners, civil society leaders, and activists

I had wanted to include more pictures in this post, but so many of them included faces—of people and their families whom I don’t want to put in danger. As some of us have experienced during the conflict in Syria, contacting institutions and government officials can be dangerous to those we may be looking to help. We should keep them in mind in our efforts.

Amy M. Ullrich has worked at Educational Credential Evaluators, Inc. (ECE) since 2008. Amy's areas of credential evaluation specialization include Central and South Asia, the Middle East & North African Francophone countries, Eurasia, and U.S.-based country education systems. She enjoys presenting at professional conferences on the topics of international education systems, accreditation, countries in crisis & refugee support, transnational programs, and credential fraud detection.

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