Preserving ‘Academic Mobility’ for Afghan Students and Refugees

They’ve gone dark: Afghans who helped the U.S. military, trained as American-style journalists and rode the wave of women heading to higher education are destroying the diplomas, transcripts and résumés that prove how they built civil society in the country that the U.S. has left behind.

That’s because those still in Afghanistan, including students, are terrified about being identified by a new Taliban government that is already cracking down on dissent, academic freedom and even what female students can wear to class.

Days after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the founder of an all-female boarding school set fire to all of her students’ records, “not to erase … but to protect” the girls, she said. Soon all over Afghanistan, Instagram and Facebook accounts were being scrubbed, papers shredded and cellphones buried to hide them from Taliban searches.

And the fear continues: Testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that 1,200 students, faculty and staff of the American University of Afghanistan who were unable to fly out of Kabul before the U.S. military withdrawal on Aug. 31 are being “prioritized” in U.S. evacuation efforts.

Even so, Friends of the American University of Afghanistan are scrambling to raise $500,000 to create “a university in exile,” to allow displaced students to resume studying.

For me, this disruption strikes a personal chord: Recently, I lost myself, or what I consider to be evidence of myself, as a naturalized American.

Like a good Californian, this spring I prepared for the next wildfire by placing important documents into a three-ring binder labeled “GO.” But thanks to pandemic brain fog, I forgot all about that.

So I thought that I lost my marriage certificate, my naturalization certificate and my faded “acte de naissance,” or birth certificate. Also gone: My passport, tracing where I’ve been as one of those American-style journalists, including working with Afghan refugees in Paris.

When I was growing up, my dad made me take my green card everywhere, from school to camp and even my first after-school job as a cub reporter. “So you can prove who you are,” he’d say, and I’d think, because it doesn’t matter what I do—with my brown skin I’ll never be the kind of person who doesn’t need to explain herself.

Those papers I lost? They spelled me.

But what Afghan students are suffering is much, much worse. And it points to the need to preserve academic mobility for those in crisis.

Organizations such as the Council of Europe, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the Groningen Declaration Network are working on ways for students to more easily, as the Network puts it, “share their authentic educational data with whomever they want, whenever they want, wherever they are.”

Closer to home, a University of California at Davis program called Article 26 Backpack is part of that effort. The idea of Keith David Watenpaugh, founder of the university’s Human Rights Studies Program, it’s designed to preserve “digital dignity” for refugees.

My education is my future.

—Eslam Abo Al Hawa

Students create an online account, choose a language (Arabic, English, French, Spanish or Dari), create their own passwords and upload records and personal videos to a digital “backpack” using a computer or cellphone. Students can also request credential evaluation and get help reconstructing academic histories. The service is free and documents are held in a secure university cloud computing network under a strict privacy policy.

Watenpaugh launched Article 26 Backpack in 2018 after meeting with dissident students in Syria who no longer had access to their academic records because they were considered criminals.

“I am very confident in our ability to protect users’ materials, because … I told our IT team that we had to protect [them] against the Syrian secret police,” Watenpaugh told me in an interview.

The program has grown to include more than 1,000 “backpacks” from students in five countries including Haiti, plus recipients of the U.S. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It is supported by the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and MasterCard, which is helping to expand it into Rwanda.

Its name refers to the Declaration of Human Rights, whose Article 26 affirms the right to education.

“Part of realizing a right is removing the barrier to it,” Watenpaugh said, adding that “the backpack is the universal sign of the student.”

Eslam Abo Al Hawa would agree. Nine years ago, she was a scared 10th grader fleeing Daraya, the site of one of Syria’s worst massacres. Lost in her family’s flight was her high school transcript. It took three years of studying on her own and another frightening trip to Damascus to take the baccalaureate before she could apply for college.

In early September, Abo Al Hawa, 25, graduated from the American University of Beirut with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Now that she has her diploma, it will go in her digital backpack.

“My education is my future,” Abo Al Hawa told me in an interview. “If I don’t have my papers, I don’t have a future. It’s as simple as that.”

Afghanistan’s post-evacuation brain drain will be even more tragic if escaping students can’t go back to school in the U.S. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, only about 3 percent of the world’s university-age refugees are able to access higher education after they resettle. To that end, Watenpaugh is mobilizing Afghanistan’s students to use the Article 26 Backpack program as refugees arrive in Sacramento, where thousands are expected to resettle.

I’m lucky: So far, the California wildfires haven’t come close to where I live. And the other day, I found my “GO” binder and the papers that spell me. I hope the Afghan students on their way to us will, too.

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