For Breshna Salaam, the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan last year meant a return to the same extreme poverty she and her mother had experienced under the Taliban's first time in control of the country.
In 1996, the Taliban fired Salaam's mother from a public service job, denying the widow and her daughter their only source of income. In August 2021, with her mother retired, the Taliban fired Salaam from a job at the Ministry of Agriculture.
Deprived of work and education in her own country, she applied for graduate programs abroad and was offered a scholarship at New York University.
"I cried out of happiness when I received news of the scholarship," Salaam told VOA.
But her happiness did not last long.
First, she had to pay more than $2,000 in bribes to get a new passport and a short-term visa to Pakistan, where she needs to submit a student visa application at the U.S. embassy. The embassy in Afghanistan remains closed since the Taliban entered Kabul last year.
"I had to literally beg relatives and friends for money to pay for the passport and the Pakistani visa," she said.
And, there are more expenses she has to cover.
"I have to buy a flight ticket to Islamabad, pay for my accommodation in Islamabad, have to pay $510 for U.S. visa fees, and finally, if I'm given a visa, I will have to buy my ticket to New York," said Salaam, adding that she had no means to pay all the required expenses on her own.
Staff at her U.S. university contributed $350 for her SEVIS fee, a payment to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security required from all international students before they submit an F-1 student visa application. Students also have to pay a $160 F-1 visa fee to the U.S. embassy. Both fees are non-refundable, even if the visa is denied.
Calls for help unanswered
Over the past four months, more than 500 U.S. academics and human rights activists have signed at least two appeal letters to the White House and the Department of State calling for assistance for Afghan scholars, particularly women, who strive to come to the United States to continue their education.
"We are deeply concerned about the lives and well-being of these Afghan academics, especially women," reads a June 21 letter signed by academics from more than 20 U.S. colleges and universities. It is addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The letter criticizes the delays and rejections of student visas for Afghan scholars – even while a fully funded stipend and scholarship is provided by the inviting university – and calls on Blinken to personally intervene "to rectify this shameful situation."
"We have received no response to the letter," Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York and a signee of the letter, told VOA.
In a separate letter sent to U.S. President Joe Biden in February, more than 450 academic organizations and individuals made a similar call for support for at-risk Afghan scholars.
"Please help facilitate access to our colleges and universities for the many Afghan scholars and students, who deserve our continued support and investment," the letter asked Biden.
"We have received no updates from the U.S. government," Edward Liebow, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, told VOA.
More than 80,000 Afghans have come to the U.S. over the past 10 months, mostly through Operation Allies Welcome, a U.S. government program designed to resettle former U.S. Afghan allies and at-risk individuals.
U.S. officials have repeatedly voiced support for Afghan women and minorities whose fundamental rights are reportedly violated under Taliban leadership.
Already one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan has plunged deeper into poverty over the past 10 months largely due to a cessation of foreign development aid, rampant unemployment, and international banking and economic sanctions imposed on the Taliban leadership. Afghan women, deprived of work and education, are particularly suffering the brunt of the harsh poverty, aid agencies say.
To help Afghan scholars, U.S. academics have called on the Department of State to waive the student visa fees.
"The cost of J-1 visas for academics and F-1 for students is a non-refundable fee of $160, a considerable challenge to most applicants, with further expense for those with family, each of whom pays the same fee," said Breyer.
A spokesperson for the Department of State said there is no exception in visa fees for Afghan students.
"The department does not have the authority to waive visa fees on an ad hoc basis and the department's regulations contain no exemption from the payment of visa fees that would apply to Afghan students, in general," the spokesperson told VOA.
For Breshna Salaam, the SEVIS and visa fees are as much an impediment to her education as are the Taliban's outright denials of her right to work and learn.
"I hear a lot from U.S. officials in the media that they support the right of Afghan women and girls to education and work, but it would be good to see some actions like waiving student visa fees for Afghan women or making the visa process a little easier so we don't have to travel to a third country only to submit a visa application," Salaam said.
More than 914,000 international students were enrolled at U.S. academic centers in 2021, of which 354 were from Afghanistan, according to the Institute of International Education.
Source: Voice of America