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Hopeful Fulbright scholars in Afghanistan await update from State Department

Courtesy Maryam Jami

(WASHINGTON) — Maryam Jami, 23, an attorney in Herat, Afghanistan, who calls herself a “mini-human rights activist,” still dreams of obtaining her Masters of Law in the United States as a Fulbright scholar next year, pinning the program as both a venue to her own dreams and a tool for a better future for Afghanistan.

But she and roughly 100 other semi-finalists in the country now taken over by the Taliban have been left in limbo since the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops and unofficial pause of the prestigious program run by the U.S. State Department.

“For me, the Fulbright was just my dream — and my actual path to my dreams,” Jami told ABC News in a video call from her home in Herat. “Sometimes I feel that I’m going to be depressed because it’s really — it’s just getting really too tough for me… I just feel that I’m running out of time.”

Jami planned on studying comparative and international law and taking that training after one year back to Afghanistan to help aid women and refugees. Instead, she’s confined to her small home in Herat with her mother, father, and three younger sisters, unable to go out for coffee or tea, her family fearful of fighters in the street, and confined to watching movies inside while she frantically applies to other scholarships after having turned down multiple offers to evacuate in August, she says, holding out hope for the Fulbright Program.

She used to spend her days prepping for her twice-delayed interview with State Department officials. Now, she says she can no longer look at her notes.

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“Before the fall of Kabul, I used to check those papers and check those questions, get prepared for them every day,” she said. “I just feel that a long time has passed since that time, which I was preparing for this program, and I feel so old. I feel that my dreams are shattered and buried and I cannot continue working for them.”

But, Jami added, she tries to keep hope, as might be expected of a Fulbright leader.

“Still, I’m trying to keep my energy and not get disappointed, because if we are intending to be future leaders of our community and our country, we have to be positive in also negative situations. And we just have to keep our hope that better, better days are coming and the best is yet to come,” Jami told ABC News.

The timeline of the 2022 Fulbright Foreign Student Program was disrupted first by COVID-19 and then, again, with the end of America’s longest war and diplomatic presence in the country now on the brink of economic collapse and famine. More than half of Afghanistan experiences severe food insecurity with 72% of the country living below the poverty line even before the fall of Kabul, but with international aid being cut off since the Taliban took control, the situation is even more severe.

Jami, who says the State Department promised another update to her cohort by Dec. 15, fears their opportunity to study in the U.S. — and create a better future for their home country — will soon be vanquished.

“We are reviewing the significant safety, logistical, and programmatic constraints which must be overcome to successfully implement the 2022-23 Fulbright Program,” a State Department spokesperson told ABC News. “We are committed to remaining in communication with the semi-finalist group about the status of the program, understanding they must pursue the choices that make the most sense for themselves and their families.”

“The United States has a longstanding commitment to the Fulbright Program in Afghanistan, which has supported more than 950 Afghan Fulbright students since 2003, including 109 who began their studies in the United States this academic year,” the spokesperson added in response to specific concerns Jami posed to ABC News.

Left in limbo: ‘#SupportAfgFulbrightSemiFinalists2022’

The Fulbright Foreign Student Program, administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, enables the brightest minds from abroad to study and conduct research in the U.S. with about 4,000 foreign students awarded the scholarship each year. Congress established the educational exchange program in 1946 with a goal of international relationship building by offering both grants to U.S. citizens to study or teach abroad and to non-U.S. citizens to study in the states.

Jami submitted her application for the 2022 class by the first deadline of Feb. 15, 2021, when American troops were still in the country and it wasn’t clear the Taliban would swiftly rise to power by the end of the summer. When she learned she was a semi-finalist for the highly competitive program back in April, she first called her mother in apparent disbelief.

“I really felt so happy because I was not believing that it was me achieving this,” she recalled to ABC News. “I just remember that my mother was in the kitchen, cooking something. I just called my mom and said, “Oh, Mom, I received the email. I’m selected. I’m a semi-finalist for the Fulbright Program!'”

“My mom said, ‘Wow, it’s such a big achievement,’ and she was really proud of me,” Jami said with a smile. “My friends were also so proud of me and then, whenever after that day, whenever I thought about or told them about life problems, my friends just told me, “Oh girl, you’re selected for the Fulbright Program and you’re still talking about your life problems?”

With an understanding that she would be accepted so long as she passed the final interview portion, Jami grew disheartened when her interview for June would be postponed due to COVID-19. Then in July, President Joe Biden announced the U.S. military mission would conclude in Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2021. By August, when Jami expected to have her interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the Taliban had already taken over parts of her home city ahead of seizing the presidential palace on Aug. 15.

“After the fall of Kabul, we couldn’t get an update from the officials,” Jami told ABC News.

To that end, Jami joined a What’s App group with dozens of other semifinalists who launched a social media and email campaign to draw awareness to their plight. Using the hashtag, “SupportAfgFulbrightSemiFinalists2022,” Jami credits their efforts with getting the State Department’s attention after, she said, officials had gone silent on them.

“I think they felt that the kind of embarrassment when somebody is pointing at you in front of other people,” Jami said. “I think they wanted to make us silent for a while, but maybe we will receive good news on the 15th of December. Most of the people in the group think, though, maybe it is something just to keep us silent for a while.”

In the past, the State Department has canceled the Fulbright Program for certain cohorts for safety reasons. Typically, scholarships are rescinded and semi-finalists are asked to reapply if they want to pursue the Fulbright again.

Jami, who says she completed her program application when her home didn’t even have electricity, told ABC News there isn’t time to wait another year. Her TOEFL score, or “Test of English as a Foreign Language” expires next August, when she had hoped to begin her studies in the U.S.

“Actually, we don’t have time. We are getting so old. We are getting out of energy. We are getting tired. We are getting exhausted. We are already so tired. So the reconstruction of Afghanistan cannot wait. This is a project, in our minds, which cannot wait. Our dreams cannot wait. That is why education should not be conditioned to the politics because people are starving out there in Afghanistan,” she said.

The State Department told ABC News it’s committed to the cohort and working to review the safe and effective implementation of the program.

“We are committed to remaining in communication with the semi-finalist group about the status of the program while we review the significant safety, logistical, and programmatic constraints which must be overcome to successfully implement the 2022-23 Fulbright Program,” a spokesperson told ABC News.

Jami says despite the fact that officials have promised them an update by Dec. 15, she and other semi-finalists are pushing for a substantial and positive answer — “because just an answer is not enough,” she said.

“They must deem us as an exception, even if they are going to cut ties with the Taliban, cut relations with the Taliban forever because our application is completely pre-Taliban and we have nothing to do with the Taliban government. Not just us but the Afghan youth have nothing to do with the Taliban’s government or with the politics, so this is my message to the U.S. government and the U.S. Department of State,” she said.

“We really put too much effort into our applications and this program. We rejected most of the immigration offers, lots of other scholarships, just for the Fulbright Program. Because this is a different program. It’s obvious from its principle,” she added.

Principle of the program: ‘I belong to Afghanistan’

Jami, who graduated from Herat University with a law degree in 2019 and has worked with international aid organizations on legal and humanitarian needs of refugees, said she was attracted to the Fulbright Program because of its principle to return and work in one’s home country after completing studies in the U.S.

“So this is the time that Afghanistan needs the prospective Fulbright Scholars the most,” Jami said, taking a serious tone.

She believes many of the 100 or so semifinalists have already evacuated the country or went silent due to a lack of hope. Jami told ABC News that she even left the What’s App group last month after the conversations shifted from their campaign to continue the program to participants asking advice on how to leave the country — though has been advised by former coworkers and friends to try and do the same.

“I belong to Afghanistan,” Jami said. “Whether the Taliban are governing Afghanistan or any other government, this homeland is mine and I am committed to serve here, serve its people especially in the time that they need me and people like me the most, and the time they’re at the poverty and homelessness is resonating in Afghanistan and people need someone who can help take their hand and we can do something for them.”

Determined to continue her campaign, Jami still holds out hope for the Fulbright Program so she is ready if the day finally comes that it’s her time to interview to become a finalist in the 2022 group.

“Education cannot wait,” she told ABC News. “And education — and the fate of the Afghan youth — should not be conditioned to political rivalries or political games.”

ABC News’ Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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