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They rejected rescue for a chance to get a Fulbright and change Afghanistan. Now, all that is in doubt


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When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Maryam Jami's boss offered to help her flee the country. She said no. 

As a college-educated woman and human rights advocate, the 23-year-old was at risk of harassment or violence under the Taliban's militant Islamic rule.

Jami was in the pipeline to snag a Fulbright scholarship to study in the USA. She didn’t want to scuttle such a prestigious opportunity – even though it would require her to return to Afghanistan with a bigger target on her back.

"I turned it down because my aim was for Fulbright," she said in an interview from her hometown of Herat. "I really want to return to Afghanistan after my studies. I don't want to abandon Afghanistan." 

Hussain Ahmad, a computer science student, said many prospective Fulbright students turned down evacuation offers.

"We can make a difference in our country if the U.S. continues this exchange," he said.

The Taliban's sudden takeover and the U.S. State Department's uncertain response have left about 100 Fulbright semifinalists in limbo in Afghanistan.

Gayatri Patel, vice president of external relations at the Women's Refugee Commission, said it's not clear how many at-risk Afghans rejected evacuation offers to stay in their home country. 

What is clear: "They are incredibly brave," she said. 

"A lot of this opposition (to the Taliban) is still out there, but it’s being driven underground," Patel said.

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Afghanistan lacks a US-recognized government

The Fulbright scholarship program is "America’s best hope for the future of Afghanistan," said Heather Nauert, a member of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and State Department spokeswoman during the Trump administration.

She noted that after studying in the USA, "many Fulbrighters become future leaders in their home countries and maintain close relations with America."

The program requires graduates to return home when their study is complete; more than three dozen alumni have gone on to become heads of state.

A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the agency is tracking events in Afghanistan and reviewing the future of the Fulbright program. The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the United States remains committed to the Afghan scholars. 

"We know that this is a challenging time for these Afghan students and their families," the U.S. official said. 

In an email shared with USA TODAY, another State Department official suggested the Afghanistan program might be nixed unless the United States recognizes the Taliban government – an unlikely scenario. 

"Until there is a U.S.-recognized government, we do not have a valid memorandum of understanding (MOU) to administer the Fulbright program," Erik Black, a State Department cultural affairs officer, wrote to an Afghan applicant. 

The Afghan students wait.

"The State Department has not contacted us about what our future is going to be," Ahmad wrote in a message to USA TODAY. "We are losing time."

Brain drain

The Biden administration said it evacuated more than 124,000 people from Afghanistan before U.S. forces withdrew at the end of August.

It's not clear what the toll of that exodus will be on Afghan society and its Taliban-led government.  

In the midst of the chaotic rush for the exits, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid asked the United States not to encourage educated Afghans to flee. 

"We need their expertise," he said, according to Reuters

Skeptical of Taliban rhetoric and fearing a return of their extremist rule, many human rights advocates, academics, researchers and journalists were among those trying to escape.

Taliban leaders have effectively barred girls from attending school and declared that women should not work in the same settings as men.

Women, especially, 'need this opportunity'

Muhiba Tamiz, another Fulbright semifinalist who lives in Kandahar province, said she didn't even have time to consider fleeing.

"When Kabul collapsed ... I was thinking about my country, about millions of things," she said. "I’m emotionally broken." 

Like other Afghan women, Tamiz has been shuttered in her house with relatives for weeks. 

"I was planning to get a master’s degree in international development and international relations," Tamiz said of her Fulbright plans.

"It was my dream to be a lecturer one day in Kandahar University and to teach girls specifically, because we don't have women teachers," she said.

"I strongly believe that it’s possible to change things," Tamiz said. "But it needs hard work and determination." 

During this "dark time," Jami said, "we need this opportunity more than ever" – particularly women such as herself who dream of becoming Afghanistan's leaders.

In her application essay, which she shared with USA TODAY, Jami's ambitions are clear: "I will return to Afghanistan to fulfill my life goal of promoting justice, rule of law, and human rights values."

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