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Reflections of an Afghan Chevening Scholar

  • 20 September 2021
  • By Naimatullah Zafary & Ruth Arnold

Today’s blog was contributed by Naimatullah Zafary, an Afghan Chevening scholar and Ruth Arnold, Senior Advisor to Study Group and co-founder of the #WeAreInternational campaign. Ruth is on Twitter @RuthArnold.  

On 28 August the last British flight evacuating civilians from Afghanistan left Kabul, bringing to an end an operation that had airlifted 15,000 Afghan and British citizens following the Taliban taking control. One of these was Chevening scholar Naimatullah Zafary.

Naimat finally boarded a plane to the UK with his family following the intervention of the Prime-Minister to fast-track visas for the Chevening Scholars. He shares with HEPI his early reflections on this experience and what it means to take up his studies as an Afghan scholar in the UK.

My name is Naimatullah Zafary. I am a 36-year old Afghan Chevening Scholar. And my family and I were on one of the last few flights to the UK from Kabul.

The events of the last month have shocked the world and changed the lives of the people of Afghanistan in ways which are still unfolding. I could not have imagined what they would mean for me.

From Kabul to Chevening

As a graduate of Law and Political Science from Kardan University in Kabul, I had long set my heart on applying for a British Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office funded Chevening Scholarship. But it was my experience of working in development in my beautiful but challenging country that drove me to want to be better equipped to help the many poor people I tried to serve.

Working close to many poor communities made me realise our government was failing to deliver services to the nation in the most effective ways. The President and his team made warm promises during the presidential campaign, but struggled to fulfil them. Provinces such as Badghis, Zabul and Nooristan were more than 80% multidimensionally poor and the pandemic and conflict only made things worse. We lacked the infrastructure to deliver basic services to rural areas. Now, reports indicate that more than 95% of Afghans may sink below the poverty line by next year. I wanted to know how to make a real difference for good.

Afghanistan also faced issues with corruption which created a concrete wall between its citizens and the Government. Development and public policies were Kabul-centric and on-the-ground realities were not reflected in official strategies. It was these challenges which made me to apply to the University of Sussex’s respected Institute of Development Studies where I thought I would combine my experience with the skills to do things better. I was deeply proud and grateful when I heard my application had been successful for such an internationally-regarded scholarship.

August 2021

Yet even as I completed my application and heard the good news that I had been accepted, the situation around me was deteriorating. The American withdrawal was announced and the news of Taliban gains in parts of the country were heard soon after.

I and my fellow Cheveners held onto the promise of our studies but then came the shocking letter that our visa applications were being paused and the Scholarships were being deferred. A promised opportunity to do good was slipping away as the country itself fell city by city to the Taliban.

The story of how it came to pass that this decision was reversed by the British Prime Minister himself is difficult to tell as parts of it happened behind the scenes due to the efforts of those who cannot be named. But the determination not simply to accept this began in Kabul. Selection for a Chevening Scholarship was a dream that had taken years to achieve. I could not abandon it at this final stage: no way! Now the hard work and start lack of sleep to secure a dream began in earnest.

First came meetings with embassy staff in Kabul but the door remained closed, so we approached our networks and the media to amplify our voices and keep possibility alive. It wasn’t easy of course – speaking out was perilous but I felt I had to take a stand. I gave interviews to the BBC and reached out through powerful and immediate social media channels using their immediacy to bring worlds together.

I can never fully express just how grateful I am that our voices were indeed heard and that those who could act rapidly took up our case. Through their actions, our voices reached the former Foreign Secretary and current Prime-Minister, Boris Johnson. He was the only one with the power to overturn the visa decision at such a fraught moment and he did. In answer to a TV journalist he clarified that visas would be issued for Chevening scholars from Afghanistan along with their dependents.

Only those who have felt the reality of their lives at risk can truly know what that statement meant to us. I cried for joy at the decision but also at the reality of being part of ‘one village in which we could read across the world and connect with someone we have never met in person.

The last flights from Kabul

The most dangerous part of our journey though had only just begun. On 22 August, I received an email to report to the Baron Hotel next to the airport and to come with my family.

We set out with just a handful of belongings to join a sea of desperate people. More than 15,000 Afghans were waiting under the burning sun and I joined them with my wife, my four children – one just 18-months old – and my elderly parents. I told them to stay where they were so I could work out how to traverse the vast crowd. I tried, but it was impossible.

The next day we tried again to move through an increasingly frantic mass of humanity but we again we failed. But at 5:00pm, I decided upon a different strategy. As we were around 36 people – all Cheveners and dependents – we made a human chain of our hands with men and younger people on the outside and, within the circle, the women, children and elderly.

And so we began our walk to safety. The pull, push and halt felt like an almost impossible endeavor. My daughter struggled to breathe and began to scream. I put her on my shoulders and she stayed there for hours as I moved forward, putting water on her head when I could. Every few metres gained, I would ask the people near me how long it would that from here. Those in the crowd said it was their fourth or fifth night.

But our movement as one connected unit allowed us to make progress and, after three hours, we finally reached the point where British soldiers could stretch out their hands to us and pull us out of the pool – the same one that two days later would be filled with the blood of the victims of the airport blast that killed soldiers and Afghans alike.

What kept me going during that terrible journey was my determination never to quit and holding fiercely to my dreams. There were times of horror and hopelessness when I felt I had made a mistake but a stronger inner voice told me I simply must press on, that I could and should take a few more steps and handle a few more hours. When the British soldier finally pulled us into the airport, I kissed his shoulder and we hugged one another like brothers.

The photograph I have on the transport plane from Kabul is one which marks the beginning of a new chapter not just for me but for my family, and of course for my country. In London there was, as my daughter observed, ‘no sound of fire and bullets’ and the children slept peacefully at last. My wife and I less so, as we adjusted to what had happened, and cried tears for still suffering people. Once quarantine was over, we ventured out into the street and into a beautiful London park. I played at peace with my children as my parents watched us.

What next for Afghan scholars?

Much of my immediate future is still unknown. Where we will live, for example, or what local Brighton schools our girls will attend. My determination though is to gain from this experience and to find a way to give back to others in need. 

This year, 9 out of 35 Afghan Cheveners are going to The University of Sussex. I will be studying postgraduate Governance, Development and Public Policy. My commitment to understanding how to improve the lives of the poorest of the world has never been greater. I know what it is to face danger. I have seen the desperation of those who fear for their lives. Leaders need understanding, courage and determination, but must also have compassion for those in distress.

I believe, one of our proudest achievements was working with our networks to ensure our voices reached all the way from Kabul to a Prime-Minister, the government and great people of the United Kingdom and the world. When we decided to stand and speak, it made a difference. Journalists in Kabul had asked me if we wished to speak anonymously, but I stood my ground and said no – I thought it would be more impactful for people to know my name, my identity and to see my photograph. As students and scholars we held tight to education and decided we had to speak with courage and lead with honesty.

Where our studies will lead in future, we do not know. My personal experience of conflict means I am more deeply committed to peace and using knowledge to make a better world, and I know other Afghan scholars feel the same.

War is a torturing waste but peace means living in harmony, unity and seeing your family smile. If you have experienced conflict, then you truly value everything in your life, even the simplest warm greeting. Peace allows for development, technological progress for public benefit, growth, happiness, joy. In war, there is only loss, of precious life and so much more.

How to support Afghan and other at-risk scholars

This experience has been a sharp reminder that not everyone’s journey to become a student is peaceful and supported. I hope these initial observations might help my wonderful British fellow students and colleagues have an insight into our situation.

First, we have come from trauma and tragedy, and I know it will take some time to make our best contribution. The feeling of fear or exile confront you with the absence of decision making as you can only focus on how to survive, how to remain alive. You suddenly lose everything you had, all you valued and had dreamt about. You become someone who has lost an identity. Knowing this means we Afghan scholars bring an insight others may never have, and first-hand practical examples of how some theories can really work and others don’t.

I hope our universities and colleagues will be patient as we familiarise ourselves with a new system and as we come to terms with what has happened. Afghan and other at-risk students are keen to learn the theory and practice of our chosen fields, and adapt those to a new environment. In my case that means studying public administration in the context of a particular country, learning how to set development indicators that properly reflect how things truly are.

I would also like to say something about being a mature postgraduate student with a family. It is not just me who has experienced these perilous last few weeks, it is all of us. My wife, my young children and my parents. My most powerful motivation for my studies is them. I am of course grateful beyond any words that they are with me.

But most of all, we welcome friendship. The most moving words anyone has days to me are the simple phrase, welcome to your new home. I have been shown great warmth and have made friendships which will last all of our lives, which are now almost family. My children have opened gifts and known the kindness of strangers.

The UK is a multicultural society, in which the ideal is that I may form respectful relationships and friendship with all. In doing so, as well as studying for my degree as a Chevening Scholar, I will learn about a new country, about my friends and myself.

Education first

What all us scholars share is our belief in the importance of education – the most powerful driver of positive change in the world.

In my country of Afghanistan, the literacy rate is only around 35% and that fact has played a significant role in the war, conflict and uncertainty of the last four decades. A better world demands better educated and more responsible citizens.

My dear British friend shared with me the words of the English poet John Masefield who said that a university is a beautiful place where ‘the thinker and the seeker will be bound together in the undying cause of bringing thought into the world’. I love poetry, especially by the Persian poet Rumi, and I agree with Masefield’s words. Education is a candle that lightens your way, even on a very dark and fearful journey.

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  1. Powerful words and thank you for sharing your story Naimat. Hopefully we can meet one day comrade.

  2. Azizollah Rezaei says:

    I was moved by reading this wonderful yet difficult journey. And as an Afghan Chevening applicant and educator, I am proud to know we have determined and committed scholars.

    But my own story of escaping Kabul for safety in UK is in some ways alike to the story of Nematullah Zafary.
    I have worked as teacher trainer with the British Council Afghanistan for two and half years. I was an English for Afghans Project staff and served to train English language teachers along with my dozens of colleagues in 15 Provinces across Afghanistan. We worked in the frontlines of providing educational services and therefore very exposed to the public eye. While eligible for ARAP scheme, none of us are still relocated to UK. We are all hiding from the new oppressive rulers just because of our professional tie with British Council.

    While Chevening scholars got lucky and relocated during the last days of evacuation, we were promised to be patient and positive until to be called to airport. But has not happened to this day, and we are in hiding with very limited food to survive on.

    Is there anybody to help amplify the educators voices left behind?


  3. Kareem Aryan Shah says:

    I’m happy and really happy for you and your family along other of your comrades that y’all didn’t meet with the horrid blast you mentioned above. I’m hoping you’ll return here with a strong will and serve your countrymen in the upcoming as better as you would.

  4. Tracy says:

    Azizollah Rezaei
    I do not know anyone who can help personally, but I have this evening emailed my MP, and Boris Johnson to highlight your comment here.

    I hope you receive the help you need very soon.

  5. Mia zamin shah says:

    The store of every afghan International student come to the same point about there further. My store is have another face of problem. I got admission in one of london university on self finance my classes will be start on end of September but there is now way get out from afghanistan. Fell unsafe for my admission to be cancel.

  6. Ruth Arnold says:

    So sorry to hear the stories from other Afghan scholars who have not yet managed to leave but who are desperately hoping to do so. I have been in touch with some in the same situation and know the efforts by CARA and others to help are very much continuing, but the difficulty and need is very real indeed.
    I hope this article will help people in the U.K. remember how much this opportunity to take up study here means.

  7. Naimat says:

    I thank you all for your nice comments and appreciating words. I admire the courage of every Afghan for thinking about their people and country at this difficult time. We have strong hope for our people and land.
    Thank you,
    Naimat Zafary

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