Science

How U.S. scientists got 23 colleagues—and their families—out of Afghanistan

On 18 August, Ahmad Nijab* believed he and his family were going to escape from Kabul. The Afghan agricultural economist had just received an email from the U.S. Department of State instructing him to go to the international airport that evening for an evacuation flight. He hustled his wife and five children into a van, which dropped them outside the airport.

“There were thousands of people, and a lot of shooting. It was just a chaotic situation,” he says. As they struggled toward the entrance, the couple feared they might lose their two youngest children—a 2-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter—in the crush. “I was really scared,” he says. Two hours later, they gave up and returned home.

“That was the very worst moment,” Nijab says.

After an agonizing 9-day wait, Nijab and his family are finally safe. On 27 August, he and 22 other scientists and staff affiliated with Michigan State University’s (MSU’s) Grain Research and Innovation (GRAIN) project, along with their families—75 people in all—made it onto a flight from Kabul to Albania, only hours before the window for evacuations slammed shut. “It’s a miracle we got them out,” says GRAIN Director Kurt Richter.

Scores of other researchers trying to leave Afghanistan were not so lucky. “Many scientists are potentially in danger,” says Fazlullah Akhtar, an Afghan hydrologist at the University of Bonn. Life is expected to be especially hard for female scientists under the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. “Some women scholars are staying at home and don’t go to the university these days,” says Khadijeh Javadi, a female engineer who until last year was a top official in Afghanistan’s mining ministry and adviser to former President Ashraf Ghani and now lives in Virginia.

It first dawned on Nijab that he would have to leave his homeland on 14 April. That was the day U.S. President Joe Biden announced U.S. troops would fully withdraw from Afghanistan by 11 September. As project director in Kabul for GRAIN, a $15.5 million program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Nijab worried the Taliban might eventually come after him. “The Taliban view anyone connected with the U.S. government or the military as a spy,” he says. In May, he applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to emigrate with his family to the United States, thinking they had ample time for a visa decision.

The Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover—and long delays in SIV processing—upended those plans. “We needed another way to get out,” he says.

In early August, with the Taliban advancing on Kabul, MSU swung into action. Administrators there and at other U.S. institutions with programs in Afghanistan banded together to advocate on behalf of their endangered scholars with U.S. diplomats, military officials, and members of congress. MSU found an ardent ally in Representative Elissa Slotkin (D–MI), whose district includes the university’s East Lansing campus. Slotkin was instrumental in securing access to Kabul airport for the GRAIN team, Richter says.

As the days ticked by, tensions in Kabul rose. Although the Taliban never showed up at Nijab’s home, other Afghan scientists with U.S. connections had gone into hiding after learning the Taliban were hunting for them, going door-to-door.

On 24 August, Richter emailed Nijab, asking him to assemble the GRAIN team and their families and come to the airport. One staffer elected to stay behind to care for a sick family member, Nijab says. And MSU could not arrange travel permissions for an additional 22 former GRAIN staff. “We had to go through a painful process of prioritizing who was most at risk from the Taliban,” Richter says.

The group, traveling in a convoy of seven vans, failed to reach the airport on its first try. The next attempt was at 5 a.m. the following morning. They managed to push through to the airport entrance, where they spent nearly 24 hours huddled in their vehicles before being allowed in. But their euphoria at finally reaching the terminal was short-lived: As they waited to board their plane, a suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. soldiers and more than 170 Afghan civilians just outside the airport’s Abbey Gate. The GRAIN group, which was waiting near the airport clinic, grimly witnessed medics bringing in a stream of blast victims. Evacuation flights were suspended. “We were so worried that was it—we’d be left behind,” Nijab says.

Finally, a day later, they boarded a flight to Tirana, Albania. The Eastern European nation agreed to accept hundreds of Afghan refugees as their asylum claims are processed—a connection brokered by Slotkin, who knew the U.S. ambassador to Albania, Yuri Kim. Once on the plane, Nijab saw that many other passengers were Afghan government officials, including Pashtoon Atif, a Western-trained expert who only a few months earlier had been appointed director-general of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency.

Albania rolled out the red carpet for the refugees, even dispatching foreign affairs minister Olta Xhaçka to greet them. Nijab and his colleagues are now staying in a hotel as their U.S. visa applications are processed. He hopes it will be a matter of weeks before they win admission to the United States. He expects to settle with his family in Michigan—if he lands a job at MSU—or in Indiana, where he earned his Ph.D. from Purdue University.

Nijab can’t imagine returning to Afghanistan while the Taliban is in power. And he despairs that the gains made under GRAIN will evaporate. Over 4 years, the program trained wheat specialists in Kabul and placed 33 students—including 12 women—in graduate programs at Kabul University and two Indian universities. But he will not turn his back on colleagues in Afghanistan: He says he will do whatever he can to help those still trapped to make their way out. “My family is very lucky to be where we are,” he says. “Others were not so lucky.”

*The name Ahmad Nijab is a pseudonym.

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