Imagine being at university, at Cambridge or elsewhere, and one day waking up to be told that your education is ending and you won’t be going back. Not only that, but finding yourself now at risk of forced marriage or even execution. This is reality for female students and women’s rights activists in Afghanistan today.
You would be hard pushed to see what has been happening in Kabul and beyond in the last few weeks and not feel a sense of shock, despair or heartbreak. Perhaps all three. This is certainly the case for alumnus Simon Morrish (U89) who was deeply disturbed by the way the west withdrew from Afghanistan and the awful events that precipitated in the country.
Opening Twitter one day Simon, who works full time as a systems engineering consultant, decided to seek out tweets from those on the ground in Afghanistan, to better understand what was happening there. He admits to a sense of shame; “It felt like we’d walked away. We had abandoned those we’d made commitments to, who had trusted those commitments and built their lives upon them”.
While government help and press attention was focussed on UK nationals, government employees and translators, Simon noticed other groups. There were many women’s rights activists raising their voice on social media, who were not then prominent in the news, and were completely without a support network. These were people who had been, in Simon’s words “culturally employed” by the west, an “essential part of the project to open up Afghanistan’s society, encourage liberal values, and enable equality and human rights in the country”. With the Taliban having taken control, they were at particularly high risk.
When one of them tweeted a direct appeal for help, in fear for her life, Simon replied asking what he could do, and his involvement snowballed from there. Despite never having done anything like this before, he has been supporting 6 women’s rights activists and their families (over twenty people in total) who need help to leave Afghanistan. Initially he made calls to a UK helpline, to get them listed for evacuation from the airport. Each call involved hundreds of redials and over three hours on hold – something that would be impossible for those in Afghanistan to do. Forming a group with others he met online, and working together, they managed to get one woman and her three children to Poland; but two other families narrowly avoided the bombings at Kabul airport and have yet to make it out of the country.
His small group now contains concerned citizens from several countries – including a Catz alumnus. Their next focus is to apply for resettlement and arrange visas to allow these women to travel to safety, whether it’s to Spain, Poland, Germany, the UK, the USA or elsewhere. But this is a path strewn with barriers. The official schemes in the UK are not working: the ARAP scheme is unresponsive and the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme is still not even open. So Simon is “pushing and pulling levers wherever [he] can”, contacting MPs and emailing the Secretary of State for Defence in the hope that someone with the ability to do so will step in to help.
Two of the women Simon is currently supporting were in their final semester at Kabul University. One was studying law, and the other engineering. Law is anyway a dangerous field to be in now, but that student was also very outspoken and prominent, having written articles in newspapers and spoken at the UN. The other used to suffer abuse merely by walking to her classes. In recent weeks she has continued to speak out on social media, and she’s captured and shared shocking footage from Kabul which has been viewed by millions, all the while trying to stay anonymous. Both were present when ISIL attacked the university last November, and both now receive intimidation and regular death threats. “If they lowered their voices perhaps the threats would subside” Simon tells us. But this is not the point. “They have strong voices and they should be able to raise them, to speak not only for themselves, but their contemporaries.”
The routes for these women and their peers seem to be either to get them sponsored by a UK university so that they can come here on student visas, or to try to get them accepted for resettlement so that they can enter the UK, then look at options for continuing their education. Simon’s concern is that the first route can be very slow, while the second is “just not working”.
So what can we do to assist? We can amplify their voices on social media and in the media so that those who are in a position to help might feel compelled to do so. We can contact our universities, to ask them to assess their educational achievements and eligibility for scholarships. We can contact those who make policy decisions and who provide the visas, and insist they act quickly.
All these women want to do is to complete their university education, safe from attack. Something we take for granted. For Simon, “Going to university, and Cambridge in particular, transformed my life. I want to do whatever I can to help these women achieve the degrees they were only months away from completing. They are young, bright and driven. We could help rebuild their broken lives by getting them here and finding a place for them to study. Who knows what great contributions to society and the world they may make as a result.”
Photo credit: Rumi Consultancy/World Bank