The situation back in Afghanistan is ever-changing. As of late February, many universities reopened to women under gender-segregated terms. In the weeks that followed, the Afghan Ministry of Education announced that female students above grade six would be permitted to return to schools starting on March 23. But when the day arrived, the Taliban reversed their decision. As of early April, those schools remained closed.

In Atlanta, Shafie, Alizada and their peers are wrapping up their first semester of intensive English studies at Georgia State. They’ve each been designated an academic counselor, and some of them have taken jobs in Patton Dining Hall.

Between working five days a week and taking full course loads, Larsson says the women display an incredible work ethic. They understand that perseverance is the only way to reach their goals. “They want to be doctors and diplomats,” she notes.

The students have more options for majors at Georgia State than at AUW. Alizada won’t pursue journalism and mass communication here because she feels it requires studying in your native language (Dari, for her). She talks instead about medicine and becoming a doctor, like her older brother. Shafie may major in medicine too, pointing out that there are no female doctors in her home province, but she’s also interested in computer science.

They’re slowly and steadily finding their footing and confidence. They can even tell you places to study in peace in the University Library. But the toll is as emotional as it is mental and physical.

They told Nassery they have trouble sleeping at night and that social media is their only way of knowing if their neighborhoods have been bombed. With all there is to worry about — the safety of their family and friends back home, the future of their country and the uncertainty of what they’ll do when January 2023 arrives — they’re also navigating college life and first jobs in a foreign place.

The opportunity to earn a paycheck has eased some of the financial burden. The money raised through Crossley’s GoFundMe efforts, which totaled more than $8,000 and was divided evenly among the six women, has also helped. Bunting and Larsson have helped the students open their own American bank accounts, giving them agency to manage their own finances.

Alizada is careful to express how grateful she is to be safe in Atlanta, for the opportunity to study at Georgia State and for all the support she’s received from people who didn’t even know
her. But she’s gripped by grief for all she’s lost and for the separation from her family and friends, guilt that she was able to leave Afghanistan when others couldn’t and an intense longing for the life she had before Aug. 15, 2021.

Alizada can connect with her family by phone a fair amount, but she worries constantly about their safety and well-being. Her parents and siblings live in fear, she says, and without access to work amid a crippled economy, they are barely scraping by.

“I may seem to be smiling. I look happy,” Alizada says. “But my soul is in Afghanistan with my family, friends and peers.”

Shafie’s parents and most of her brothers and sisters live in a small province in east-central Afghanistan, where access to the internet has been significantly hindered since August. She’s rarely able to speak to them and knows they’re struggling financially and emotionally. Her parents were never educated but deeply value it for their children and have worked hard to make it possible for them.

That makes it even harder for Shafie to accept things. “I feel like I lost everything,” she says. “I’m young still, and yet I’ve lost my country, my lessons [at AUW] and my family.”

With an understanding of the trauma they’ve endured and the loads they’re shouldering, Georgia State’s Counseling Center has organized individual and group counseling sessions for the women to join if they’re interested.

Larsson and Bunting are looking for every opportunity to bring a little joy to the students’ lives while allowing them to share their culture. They meet regularly for group activities, like the lunch at Ariana Kabob House, to talk about how things are going. The Winnona Park families have arranged weekend getaways for the women to the mountains and nearby lakes.

Larsson recently organized a picnic for the women in Atlanta’s Freedom Park to celebrate Nowruz, the Afghan New Year (March 20). She even took on the several-day process of preparing Haft Mēwa, a traditional dried fruit salad and a staple of Nowruz, to make the occasion feel extra special and more like home. The Taliban banned any celebration or recognition of Nowruz in Afghanistan this year.

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