Saima Zawari is in her first semester at Northeastern Illinois University where she’s studying toward a degree in information technology.
It’s a sharp turn of events for Zawari, who just last August was forced to flee her home country.
She felt she no longer had a future in Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban over the span of 10 days following the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces.
“I just came to the airport and decided to find a way to come in,” Zawari said.
She says she feared for her life as Taliban militias blocked her route to the Kabul airport.
“It was really scary, they had big guns with them,” Zawari said. “It was scary, they were hitting the men too much, the women.”
She was able to get through to the airport — controlled at the time by American security forces — and onto a plane with the aid of an Afghan interpreter. Her journey from Kabul took her to Kuwait, then Germany then a flight to Washington D.C. From there, she was placed in a refugee camp in New Mexico. It was at that camp where she learned of a scholarship program offered by Northeastern Illinois University.
She applied and was accepted.
“I was like, too emotional and start crying,” Zawari said. “At the Chicago, I got a chance to continue my education. It was really incredible for me.”
Now, Zawari lives in a student dorm with four other Afghan refugees.
Maywand Pohyar is another Afghan scholarship recipient. He is a graduate student working toward his MBA. But he began his study at Northeastern in 2020, and traveled home to Afghanistan with his family for summer break in 2021.
The timing proved to be catastrophic.
At the last minute, he received a text from a friend telling him to take a flight out of the country as soon as possible.
Pohyar said it took five separate attempts to get into the airport. He and his family then spent three days inside waiting for a flight out.
“Everyone was just sitting on the ground, laying on the ground, on the streets, the dust, the sands, the cars were moving, military and everything,” Pohyar said.
The family eventually made it back to Chicago after being held at a refugee camp in Wisconsin. Pohyar resumed studying at Northeastern, where he first approached the school’s Board of Trustees and asked them if they could fund scholarships for his fellow refugees.
“I didn’t believe it. After one hour, one of the board of trustees amazed me,” Pohyar said. “She told me the request is accepted right away.”
Northeastern President Gloria Gibson says the school approved 17 scholarships in total for Afghan refugees. She says the program aligns with the mission of the school, where the student body is majority non-White and more than 80 languages are spoken on campus.
“Diversity is an integral part of the fabric of our institution,” Gibson said. “We have many first generation students and Pell-eligible students. And we have a welcoming environment as we embrace diversity.”
Gibson says the scholarship funds tuition, room and board, textbooks and basic living needs.
The university says mental health access and group counseling have been key to integrating the students into academic life.
“There’s a lot of anxiety. There’s a fear of the unknown,” said Mateo Farzaneh, an associate professor of history at the school. “There’s a lot of homesickness, there’s a lot of traumatic experiences that they probably saw during the time of the airlift.”
Farzaneh is an Iranian-American and speaks Farsi — the students’ native language. He says another part of the challenge has been acclimating school faculty and staff to Afghan culture.
Northeastern is a small public university without a large endowment, which makes it a challenge to fund all of the resources required for the Afghan program.
University officials put the total cost of the one-year scholarships at more than $500,000. They say they’ve only raised $60,000 of that total so far, but are hopeful they can eventually raise enough money to cover all four years.
Gibson acknowledges the school will have to rely on foundation and donor support to make the program work. She says the dreams of students like Poyhar and Zawari are on the line.
“It was kind of my dream to come to America to study,” Zawari said. “America was my dream country … and I’m here, and it’s a miracle for my life.”