Afghan scholars find a warm welcome in Rwanda | Science

One night in September 2021, Fatema Samim’s fate hung in the balance. A civil engineer from Herat, in western Afghanistan, she had been on the run from the Taliban for a month and was holed up with her husband and two young sons in Mazar-i-Sharif. Charter flights were whisking Afghans with U.S. ties to safety, but the Taliban had begun to crack down on this escape route, and that evening, its fighters fanned out to the city’s guest houses to detain people attempting to flee.

“That night was very bad for us,” says Samim, a former dean at Herat University who led a rainwater harvesting project run by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). But after NASEM staffers evacuated the family to Kabul—a perilous 12-hour drive past several Taliban checkpoints—their odyssey ended in an unexpected haven: Rwanda. They flew via Pakistan to Kigali, the capital, where Samim and four other Afghan engineers and hydrologists with NASEM links are now assistant professors at the University of Rwanda.

Rwanda’s own dark past—a genocide in 1994 claimed more than 1 million lives and displaced 2 million—forged a bond. “What the Afghan scholars were experiencing struck a familiar chord,” says chemist Valentine Uwamariya, Rwanda’s minister of education. “We welcomed them warmly.”

The U.S. Department of State had largely fumbled the evacuation of scholars and civil society actors after Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August 2021. Individual institutions scrambled to fill that void. Michigan State University, for instance, in late August managed to secure safe passage for 23 Afghan agricultural scientists and their families to Albania, where they are waiting for U.S. visas. Others who have managed to reach U.S. soil are stuck on military bases as their visas are processed.

NASEM sought a refuge for scholars funded through a competitive grants program the academies run for the U.S. Agency for International Development; they were likely to be in particular danger because of their U.S. ties. “We were looking for someplace they wouldn’t have to go through all the hurdles that it takes to get resettled in the U.S.,” says National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt. Rwanda leapt to mind: The country has long strived to raise its science game and, McNutt surmised, would sympathize with the Afghans. On 17 August, she wrote to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who was eager to help. “We understood their plight,” says Rwanda’s U.S. ambassador, Mathilde Mukantabana, a former history professor. “Our country always opens our door to refugees.”

“Never in my life did I imagine I’d end up in Rwanda,” says Naeem Salarzai, a former director general for water management affairs in the Afghan government who led a 200-strong team that allocated the country’s scarce water and managed transboundary agreements, including a fractious water treaty with Iran. When Kabul fell, Salarzai worried that Taliban sympathizers in Iran, miffed by Afghanistan’s assertive posture on water rights, might have shared his name with the Taliban. His participation in a NASEM workshop increased his jeopardy. “I was quite scared,” he says.

Salarzai and his family moved from house to house in Kabul to evade Taliban pursuers. Three times in the latter half of August, NASEM directed them to head to the airport. The third time they almost reached the airport gate before giving up, fearing their two children might be crushed in the desperate crowd. Hours later, a suicide bomber killed scores of Afghan civilians and U.S. soldiers near the same gate. “It felt so horrible,” he says.

image of Naeem Salarzai
His U.S. ties posed a risk to Naeem Salarzai after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. “Never in my life did I imagine I’d end up in Rwanda,” he says.Naeem Salarzai

Two weeks later, feigning a need for medical treatment in Pakistan, the family escaped to Islamabad and on to Kigali. “We found a place that is very green and very clean,” Salarzai says. “Right from the first day we started loving it.”

NASEM negotiated a 1-year contract for Salarzai and Samim and their three colleagues with the University of Rwanda. They are helping devise a curriculum for a new master’s degree, supervising students, and reading theses, and will start to teach in February. Uwamariya hopes the Afghans will also use their “wealth of talent and experience” to advise a new government Water Resources Board. The five families—19 people altogether—cook together and go on weekend jaunts.

Still, the United States beckons. “Kigali is a good place, for a short time,” says Samim, who intends to travel on once U.S. visas come through. Her younger sister is already in law school at the University of Notre Dame and working on visas for other family members now in Tajikistan and Iran. Salarzai hopes to join a brother whose family is living in California.

“I play out in my mind the long game here,” McNutt says. “Will these scholars return to Afghanistan one day? That’s what I hope against hope will happen.” So does Salarzai: “I’m looking forward to the time when Afghanistan has the right kind of leaders and I can work for my own country again.”