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Afghan refugee's plan to attend Catholic school in Arkansas halted

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Shadab, 18, was ready to leave Afghanistan to travel nearly 7,500 miles to begin his senior year of high school at Subiaco Academy — a Benedictine high school which is both a day school and a boarding school — just before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

The student knows six languages and had high hopes of studying at an American college next year.

The college-preparatory environment and challenging curriculum at the all-boys school in Subiaco drew him in after just a simple internet search of U.S. schools. He knew that's where he wanted to study; he applied and was accepted.

But within a month, his entire world changed.

"We have no future," Shadab said bluntly, with the sting of desperation in his voice during a phone call from Pakistan with the Arkansas Catholic, diocesan newspaper of Little Rock, Aug. 31.

Shadab, who preferred to use only his first name, had his student visa denied a second time Aug. 26.

"I have no future, my younger sister has no future because I'm not able to go to school anymore. As an immigrant in Pakistan, I'm not allowed to do my school in Pakistan," he said. "My visa got denied, I can't go back to Afghanistan as I have American documents with me as well. I'm scared now. I'm more scared now."

Shadab's plight is a familiar one for countless young people after the Taliban overtook Afghanistan Aug. 15, entering the capital of Kabul as President Ashraf Ghani fled. The U.S. withdrew its final troops Aug. 30, after 20 years.

Shadab was born in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan as a Hazara Muslim. Representing just 9 percent of the population, Hazaras are one of the most persecuted religious minorities by the Taliban, according to Amnesty International.

The family moved to Kabul when he was 7.

"That movement was also because of Taliban, as we had no access to the primary rights, like having a good school with a high quality of education," he said.

Shadab explained for most Afghan children, there were "no typical nights and days at all" for his family. There were no family vacations, as traveling came with its own risk of being killed by extremists.

His uncle and grandfather were murdered by the Taliban in Ghazni. He declined to go into detail about what happened.

"We are from Afghanistan, we have the right to travel to each city we want, like for a picnic or travel for something like that, but we were not able to do that because we have been killed," Shadab said. "There are so many examples of Hazara people who have been killed on the roads. We have no access to our primary rights as a human being."

Despite living in a country with few opportunities, Shadab felt safer in Kabul and was hopeful for his future.

He had spoken with the headmaster and some of the teachers at Subiaco and said they were supportive and motivating. He planned to study business administration in college and chose Subiaco Academy because of its business and economy classes.

Marion Dunagan, assistant head of enrollment management at Subiaco Academy, said Shadab is "the kind of kid that Subiaco really wants."

"Academically, he's exceptional," she said. "We are looking for students who are already well-rounded — he checks all the boxes to be a wonderful student academically, from a cultural standpoint, from an athletic standpoint; he was nationally ranked as a soccer player in Afghanistan."

Shadab's student visa was first denied July 6 and then again Aug. 26. He traveled to Pakistan because the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I traveled to Pakistan by land, I crossed the border and I saw them. I saw them with my own eyes," he said of the Taliban soldiers. "It was dangerous; looking at their faces was dangerous. Everyone is scared of dying."

Despite all the paperwork, he was told he was denied because he has no "strong ties to my country," he said.

"I had all the acceptance documents, all the proper information," Shadab said. "I was shocked when my visa was denied because U.S. people were (letting) many, many, many people from Afghanistan without having a single document, from the airport. But I had all the documents."

Dunagan contacted the office of Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) office several times about this situation and said his office was very gracious about contacting the embassy before the student's visa interview. She has not heard back following the second denial.

Boozman's spokesman Matthew Wester said in a Sept. 1 email that the office is working with the school about helping the prospective student's visa application process. "This case is ongoing and our office remains engaged in pursuing a resolution," he said.

Dunagan said she is terribly worried about Shadab and his family — his parents and younger sister.

For now, Shadab is staying in Islamabad with friends of his family. He is not a resident of Pakistan so he cannot enroll in school. He cannot return to his family in Afghanistan, for fear of Taliban retaliation. Currently, the borders are closed.

"I am worried about them and disappointed because of the situation. I just can't express my feelings. It's hard to see your family is suffering, and I'm not able to do anything ... For a school student, it's too hard to handle these big responsibilities. It is killing me every day thinking about this all," Shadab said. "And considering my situation in Pakistan right now, I can't do anything for them. So it is heartbreaking for me, and it's hard. I'm just worried and pray and that's all."

While his own future is in jeopardy, Shadab is most worried about his 14-year-old sister.

"I have seen the news. They say they will allow the girls to study at the universities and schools, but I am not sure about that," he said.

"The Taliban is the old Taliban. They have not changed. Their faces have not changed; their style has not changed; the way they talk has not changed."

The Taliban has not allowed women to drive, learn English or go to school.

"She's still young and oh God, she is so scared," he said of his sister. "I know what she was hoping for in her future. I know that and all of them (girls), it just suddenly got changed."

"I was hoping for a brighter future in the U.S. For now, there is no plan for me. I lost my motivation," he said with a sigh.

Shadab said the one thing he hopes Arkansans will do is raise their voice for the people of Afghanistan who cannot.

"They are losing their loved ones every day," Shadab said. "We are scared ... They have to raise their voice and defend us against the Taliban. That's all I want."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021