How Michigan State University helped 77 Afghans escape the Taliban

Universities are notoriously bureaucratic. Even routine purchases often require multiple quotes and a lengthy review process before checks can be written. But now the news of the emergency had reached MSU’s top brass, who pushed through bureaucratic barriers.

“It was a Friday night around 7 p.m., and I’m talking with MSU’s top finance official, paying for a $ 250,000 charter plane on a (credit) card,” said Tracie Carr, who at the time was the Finance Officer of the GRAIN project.

“Building a Bridge” to Life in the United States

The group’s early days in Albania were marked by relief to be alive and safe. But now, a month after their stay in a hotel near the capital Tirana, it becomes difficult not to dwell on their uncertain future.

They have applied for U.S. visas, but are told the process could take up to two years as the U.S. government works to place a first wave of nearly 37,000 refugees in U.S. host communities, including 1 280 in Michigan.

On a zoom call with the group shortly after arriving in Albania, Slotkin announced the long screening process ahead and the likelihood that the refugees will stay in Albania for some time.

“They asked us, ‘How can we use the time?’ Slotkin said.

GRAIN refugees join countless other Afghan academics and workers whose personal and professional lives are now in limbo.

An international nonprofit, Scholars At Risk, which helps academics escape persecution in their home countries by moving to sponsor universities in the United States, has received more than 800 requests for help since August, said Joyce Pisarello, director of member and university relations for the group.

That’s more requests than the organization typically processes in an entire calendar year.

“The numbers and the influx have been overwhelming,” said Pisarello.

The group calls on the State Department to speed up visa processing for Afghan academics with connections to the United States and to waive other requirements that may slow the visa approval process. Slotkin also called for faster visa processing and more assurances that Afghans will receive assistance to help them get started in the United States.

The MSU team, meanwhile, focused, Richter said, on “trying to build a bridge for people to prepare for life in the United States.”

But that too is fraught with pitfalls.

US funding for GRAIN was tied to food research work in Afghanistan. The MSU team is therefore working to obtain special permission from USAID to continue paying staff while in Albania.

Those who were halfway through their Masters program at Kabul University will likely have to start over. The MSU team is looking for alternative programs in Albania, but many GRAIN fellows will need intensive language training before they can study in an English speaking classroom.

Relocation to the United States will bring new challenges.

“We are confused about the future,” Qaderi, the targeted researcher, told Bridge. “We don’t know how long it will take to process our cases, or when we will get to America.”