With the collapse of the former Afghan republic in August 2021, Azizullah Jahish suffered two losses.
The new Taliban leadership fired him from his job as a civil engineer at the Ministry of Urban Development. Around the same time, he was informed that a U.S. Fulbright scholarship he was expecting to start in 2022 had been canceled.
Because of "significant barriers," an email sent to Jahish from Fulbright administrators said, the "selection process for 2022-2023 academic year will not go forward."
Jahish was among the 140 semifinalists, some of them females, who were expecting to start their graduate programs at U.S. universities in 2022.
Now, the U.S. State Department says it is considering resuming the flagship educational scholarship program for Afghanistan for the next academic year.
"We continue to work toward the safe resumption of the Fulbright program for Afghan students. While conditions on the ground have not changed, we are making plans for the 2023-2024 academic year of the Afghanistan Fulbright program," a State Department spokesperson told VOA.
"For that cohort, we are considering the 2022-2023 semifinalist applicants."
The semifinalists have already gone through most of the eligibility and testing procedures, including an English language requirement, which all applicants must pass to be considered for the scholarship.
"This is the best news," Jahish told VOA, adding that he had selected Texas A&M University for his master's degree in water resource management.
Some applicants evacuated
The U.S. evacuated more than 124,000 individuals from Afghanistan last year.
Fearing Taliban retaliation or loss of jobs and rights under new leaders, many Afghans have also migrated from their country in the past 10 months.
One Fulbright semifinalist who did not want to be named because of security concerns said many of her cohorts had already left Afghanistan.
To remain in touch and exchange information, the semifinalists have created a WhatsApp group.
"Some contacts in the WhatsApp group have changed their numbers and the country codes," said Jahish, adding that most were still inside Afghanistan.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which used to manage the Fulbright program, remains closed and Afghans who seek to travel to the U.S. must submit visa applications in a third country.
Unlike students who receive scholarships from U.S. academic institutions and have to pay visa fees, Fulbright applicants do not pay for visa or flight tickets.
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No new applications
About 4,000 foreign students from dozens of countries receive Fulbright scholarships annually. Since its inception in 1946, more than 400,000 students and academics from 160 countries have participated in the program.
The State Department said it does not accept new applications from Afghans for the 2023-2024 cycle. It is also uncertain whether Afghans will be able to apply for the 2024-2025 academic year.
From 2003 to 2021, more than 950 Afghans received Fulbright scholarships, mostly for two-year master's degree programs.
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The U.S. also spent more than $145 billion on other reconstruction and humanitarian and development projects in Afghanistan during the same period.
When the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed last year, the U.S. government ceased all development assistance, including the Fulbright program, to Afghanistan. The U.S., however, has remained the largest humanitarian donor to the country and has pledged more than $750 million in humanitarian aid over the last year.
"The United States has an enduring commitment to the people of Afghanistan," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Tuesday while announcing $55 million in funding for an earthquake response in Afghanistan.
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"It's imperative to build a people-to-people relationship, especially after the U.S.'s exit from Afghanistan. Such cultural, academic and human connections are more important than ever before," Mohsin Amin, a former Fulbright scholar from Afghanistan, told VOA.
Despite profound disagreements between the Taliban and the U.S. government and the widespread accusations that the Taliban target Afghans who have had affiliations with U.S. programs in Afghanistan, Mohsin said Afghan Fulbright scholars would still be able to work in the country.
"I believe some of the Fulbright scholars are in the nonprofit and the private sector in Afghanistan, and some are retained by the Taliban in their government positions," Mohsin said, adding that the Taliban must also respect the technical expertise U.S.-educated Afghans bring to Afghanistan.