An unexpected loophole presented itself: the university as temporary refuge. In 2018, Arien Mack, then a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York, founded the New University in Exile Consortium, a group of nearly 60 universities around the world that agreed to host displaced scholars from countries where their lives were in danger. The goal, Mack explained to me, was to create a sense of community for persecuted academics so that their exile didn’t become “a second exile on campus itself.” After the Taliban returned to power, Mack was contacted by someone from a member university who had heard about the Afghan women from Ahmad and wanted to know whether the consortium could help place them in schools. The situation of the AUW women exposed a gap in the system: The women were too old to be placed in public schools, but they were too young to be considered scholars or professors, the sorts of figures that the New University in Exile Consortium focused on . “This was the first time we got into the business, so to speak, of rescuing,” Mack says. “So, we expanded our mission.”
Not long after the women arrived at Fort McCoy, the consortium contacted two associate provosts at Brown University, Jay Rowan and Asabe Poloma: Would Brown be able to take some of the women this fall? “We didn’t know all that much at the time about the Asian University for Women,” Poloma, Brown’s associate provost for global engagement, told me, “but the philosophy behind the liberal arts curriculum really resonated for us.” Similar conversations were underway elsewhere, with different schools interested in different aptitudes. Cornell, for example, preferred students who could work in various labs there, in both the hard sciences and other disciplines, and become “adapted to life in the US prior to seeking admission to Cornell,” as Nishi Dhupa, Cornell’s associate vice provost for international affairs, put it. The University of North Texas had a specialized English-training program for the younger women who were still becoming fluent in English. Brown was interested in students who demonstrated a strong academic record and intellectual curiosity. Ahmad asked his three-person administrative staff at AUW to put together portfolios for each of the women that included brief biographies and their transcripts.
Whenever a school agreed verbally to admit one of the women, Charles Hallab, a lawyer and founder of the Washington advisory firm Barrington Global, who was providing help pro bono, worked on memorandums of understanding stating that the woman would be hosted as a degree- earning student for the duration of an undergraduate degree, or in some cases a graduate degree—a condition to which some of the schools would end up agreeing. A few universities, like Arizona State, signed right away; others, like Brown, were reluctant to commit to anything binding. “The priority was to make sure these girls had the best shot humanly possible to succeed,” Hallab told me. “At the very least, the MOU created a moral obligation to commit to them.”
At Fort McCoy, Hashimi had heard the rumors that she and her cohort would be transferring into American universities, but she was skeptical it would happen. “I was worried the schools wouldn’t trust Afghan girls,” she says. (A few of the women declined to continue their studies, opting to find jobs instead.) But, in fact, 10 universities were interested in taking them in: Arizona State, Brown, Cornell, Delaware, DePaul, Georgia State, North Texas, Suffolk, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and West Virginia. Some of them offered immediate acceptance, while others required more extensive applications. In November, Hashimi, to her surprise, received an email from Brown requesting that she write separate essays about her personal story, her academic interests and her goals and dreams. She had no computer, so she drafted her essays on her cellphone. After that, she says, she checked her email “every second.”
The acceptances for the AUW women arrived by December. Fourteen women ended up at Brown; nine at Cornell; 67 at Arizona State; 15 at the University of Delaware. All of them would be on full scholarships, covered by donations raised by the universities; AUW estimated the total need would be $32 million. Each school had a different arrangement: At Arizona State University, the women were invited to enroll for up to eight semesters; some who already had credits from AUW got to enter as juniors or seniors. DePaul’s 10 students were invited to stay until they completed their undergraduate degrees, so long as they didn’t interrupt their studies and completed their degrees in five years.
Other schools offered a more precarious arrangement: At Cornell, the women were let in as “visiting interns” for the school year; at Brown, the 14 women were considered “nondegree special students for the 2021-2022 academic year.” Nobody there was sure what would happen after May.