INTERNATIONAL rescue plans to protect and evacuate endangered citizens are not usually on a university’s curriculum.
However, Monash University’s director of Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre, Professor Jacqui True, realised she had to do something about the Afghan scholars and teachers involved in the debate program created by the University and its International Affairs Society in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“On 14 August, when Kabul fell, I knew we had to do what we could to help them,” Professor True said.
“We felt a responsibility to do everything we could to protect them at a time of geopolitical instability, especially as the views they’d expressed in our forums placed them at increased and grave risk.”
“You know what they say ‘it takes a village,’ well, in this case, it took a team,” Professor True said.
Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre collaborated with Afghans for Progressive Thinking last year to established and share an online debate series between Monash and Afghan students and academics on the intra-Afghan peace process to make it more inclusive of women’s rights.
Professor True said Monash had a leadership role in the debate series, and as the Afghans were their colleagues, they couldn’t talk about peace and then abandon them.
“It did not seem morally right to do nothing,” she said.
“Universities have a role, they are leaders in the global society, and it cannot be all about talk; we have to walk the talk.”
As the Taliban moved into and across Afghanistan, Professor True approached Monash’s Vice Chancellor and the Deputy Vice Chancellor with her idea of helping their Afghan contemporaries and received a resounding “yes.”
“It began with petitions to the Australian Government,” Professor True said.
“Within days, we had a whole-of-university operation to work with the Australian Government and Australian Defence Force (ADF) to help evacuate 11 young Afghans.
“It was an around-the-clock effort to organise visas, liaise with the Australian government and defence force, and help these young, frightened scholars navigate the chaotic, deadly scenes at Kabul airport.”
Azeeza* was one of the Afghan students attending the debate program.
It took her two terrifying days, surrounded by armed men, to get through the Taliban checkpoints at Kabul airport.
“The Taliban kept firing and beat so many people in the crowded line,” Azeeza said.
“They pointed guns at my forehead; I had to escape to the end of the line again and again.”
Zeba* was teaching an online university class on 15 August when she learned the Taliban had seized Kabul.
“I went into shock, hid my books and frantically tried to think of a way to keep my family safe,” she said.
Parisa was teaching law practice at Afghanistan’s Herat University and one of the local organisers of Monash’s debate program.
She worked on gender equality and rights and human rights at the University.
Parisa is one of the eleven evacuated, but her parents and two sisters were left behind.
As these women and the other evacuees faced Taliban gunfire and beatings at Kabul airport, Monash students stayed in unbroken contact with them 24/7, providing support and encouragement.
Ryan Attard was one of the people behind the scenes holding the Afghan hands via WhatsApp.
He was part of the communication group during the night shift and into the small hours of the morning.
“On my first night, I didn’t know what to expect; it was like going into the unknown,” Mr Attard said.
“I had no idea what I would get into that night.
“It was a mixture of anxiety, adrenalin and tiredness.”
Sometimes it was a waiting game, sending regular messages to check up on the people trying to get to the airport and through various checkpoints.
Most nights contact was limited due to phone blocking by the Taliban or just poor reception.
It put him and his fellow students on edge, not knowing what was happening.
“[ We worried if they] had they been injured or had their phones confiscated,” he said.
“We saw the images coming out of Afghanistan and made us even more horrified.”
He said the communications team had to be prepared to respond quickly while just waiting most of the time.
“I prepared for anything that might happen, without any idea of what that could be,” he said.
“The last night-shift for me was when they finally got on the plane.
“I called Jacqui [Professor True] and said they’ve left; they are on the plane.”
The Afghan evacuees are now safe in hotel quarantine in Australia, having fled their country with what they wore and small items they could carry.
Zeba and her brother made it onto a plane to Dubai just hours after the suicide bomb exploded at Kabul airport.
“I’m eternally grateful for the support Monash University has provided my family and me through our journey to Australia and now,” she said.
“I had lost all hope to live freely.
“If I feel alive again, it is because of you, for there is no life without freedom.”
Parisa said it is heart-wrenching to think about her family still in Afghanistan.
“To be honest, it is very hard to think about them; you don’t know if they will be alive today or tomorrow,” she said.
Nearly in tears and overwhelmed by the kindness, Parisa said she was not expecting Monash’s kind welcoming.
“They can be my family and friends here in Melbourne.”
Monash’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) and Senior Vice-President, Professor Sharon Pickering, said the University urgently needs help to support these vulnerable students as they resettle into Melbourne and their new homes on campus.
“They’ve lost everything,” Professor Pickering said.
“They’ve left loved ones in Afghanistan and have experienced a strenuous and devastating exit from their country.
“These are some of Afghanistan’s best and brightest young people, and we have an opportunity and a responsibility to support them through this difficult time.
“We would greatly appreciate your donation so that we can welcome them warmly and support all their needs.”
Humanitarian missions aren’t usually the remit of universities, but Monash had forged relationships with scholars like Zeba, Azeeza, and Parisa and amplified their voices for inclusive peace.
“Contributions will help fund living expenses and Humanitarian Scholarships, both for this group and other asylum seekers,” Professor True said.
“Monash has provided an opportunity for all of them to rebuild their lives and keep speaking up for human rights, women’s rights, and democracy.”
*name changed to protect privacy