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The Taliban is going after Afghans who studied in the U.S. with Fulbright

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two years ago today, the Taliban entered Kabul and swiftly took power. They began targeting people they viewed as enemies of the regime, including Afghans with American educations. And that includes dozens of Fulbright scholars. A small resettlement organization in Tennessee is trying to help them escape and eventually come to the U.S. From member station WPLN, Rose Gilbert reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

HANNAH: Hi, Rose. How are you?

ROSE GILBERT, BYLINE: Hannah (ph) agreed to speak with me in the early hours of the morning, when her neighbors were asleep. We're using a pseudonym and withholding personal details to protect her and her family's safety. Hannah's a Fulbright scholar who went into hiding somewhere in Afghanistan almost two years ago after she received a threatening letter from the Taliban. It accused her of working for foreigners and said that her death warrant was issued. Her family joined her in hiding after men came looking for Hannah at their home.

HANNAH: These incidents and these declarations by them put us, put me in a very difficult situation. I wouldn't dare to step one foot outside.

GILBERT: Fulbright is a prestigious cultural exchange program run by the U.S. State Department. Among other things, it offers scholarships that allow students from all over the world, including Afghanistan, to study at American universities. For Hannah, becoming a Fulbrighter was a long-time goal. She says she hoped to use what she learned in the U.S. to build a career and to advocate for women's rights in Afghanistan. Now that achievement has put her in danger, and being in hiding this long has taken a severe toll on her and her family.

HANNAH: Worst of all, the nightmares. You cannot escape the expected realities even after you sleep. Believe me. They will chase you even in your dreams.

GILBERT: She is not the only one in this situation.

MUSTAFA: Good morning from Afghanistan.

GILBERT: Mustafa (ph) is a Fulbright scholar and former professor at the American University of Afghanistan. When the Taliban took Kabul, he and his family fled to a small village, away from anyone who might recognize them.

MUSTAFA: I, along with my family, live in a small mud house with no proper electricity and with almost no access to the internet and other basic needs of life. Our kids are deprived of education, and we fear torture, kidnapping and killing at any moment.

GILBERT: While in hiding, Hannah and Mustafa have found an unlikely lifeline, Tennessee Resettlement Aid, a small nonprofit based in Nashville that has taken up their cause. Saleem Tahiri is one of its founders. He says that Afghan Fulbrighters represent an important cultural and political relationship.

SALEEM TAHIRI: They were the bridge between the U.S. government and Afghanistan government.

GILBERT: And they're highly educated scholars, says Katie Finn, a co-founder of Tennessee Resettlement Aid. She says they could potentially benefit the U.S. and, later, a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

KATIE FINN: If we leave them to die, nobody wins. If we bring them here and keep them safe, maybe they can return and end up helping others.

GILBERT: The nonprofit is in touch with nearly 40 Afghan Fulbrighters. Most are in hiding and looking for a way out. Some have already fled to neighboring countries and started the asylum application process, but visas can take years to get approved, says Finn.

FINN: So essentially, you'll be stranded in one of these other countries where you may also not know anybody, and you have no money.

GILBERT: Finn and Tahiri have been helping out by raising money and bringing in an immigration lawyer to answer questions. They've also been collecting testimonials from the scholars in support of a bill in Congress which would give these Fulbrighters special immigrant visas. The Fulbright program has not responded to requests for comment for this story. Hannah hopes that sharing her story will help raise awareness of what Fulbrighters are facing in Afghanistan.

HANNAH: We want the U.S. government know that we expect them to not leave us alone, to not let us die in the rusts and remains of this broken system just because we had an American education.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GILBERT: Before the Taliban took power, Hannah played the harmonium in a band. She let me listen to a few of her performances. This recording is now years old. These days, it's too much of a risk for her to practice, even indoors. The Taliban has outlawed playing music in public and burned instruments. Still, Hannah dreams of one day being able to perform on stage again. For NPR News, I'm Rose Gilbert in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rose Gilbert