State Dept. suggests Afghan Fulbright hopefuls seek other options as program stalls

"Any door that we are running to closes to our faces," one semifinalist said.

December 15, 2021, 8:55 PM

A group of 100 or so potential scholars in the State Department's prestigious Fulbright Foreign Student Program will have to continue waiting for a final answer on whether their cohort -- not shielded from disruption following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and withdrawal of an American presence there four months ago -- will continue.

Maryam Jami, 23, an attorney in Herat who called the program the "venue to her dreams" of earning her Masters of Law in the U.S. next year before returning to help refugees in her native Afghanistan, opened an email update expected from the State Department early Wednesday morning.

Jami says she rose from her bed to read the message on her phone, before sharing it with her three sisters, who were standing by to comfort her.

"We continue to explore options for proceeding with the Program, but we have not yet identified a safe and viable way forward," the email signed by a State Department official read. "We recognize the impact of this uncertainty about the future of the Program, and we are continuing our efforts to look for pathways forward. By January 31, 2022, we will provide further communication regarding if we are able to proceed with the selection process, including interviews."

PHOTO: In this Oct. 3, 2019, file photo, signage is displayed outside the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.
In this Oct. 3, 2019, file photo, signage is displayed outside the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The note went on to remind that not all semifinalists would be finalists chosen for the program, was it to continue, and suggested hopeful scholars consider other evacuation routes and opportunities.

"The safety and well-being of you and your family will always be our highest priority, and our decision-framework is guided by this steadfast principle. Due to the uncertainty of the process and the limited number of semi-finalists who become recipients if the program continues, we recommend that you carefully considering all options and opportunities available to you on a continuing basis, keeping safety as the paramount consideration," it continued.

"We know the challenging situation you are facing and the fortitude you have shown, and we reiterate our commitment to the future of the Afghan people," the email said in closing.

The update from the State Department to the potential 2022 cohort, which has seen its in-person interviews delayed twice this year, came two months after the last update on Oct. 18, which some semifinalists believe their email and social media campaign -- #SupportAfgFulbrightSemiFinalists2022 -- targetting officials in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal triggered.

Jami says she brushed off her sisters' efforts to comfort her, telling them she was fine, closed her phone went back to bed.

"After seeing that email, I didn't really feel anything," Jami recalled in a phone call with ABC News from her home in Herat on Wednesday evening. "Nowadays, we Afghans, any door that we are running to closes to our faces. So this is the story of our life. It's just something we have just gotten used to."

PHOTO: Maryam Jami, 23, a semi-finalist for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, poses for a photo, Nov. 6, 2021.
Maryam Jami, 23, a semi-finalist for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, poses for a photo, Nov. 6, 2021.
Courtesy Maryam Jami

After having left a WhatsApp group with other potential scholars, Jami said some friends asked her and others who had left to rejoin it on Wednesday, as the emails from the U.S. official trickled into their phones and computers. Though Jami said some in the group of 63 and counting believe they should now ramp up their efforts, Jami said she's looking at other options.

"I have given up because I no longer have hope," she said. "Because they indirectly have told us in this email that we should look for other opportunities. They also say that they couldn't figure out or find any other way to continue with this -- but I'm sure if the U.S. really wants to grant us this opportunity, there are ways."

She also advised other semifinalists to follow her lead, saying she's "80% sure" the program will cease for them.

"Everyone should think on other opportunities as well because they indirectly have told us that they are they are not actually willing to continue this program for us," she said. "It will determine our future if we keep waiting for something which is uncertain and most likely will not happen. It will devastate our futures. It will devastate the future of our communities which we are working for."

PHOTO: Taliban forces sit in the back of a vehicle as they patrol the city center of Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 10, 2021.
Taliban forces sit in the back of a vehicle as they patrol the city center of Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 10, 2021.
Ali Khara/Reuters

In an email to ABC News later Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson confirmed the email was sent to 140 Fulbright semifinalists this week.

"As we have said, we are committed to remaining in communication with the semi-finalist group about the status of the program," the spokesperson told ABC News.

The program, established by Congress in 1946 with a goal of international relationship building by offering both grants to U.S. citizens to study or teach abroad and to non-U.S. citizens to study in the states, of which Secretary of State Antony Blinken is an alum, was disrupted for Jami's cohort -- a group hoping to gain their master's degrees in the U.S. -- first by COVID-19 and then, again, with the end of America's longest war and diplomatic presence in the country now on the brink of economic collapse and famine.

Still, some of the group, Jami says, are pushing for the State Department to have their interviews proceed virtually instead of at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul -- where applicants were to report for the interviews over the summer before the delays -- which was evacuated in the middle of August.

"We are reviewing the significant safety, logistical, and programmatic constraints which must be overcome to successfully implement the 2022-23 Fulbright Program," a State Department spokesperson told ABC News last week. "We are committed to remaining in communication with the semifinalist group about the status of the program, understanding they must pursue the choices that make the most sense for themselves and their families."

PHOTO: Maryam Jami, 23, a semi-finalist for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, speaks at her law graduation at Herat University in Dec. 2019.
Maryam Jami, 23, a semi-finalist for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, speaks at her law graduation at Herat University in Dec. 2019.
Courtesy Maryam Jami

Although Jami gushed earlier this month about how the prestigious program was a "venue to her dreams," she said she won't allow its potential suspension, as well as the thought that her test scores will soon expire, to stop her from the real work of helping her people.

"Of course, I had chosen the Fulbright Program as my future path, but my biggest dreams were not just conditioned to the Fulbright Program," she said. "I will still continue my efforts for Afghanistan."

"At the end of the day, we are trying to be what we always dreamt of being -- not just being a Fulbright Scholar or just studying in the U.S. -- but what we expected to do after when we return to our country," added Jami, who hopes to work for the United Nations or Afghanistan government one day. "This is what really matters."

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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