MSU team celebrates Afghan refugees after helping them evacuate and resettle
It’s been a little over a year since U.S. military forces pulled out of Afghanistan, causing a mad rush of evacuations and allowing the Taliban to take control of the country.
A team of researchers at Michigan State University had the unexpected job of helping get some Afghans to safety and resettled in America.
Five years ago, Kurt Richter began leading Michigan State University’s Grain Research and Innovation (GRAIN) project. He says its goal was to train the next generation of wheat researchers in Afghanistan, so that they could help feed their country better.
"Michigan State University has a history of helping institutions of higher education and researchers in the developing world to be better at doing research," he explained. "We call it capacity development work."
Working with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Afghan government’s Ministry of Agriculture, Richter and his team were focused on increasing women’s involvement in the field.
"We really wanted to help move the needle on that and bring more women's voice into wheat research."
We were still proud of the work that we did, even though it did not end the way we expected.Kurt Richter, Michigan State University
In the summer of 2021, they were entering the final year of the project, transferring much of the work they’d done over to the country’s government to use, but they had to stop short.
"We were still proud of the work that we did, even though it did not end the way we expected," he said.
As the planned pull-out of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan was getting closer, Richter switched gears to making sure the scholars participating in his program could get visas to leave the country out of safety concerns. He says that included connecting with other universities who had been working with Afghans.
"I ended up sending emails every morning and every night, updating this large group that became this, you know, there was a few 100 people on the Listserv by the time we were done, informing people about the situation in Afghanistan."
Richter then got in contact with Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) to lobby the State Department to make their group of 12 scholars and other staff members eligible for visas. But about a month into those negotiations in August 2021, Kabul fell to the Taliban.
"Representative Slotkin called me one, I believe, one Sunday afternoon, and I was grilling in the backyard, and she said, 'We need to convert your visa list to evacuation list,'" Richter said.
GRAIN scholar Latifa Salangi also remembers the day everything changed for her and her peers.
"After 15th of August 2021, we thought we would never have a chance to return to the university, and it was really hard and unacceptable for all of us," she said.
It took several tries for the group to get through the city’s airport. They were inside the gates when an Islamic State-affiliated group bombed the facility, killing nearly 200 people. Eventually, the students were accepted in as refugees by Albania.
"We had to leave everything behind for a better and a safer life and a better future, not just for ourselves, but for our families, next generations and our people," Salangi said.
There, Richter and his staff worked with school officials at the Agricultural University of Tirana to enroll the scholars in a special one-year horticultural Master of Science program.
"Our scholars were able to leave the refugee camp, go to Tirana, and start studying, have an apartment and be able to cook their own food and, you know, have a resemblance of a normal life in Albania," Richter said.
Since then, the group of scholars have made their way into the U.S. and are resettling into their new lives here, but not before celebrating their accomplishments with the GRAIN program as well as their graduation from the Albanian university.
A ceremony was held in September on MSU’s campus. As Richter addressed the scholars and their loved ones, most of whom were tuning in virtually, he got emotional.
We swear we will do everything we can to empower other women and girls to make a positive change in the world.Latifa Salangi, GRAIN Scholar
"How we got here is not about the things we did," he said. "How we got here is about the work of amazing individuals along the way."
Congresswoman Slotkin sent in a video message congratulating the group and wishing them well for the future.
"You have an incredible journey ahead of you, after an incredible journey you have already taken. We believe in you," she said.
"We support you, and we know you're going to do amazing things. We cannot wait to watch."
Salangi, who resettled in East Lansing, addressed her peers during the ceremony and committed to continuing one of the original goals of the program.
"For me and my classmates ... as researchers and scientists, we swear we will do everything we can to empower other women and girls to make a positive change in the world."
Reflecting back, Richter says he’s humbled by everyone who helped along the way, even though the project didn’t end as originally planned.
"I look back on it, it was, it was amazing, amazing experience. Didn't sleep much, but it was an amazing experience."
Salangi says she has plans to pursue a PhD while Richter is preparing to launch his next international development project in East Africa.