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A wake-up call – welcoming Afghan students to Portugal, a duty of solidarity

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Secretary General of Nexus 3.0, Professor Ana Santos Pinto, drew attention, in this newspaper, to the condition of Afghan girls, to whom the Taliban have prohibited access to higher education since they took over power in August 2021, thus establishing the only existing gender apartheid regime in the world. At the same time, she made a call to action based on the principle of equal rights and opportunities, and on the solidarity that is due to us when fundamental values on which our common humanity is grounded are disregarded. The suggestion made was to embed these principles in a collective project that would provide horizons of hope for these girls, victims of a shocking and unacceptable ideology of gender discrimination and exclusion.

Since then, Nexus 3.0, a non-profit focused on promoting education, science, art and culture in contexts of fragility, violence and conflict, which currently coordinates a scholarship program for refugees from Ukraine, funded by the GALP Foundation, has been committed to launching a new initiative aimed at enabling the reintegration of Afghan girls into higher education so that they can continue their studies in Portugal in the next academic year.

Alongside the efforts underway to provide this initiative with the indispensable political endorsement and to anchor it in the existing public policies for the inclusion and integration of refugees and migrants, Nexus 3.0 disseminated a Call for Expression of Interest for Afghan female students. Exceeding all our expectations, in the short period of ten days, 1,424 applications were received. These girls, the overwhelming majority in their early twenties, were attending, until the summer of 2021, various courses, from computer science to architecture, passing through medicine, engineering and the arts.

Reading their letters of motivation is a powerful and moving lesson on the extraordinary resilience of these young women, fueled by the certainty that education is the best way to resist oppression, the only one capable of ensuring a different future for themselves and their country. Their firm willingness to pursue further study is impressive, as well as their determination to fight for their autonomy and independence, their belief in the transforming power of education and the hope that, one day, they can be drivers of social change. In the suffocating conditions to which they are subjected, it is remarkable that they do not let themselves be broken, that they do not resign. But these letters of motivation sound, above all, like a wake-up call.

The Nexus 3.0 initiative thus aims to contribute to a response to this distress call, shielded, moreover, in the resolutions of the Assembly of the Republic of February 10 and March 31, 2023 recommending the Portuguese Government to develop efforts with of European and international institutions in order to promote the entry into higher education of Afghan refugees and namely in Portugal through scholarship programs.

Portugal has already built up a wealth of experience and know-how with the integration in its higher education system of students coming from humanitarian crises. This practice, initially driven by the late President Jorge Sampaio and deepened later on in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, shows us that to be successful it requires not only the mobilization of the relevant authorities, the academic community and civil society in general, but also the coordination of all these joint efforts.

Therefore, we think that this is the right time to publicly invite everyone – official entities, higher education institutions, students, companies, philanthropic organizations, civil society and individuals – to join this new emergency scholarship program for Afghans lasting 3 years and planned for a group of 50 girls. Financial contributions are naturally needed to cover the expenses to be incurred. But any other type of support – in kind, in time, in skills – will always be an indispensable added value!

Besides, it would be worth considering to set up a Humanitarian Emergency Fund for Higher Education. Portugal currently has 433,217 enrolled in universities and polytechnics (2021/2022 data). If each student contributed to this Fund with a donation of at least one euro when registering annually, which other staff members from higher education institutions, alumni associations, etc could also join, some 500.000 euros could easily be available every year– this would be, first and foremost, an amazing manifestation of solidarity from and by the academic community, but it would also allow to lay the foundation of a rapid response financial mechanism for higher education in emergencies. If each country were to adopt a similar initiative, surely the target advocated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of ensuring that 15% of refugees have access to higher education by 2030 (15#30) – against 6% currently and in contrast to around 40% worldwide – would be easier to achieve.
Despite the planned number of scholarships for Afghans corresponding to only a tiny 3.5% of the total number of applications received, denouncing the micro dimension of this initiative, which perhaps urgently needs to be expanded, it will always be a matter of a sown seed, preferable, in any case, to indifference and inaction.

We live at a time when crises in one place affect everyone anywhere in the world. No one, no region or country is safe from these interdependencies that shape our times. There is no “us and the others” because there is only one world, one planet earth, and only one humanity. Neither ignorance nor inaction solves any problems, but aggravates, spreads or multiplies them. It may seem like a mere truism, but one that must be transformed into a true imperative for collective action, shaped by cooperation and solidarity, at the local, national, regional and international levels.

Therefore, more than ever, we need to mark anniversaries, such as the World Refugee Day celebrated on 20 June, with collective, positive and concrete actions that outline horizons of hope for everyone, seeking not to leave anyone behind. . The 110 million refugees and people forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations – the equivalent of more than ten times the population of Portugal – lack the protection and support to bounce back and restart their lives. Knowing that around 76% are hosted in low- and middle-income countries and 20% in less developed countries, how can we not claim a more active role to be played by prosperous societies? How can we not demand strong leadership by example from the European Union and its members, in such a critical and decisive area as the defense of human rights and the role of education in promoting economic progress, equal opportunities and women’s empowerment? How can we fold our arms when it’s obvious that we can do more and make a difference?

We count on you to take forward the scholarship program for Afghan students! Join us – now!

Ana Margarida Nunes, member of the Board of Nexus 3.0