De­nial of visa com­plex story

“Brain drain” fears a prob­lem for science team

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Pamela Con­sta­ble

When six Afghan teenage girls were de­nied U.S. visas to en­ter an in­ter­na­tional ro­bot­ics con­test in Washington set for later this month, the un­ex­plained de­ci­sion seemed to be pun­ish­ing the very am­bi­tions U.S. agen­cies have long ad­vo­cated for girls in Afghanistan, where many are de­nied ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties.

But the story is more com­pli­cated than that.

Afghanistan, be­set by in­sur­gent vi­o­lence and economic un­cer­tainty, is suf­fer­ing from a mas­sive brain drain, ac­cord­ing to Afghan and U.S. of­fi­cials. Schol­ar­ship stu­dents, aca­demic fel­lows and teach­ers who re­ceive tem­po­rary visas to visit the United States often van­ish into im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties in­stead of re­turn­ing home.

The grow­ing phe­nom­e­non has made U.S. of­fi­cials es­pe­cially wary of ap­prov­ing visa re­quests — even for ap­pli­cants like the ro­bot­ics stu­dents who may oth­er­wise de­serve them — if they de­cide there is a risk the per­son will fail to re­turn home.

“It is sad to say, but some of them do not come back,” said El­ham Sha­heen, a se­nior of­fi­cial at the Min­istry of Higher Education who man­ages for­eign-study poli­cies. He said 10 per­cent of all Afghans who are awarded tem­po­rary visas for aca­demic pur­poses in the United States or Europe defy im­mi­gra­tion rules to re­main there per­ma­nently.

Fe­male stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers, fac­ing ex­tra frus­tra­tions at home, are no ex­cep­tion. Sev­eral years ago, Sha­heen said, 12 fe­male univer­sity lec­tur­ers won schol­ar­ships to ob­tain MA de­grees in eco­nom­ics in Ger­many. Of the 12, he said, “11 of them es­caped.”

Amer­i­can of­fi­cials here and in Washington have re­fused to discuss the case of the ro­bot­ics team, but sev­eral pointed out that U.S. law “pre­sumes” all tem­po­rary visa seek­ers in­tend to re­main in the United States un­less they are able to prove they have com­pellingly strong ties to their coun­try.

Two mem­bers of the team, in­ter­viewed Thurs­day from their home city of Herat, said U.S. con­sular of­fi­cers had asked about their ties to Afghanistan, whether they had rel­a­tives in the United States and whether they in­tended to re­turn home after the com­pe­ti­tion.

Youth teams from about 150 coun­tries will face off next week in the FIRST Global Chal­lenge con­test, cre­ated to pro­mote in­ter­na­tional stu­dent in­ter­est in science, tech­nol­ogy and math. Only one other team, from Gam­bia, was turned down.

Ob­tain­ing a visa is just the last of many daunt­ing hurdles the fe­male stu­dents face in their ef­forts to ad­vance aca­dem­i­cally — long be­fore they can even dream of trav­el­ing abroad.

Afghan fam­i­lies often op­pose their daugh­ters at­tend­ing uni­ver­si­ties in Kabul or other cities, fear­ing for their safety and ex­po­sure to young men. Agen­cies that of­fer do­mes­tic schol­ar­ships, such as the non­profit Asia Foun­da­tion, often have to ne­go­ti­ate with fam­i­lies or agree to sup­port a male rel­a­tive who can ac­com­pany the girl each semester.

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