Afghan Exchange Students Flee to Canada | Sojourners

Afghan Exchange Students Flee to Canada

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The United States government has quietly terminated a popular exchange program for high school students from Afghanistan after numerous participants fled to Canada as refugees rather than return home.

The program, the State Department's Youth and Exchange Study (YES), was established in 2002 to provide scholarships to students from countries with significant Muslim populations, and "allows participants to spend up to one academic year in the U.S. while they live with host families, attend high school and learn about American society and values." In 2007, YES Abroad was established to provide a similar experience for U.S students in selected YES countries.

In 2005, the second year the exchange study was offered to Afghan students, the program experienced its first defectors. The critical moment was met this year when more than half of the 40 Afghans brought in to attend U.S. high schools vanished north of the border. Canada has historically been a popular destination for child migrants as the government has a program for minors seeking refuge. Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act requires officials to take into account "the best interest of the child" in different situations involving refugee or migrant children, creating an opportunity for asylum.

NPR recently reported on the cancellation of YES to Afghan students and interviewed participants who had fled to Canada. Sam, a student who left Texas in April of 2009 and crossed into Canada, spoke candidly with NPR. "It's just, my mom ... she thought I'd be in danger if I returned to Afghanistan ... I miss my family, especially mom, because every time I talk to her on the phone she just starts crying. I don't miss Afghanistan, but I miss my family a lot."

Afghan alumni of YES have mourned the cancellation of the program and hope it will be revived. Meetra Alakozy, who did her senior year of high school in Colorado last year and has returned to Afghanistan says, "Personally, myself, I liked it better there than here. It's easier to be a woman in [the] States than here." Alakozy expressed anger with students who had fled but sympathizes, "I don't blame them for it. In my group, there were two girls who were from Jalalabad and they both went to Canada -- they were sisters ... I'm pretty sure it was because if they back to Jalalabad, then people will create problems for them just because they've been to [the] States, and it's very restricted area -- girls don't go out a lot and stuff."

The decision to suspend the program was not made lightly and Matt Lussenhop of the U.S. embassy in Kabul expressed regret echoing that with students not returning home "the program was beginning to constitute a brain drain of Afghanistan's talented youth." Embassy representatives have said they will resume the YES program, but only if they can guarantee students will not leave the program to seek refuge. To achieve this, Afghan students and their families will need to gain assurance in their nation's future, which, unfortunately, seems like a distant destination.

portrait-hannah-lytheHannah Lythe is policy and outreach associate at Sojourners.