From Kabul to campus: Afghan students retrace their harrowing journeys to America

Afghan refugees Lala Osmani (top left), Mashal Aziz (top right), Khadija Arian (bottom left), and Sara Sherindil (bottom right) say they are grateful for the chance to finish their studies at Northeastern. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Khadija Arian still remembers everything that happened before and after Aug. 15, 2021, the day the Taliban captured Afghanistan. She heard gunfire in the streets of the capital, Kabul, the night before. “It felt like the bullets were piercing through my heart because I knew that the Taliban were near,” she says.

Arian received a panicked call days later saying she had to leave Afghanistan now. People were fleeing for their lives, and she needed to get out. Her favorite meal that her mother prepared for dinner—beef- and onion-filled dumplings known as mantu—would become lunch instead.

Arian, along with Sara Sherindil, Lala Osmani, and Mashal Aziz, are newly arrived Afghan refugees to Northeastern’s Boston campus this semester. They first met as finance and accounting majors at the American University in Afghanistan, the country’s first private university. 

Lala Osmani, a business management major in her junior year, received a call from her mother telling her the Taliban were on the move. ‘You should come home now,’ she recalls her mother saying. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

It was created in 2006 with funding from the U.S. government. Former U.S. first lady Laura Bush paid a visit in 2005 to the site where the university would eventually be located.

There were only 50 students and very few women when it first opened. Later, more women such as Arian, Sherindil, Osmani, and Aziz would arrive.

But then Aug. 15 came. Their country was under Taliban rule again, and with it the women’s dreams of a higher education were dashed. The four feared that the conservative political and religious group would ban women from pursuing their degrees, just as they did to a previous generation of women in the 1990s when they last controlled Afghanistan.

“They wouldn’t have let us continue our education,” says Sherindil.

In all, more than 76,000 refugees arrived in the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Welcome, which marked the end of the 20-year military campaign. The largest airlift of people ever undertaken by the U.S. Air Force ensued.

On a frigid January day, four of those refugees are seated in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on Northeastern’s Boston campus wearing heavy coats and Northeastern-branded face masks. Only days before, they were living in a U.S. military camp in New Jersey with thousands of other refugees.

They recognized some of their compatriots in the camp as the lucky ones who were inside the infamous U.S. cargo plane with desperate citizens clinging to the outside of the aircraft. The image seen around the world became synonymous with the United States’ rushed military exit.

“When we got to New Jersey we met many people who got into America on that plane,” says Sherindil.

Over the course of nearly an hour, the students describe in fluent English those final hectic moments in Afghanistan before they fled to a country none had ever been to before. 

Mashal Aziz is a senior pursuing a finance and accounting degree. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

Arian—the one who was looking forward to her mother’s dumplings—is from Kabul. She was on her way to renew her Afghan passport with her uncle when he received a call that the city was under siege. 

“All of a sudden we saw a rush of people in the streets. Everyone looked so confused, no one knew where they were going. It was like a scene from a movie,” she says. “You could see the fear in everyone’s faces.”

“I even remember a guy trying to sell his car in the middle of that rush because he was so hopeless. He was like, ‘Anyone who wants this car can have it because I’m leaving.’”

Later she received an urgent message from the American University telling her to pack her belongings, wait for further instructions, and start saying farewell to her parents and younger brother.

“The goodbye was so rushed,” she recalls. “Even to this day, I feel like I haven’t said a proper goodbye to my parents.”

Osmani, a business management major in her junior year, was home in the city of Farah. It is one of the largest cities in western Afghanistan and lies close to the border with Iran.

She was on her way to the bank to pay her university fees when she received a call from her mother telling her the Taliban were on the move. “You should come home now,” she recalls her mother saying. People were pouring into the streets by the hundreds.

Her family didn’t make the trip with her to the airport to say their goodbyes because “they didn’t want to take the risk of reaching the entrance to the airport and not getting in,” Osmani says. “There could be trouble if your name wasn’t on the list.”

Sara Sherindil is from Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city. She is pursuing a finance and accounting degree. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

Meanwhile, Aziz, who lives in the densely-populated Kapisa province, was also home when the Taliban seized the country. Her 12-year-old sister arrived from school to say that her classmates were terrified, but before Aziz could finish recalling the story, her voice trailed off and she broke down in tears.

The four would eventually make their way to the main airport in Kabul, where they described scenes of sheer pandemonium. After the Taliban checked their names off a list, they departed the land of their birth for neighboring Qatar before arriving months later in New Jersey.

Homesickness quickly set in. They only had one another. All of them wondered when, how, or even if, they would be able to complete their studies.

It was there that they met a representative from a New York-based organization, the New University in Exile Consortium. It places Afghan scholars, students, and artists at participating universities and colleges; Northeastern is a member.

Khadija Arian recalls hearing gunfire the night before the Taliban seized control. ‘It felt like the bullets were piercing through my heart because I knew that the Taliban were near.’ Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

Northeastern leaders discussed the opportunity to support refugees, and they quickly arrived at the same conclusion—“We are a global university, and we have a social responsibility to support these students from Afghanistan who are looking for hope and an education,” says Mallik Sundaram, associate vice president of international enrollment management, and dean of the Office of Global Services.

“These students have already been through quite a lot. Northeastern will now be their home away from home, and we are their family.”

A variety of offices sprang into action to manage the visa process, register the students for classes, and find housing just weeks before the semester began. The students were in the military camp’s cafeteria when they opened an email from Northeastern notifying them that they had been accepted with a full scholarship, including housing.

“We were so happy, we just wanted to shout,” says Aziz. “I told them ‘OK, girls, we are at Northeastern for real.’” Upon their arrival they were quickly presented with branded gear. “We have a Northeastern hat, mask, hoodie, water bottle, everything,” laughs Sherindil.

With the spring semester in full swing, they have not yet had a chance to visit every nook and cranny on campus, but they pledge to go exploring soon. The students also appreciate Northeastern’s international mindset, which they believe helps others understand the ordeal that they have just been through for the last five months.

“I have become so much stronger, so much more capable,” says Arian. “I’ll come across even more challenges, and I’ll be ready for them.”

For media inquiries, please contact