Yalda Azamee blinked back tears as she stared down at the American consular officer.
“He did not even give me a chance to explain myself; he rejected me right away. He didn’t even look at my documents,” she said, rushing out of the US embassy building on to the streets of Islamabad to cry.
It was the second time her application for a US student visa had been rejected.
To get a student visa, applicants like Yalda need to prove that they do not intend to immigrate to the United States. The consular officer needs to believe that the applicant will leave the United States after graduation.
“For countries like Afghanistan or others where there is war, or other problems, it can be particularly hard to show that you intend to return home after you finish your studies in the United States,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University.
The fate of Afghan students is particularly troubling this month, which marks two years since the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan ended the country’s 20-year war. Earlier this year, the national security council reported that the Biden administration should have started evacuations earlier.
“We really have failed the people of Afghanistan in so many ways, going more broadly than just Afghan students,” Yale-Loehr said.
Yalda’s life had been consumed by grief and terror since she saw armed Taliban marching past her Kabul apartment. After the Taliban toppled the Afghan government and recaptured control of the country, Yalda and her mother fled to Pakistan.
She struggled to adjust to refugee life, but Yalda clung to her childhood dream of pursuing higher education in the United States.
Just weeks after she made the perilous journey out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Yalda applied to top graduate programs at US universities. In spring 2022, Yalda was accepted to Columbia and to New York University – and the latter offered her a full scholarship.
“It restored the hope in my heart. I start dreaming about my future again,” she said.
That flicker of optimism was snuffed out months later, when the US embassy – for the second time – rejected her request for a student visa.
Yale-Loehr said the visa rule, commonly referred to as the “immigrant intent” test, is part of why students from Africa and the Middle East face higher visa denial rates than students from western European countries.
“It’s basically the discretion of the consular officer that decides whether the person overcomes that requirement,” he said. “It really depends on the consular officer and whether they’re feeling generous that day or not.”
The total number of student visa denials rose between 2015 and 2022, according to a recent report by Shorelight and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. The group’s analysis of state department data found that the denial rate for Afghans is among the worst in the world (though students in some African and central Asian countries face similarly bad odds).
According to a spokesperson for the US state department, visa applications are considered on a “case-by-case basis”.
“The student’s intent to depart the United States upon the conclusion of their studies does not imply the need to return to the country from which they hold a passport,” the spokesperson added.
In theory, Yalda could have proved she planned to return to some third country after finishing her graduate studies in the United States. But she does not have financial or familial ties to any country other than Afghanistan and the United States.
Returning to Pakistan is not an option. The country has not adopted the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, which confers a legal duty on countries to protect people fleeing serious harm.
Fearing the wrath of Pakistani immigration officers, the Azamees have not left their house in months. They rely on the eldest Azamee daughter, Rukhsar, for support.
Rukhsar Azamee came to the United States in 2015 to study at New York University.
“I hoped Yalda would come be with me here in New York,” she said, with a heavy sigh.
Rukhsar devised a system to discreetly send resources to her family. For the past year, she has been wiring money to a trusted acquaintance in Pakistan: he takes a cut off the top, then delivers groceries and medicine to the home of her mother and younger sister.
“For me, the most important thing is that they are out of immediate danger, and in Pakistan, at least they cannot be immediately targeted by Talibs,” Rukhsar said.
She tried to remain optimistic. After Yalda’s first student visa application was rejected, the sisters went to work compiling documents that might help convince the consular officer that she deserves to study in the United States. They had written proof that she had spent two years advocating for gender equality in Afghanistan, working as a data analyst for UN Women.
None of it mattered. The consular officer did not look through Yalda’s application.
“The moment you come in, and the officer realizes, ‘Oh, it’s your second time applying,’ then it’s over – they barely look at you,” said Rukhsar. “Yalda is a young woman with a lot of talent, [and] two years of her life have been taken from her. Who knows how many more years it will take?”
For Afghan students forced to return to Afghanistan, failure to obtain a student visa feels doubly devastating.
Bahram Emrani, a law student who worked closely with US civilian and military officials before 2021, was part of a select group of Afghan law students who participated in legal training and clinics hosted by the US Agency for International Development.
In April 2022, months after Emrani and his family fled to Pakistan, he received what appeared to be a life-changing email. The University of Pittsburgh’s law school offered him admission and a full scholarship. He just needed to secure a student visa.
In the August, Emrani walked into the US embassy in Islamabad.
“I watched everyone else who was interviewing – the whole process seemed really smooth,” Emrani said. “There was a queue of people before me, they walked out smiling, so everything seemed OK.”
His application was rejected a few minutes after Emrani handed the consular officer his Afghan passport. It was the same response Yalda Azamee had received on her second attempt to obtain a student visa: Emrani had failed the “immigrant intent” test because he was from Afghanistan.
“My goals in life vanished so suddenly,” he said.
Pakistani immigration officials forced Emrani to return to Afghanistan later that year.
The University of Pittsburgh deferred Emrani’s admission by a year, offering him extra time to secure a student visa.
A spokesperson for the university said some Afghan students “gain approval for their visas after multiple attempts, and there could be federal legislation enacted that would make it easier for people like Bahram Emrani to come to the United States”.
But no such legislation has been enacted. Emrani and his family are stuck in Afghanistan for the indefinite future and because of Emrani’s known affiliation with the US, he lives in constant fear of Taliban retaliation.
“Life in Afghanistan now is just surviving, and me and my family are surviving,” Emrani said. “I don’t want to be optimistic again.”