“I was afraid that if they found me they would shoot me. They don’t even consider if you’re human. They just do what they want.” Huma Ghani Zada’s voice is clear and firm as she talks about the terror that the radical Islamic Taliban have been waging in Afghanistan since they took power. Until August 14, 2021, the 26-year-old had a responsible job: she was manager for security systems and worked in the IT directorate in the presidential office.
A day later everything changed. She lost her job, her freedom and – in the eyes of the terrorist organization – her humanity. “We can’t do anything anymore. As a woman, you only belong to someone,” she says. When an e-mail came from the Technical University of Berlin that she had the opportunity to emigrate to Germany with a scholarship, she didn’t hesitate. Ghani Zada arrived in Germany on January 26th. Exactly 365 days earlier, she had left the TU to find a good job in Afghanistan as a recent Master’s graduate.
Ghani Zada is one of 125 IT alumni from Afghanistan who have completed their master’s degree at the TU Berlin in the past 20 years. After the Taliban took over power again, the TU Executive Board made funds available for emergency scholarships in the amount of one million euros in 2021 in order to bring them to Germany as guest scientists. 62 people were admitted to the “Bridge IT – Integration program for Afghan IT alumni at risk at the TU Berlin”. 43 have already arrived in Germany, six are waiting to leave or continue their journey, the others are still at the beginning of the evacuation process. Many come with family members, and the TU has already taken 220 Afghans out of the country.
The funds for this come exclusively from the university coffers. “We had to decide very quickly in the situation and therefore took on the financial obligation,” says Ulrike Hillemann-Delaney, Head of the International Department at the TU. The TU Berlin awards more than 1,200 euros per month for the first six months. “But we thought that over time other bodies would follow.” So far, however, the emergency grants have not been supported by either the state or the federal government.
However, the TU helps far beyond the evacuation: An accompanying program is intended to support those who have arrived with further training and advice on residence issues as well as language courses for integration. “It is important that they can find entry into the labor market here or pursue an academic career,” says TU President Geraldine Rauch. Both ways are accompanied and supported by the TU. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) finances this program with just under 150,000 euros – but only until the end of the year. What will happen after 2023 is uncertain, says Hillemann-Delaney.
Because the drastic cuts that the federal government has decided in the science sector also affect DAAD programs such as the Integra project at the TU Berlin, with which refugees from Afghanistan or the Ukraine were able to get back to university or the labor market.
Mustafa Naier, his wife and his three-and-a-half-year-old son are among the people brought to Berlin by the TU. For himself and his family he is planning at least the immediate future in Berlin. “Yesterday my son said ‘Good morning dad’,” says Naier, who was an assistant professor of computer science at Kabul Polytechnic University. Many of his former students still write to him. “They lack motivation, they don’t know what to study for. I always say: When you study, you always have good options. What you learn, no one can take from you. If you stop doing that, you lose.”
The young professor also lost hope of a good life after the Taliban took over. In addition to his teaching activities, the 33-year-old was Director of Public Key Infrastructure in the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology and was responsible, among other things, for setting up an IT infrastructure for all government organizations in Afghanistan. “It was a responsible position. I was successful there, I was someone,” says Naier. He had dreamed of building a national data center for years. In the summer of 2021, he and his team would have been on the verge of implementation. “After August 15, it will always be a dream.”
The invitation from the TU offered him a way out. Naier booked a ticket to Iran for himself and his family to go to the German embassy there. From there they found their way to Berlin. Only when he had arrived did Naier sit down and email his resignation to the ministry in Kabul.
He now wants to support his students from Berlin: together with other graduates, he is working on setting up a digital university platform between German and Afghan universities. So that learning never stops – that’s what the demo version of the website says. Naier hopes for German help – also for the entire education system in Afghanistan. “Please don’t leave us alone.”
Nazir Peroz is responsible for the intensive relationship between the technical university and the country. The computer scientist himself came to Germany from Afghanistan in the 1970s and founded the Center for International and Intercultural Communication (ZiiK) at the Technical University of Berlin. For more than 20 years he has helped set up data centers at Afghan universities. More than 30,000 university members were trained there by 2021. A scholarship gave many Afghans the chance to study at the TU. For Peroz, IT can be a motor that drives development work forward. Not only technologies from Germany should be taken over, it always has to be about needs-based solutions.
What is happening in his homeland, both with his work and with the people, hurts Peroz. “Every day someone texts me asking for help,” he says. The education system had completely collapsed. There is a lack of funds and staff. Most of the well-trained people have left the country, and those who have to stay don’t get a salary. “But if they don’t go to work, the Taliban will punish them.” Peroz hopes that many local IT workers will find a way out of Afghanistan. Scholars at Risk, an international network of academic institutions, reports targeted killings of scientists and violent attacks on higher education institutions.
The situation was particularly dangerous for women like Huma Ghani Zada, who had a government-related job and connections to Germany through her master’s degree. She tells how she has been in hiding since the fall of Kabul. “My mother counted the days until I left the country,” says Ghani Zada. She was sure that she would not return to Afghanistan once she left. “But as soon as I arrived at the airport, I missed my country and my family.” She decides: If Afghanistan regains its freedom, she will find a way home.
Meanwhile, the TU Berlin is trying to catch up with the remaining alumni who have already been accepted. A new program will initially not be advertised, says Hillemann-Delaney. “First of all, we’re watching how things are going there.” Building on the experience, the TU is currently considering expanding IT in the context of development cooperation to other crisis regions in the world.