‘I barely have money to eat’: Visa worries and financial distress haunt Afghan students in Pune

When Zabiullah Rahamani returned to Pune from his hometown of Kabul in July, he had no idea that the fate of his country, Afghanistan, would change within days.

As the Taliban take near total control of the South Central Asian nation, throwing it into a state of political uncertainty, Rahamani faces a double whammy: worrying about the validity of his student visa and declining financial support from his country.

“Recently, when I asked my brother to send money, he told me he couldn’t send it immediately because he himself was in distress. Here, I barely have money to eat, where am I going to pay my rent and finance my further studies? said Rahamani, who this year completed her master’s degree in commerce at the Abeda Inamdar Senior College for Arts, Science and Commerce and plans to enroll for a doctorate.

Like Rahamani, there are nearly 700 Afghan students, recent graduates from universities in Pune, who are awaiting immediate government intervention, including extending the validity of their student visas.

On Sunday, around 150 of these students met with Uday Samant, Maharashtra’s Minister of Higher and Technical Education, in an interaction hosted at AISSMS College of Engineering where they shared their plight with the minister and urged the government of the state to extend all necessary support to the 4,000 – Strange students studying in Maharashtra.

The students said they desperately needed support from the local government to be able to extend their stay in India, legally.

“I have completed my master’s degree in political science and public administration and now want to pursue my doctorate. But my visa is due to expire on August 31. I cannot apply for visa renewal as I have not yet obtained a bona fide certificate issued by the university,” said Rasheda Shahabi, a student at Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU). who was among the students who met Samant.

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An estimated 14,000 Afghan students are pursuing their studies in India, mainly through scholarships provided by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). With around 4,000 students, Maharashtra has the second largest student population in Afghanistan after New Delhi.

Pune is home to around 2,700 Afghan students. However, since the last year and a half, since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, only 700 of these students are currently residing in Pune, with the rest having returned home and following their courses in a manner Virtual. The SPPU and its affiliated colleges have the largest number of Afghan students outside of those attached to private universities in the city.

Assuring the students that the Maharashtra government will do everything possible to help the students, Samant said, “We understand the situation the students are going through. A letter from my ministry and also from the chief minister’s office will soon be sent to the central government on this matter. The issue of student visas will also be addressed. I want to assure Afghan students that the government of Maharashtra will remain compassionate as a parent and they will suffer no injustice.

Among the demands presented to the Minister by the Afghan Student Association, Maharashtra was the arrival in India of 541 Afghan students, who secured new admissions at SPPU.

“We are calling on the Indian government to process their visas urgently and evacuate these students from Afghanistan,” said Wali Rehman Rahmani, student union president and third-year undergraduate student at Fergusson College.

Of those affected, the hardest hit are students who are self-funding – students like Rahamani – as opposed to those who are here on a scholarship.

“Many family members who earned a living worked either as civil servants or in the armed forces. They had been working without pay for almost three months and many have now lost their jobs. We don’t know how we are going to survive in India without government support here,” said Shahabi, from Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

The minister, meanwhile, said he would hold a meeting with ministry officials within a week and work out a formula in which all issues related to Afghan students would be addressed.

“I will also instruct the Pune City Commissioner and urge the Pune District Custodian Minister to arrange food and other essentials for Afghan students living in Pune city,” said the minister.
Last week, the Pune-based NGO, Sarhad, which works with the state government for students, set up a helpline number. It also houses Afghan students in the city.

In the midst of uncertainty, the only ray of light for these students is being able to talk to their family members regularly and know that they are safe.

Although the network is patchy, Shahabi said she contacts her family every day. Wali also said his family in Kabul was safe.

Sarah J. Greer